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The iPod conflict brews in racing
There’s a growing conflict between the running establishment and the iPod wearers. More and more races are vigorously enforcing their ‘no-iPod’ rules. A half marathon I was at recently wouldn’t start the race until everyone turned in his or her headphones.

The iPod conflict brews in racing

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To iPod or not to iPod?

By Christopher Russell
Posted Sunday, 4 November, 2007

IPod pros and cons

The two sides officially line up this way. On one side you have the USATF and race officials. Any USATF race disqualifies headphone-wearing entrants. Meaning that if you were fast enough to win something but had worn your iPod, you would be disqualified. Your results expunged from the official record.

Race officials are forced by their liability insurance policies to publicly state in the rules that no headphones are allowed. Historically this has been a bit of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule, and they turn a blind eye.

On the other side you have your iPod-wearing participants. They love their music and it is an integral part of their running, training and racing experience. They will tell you that they couldn’t train without it. It is more than a distraction. It is a psychologically integrated part of their whole life process.

They feel that what they listen to is their own business and since they’re not hurting anyone, what difference does it make? The more militant among users will say this is a personal rights issue. In the “First our iPod, then our guns and homes!” genre.

It has really become an issue because at any given race 60-70% of the participants are wired for sound. Even at the race where they physically enforced the ban 2-3% snuck them in somehow. It was an interesting microcosm of human politics. That 2-3% went to the effort to smuggle their sets onto the course, and other participants were stopping at the water stops to turn them in! “Number 449 has an iPod and is laughing about it…”

Like any other personal issue there are absurd polarities.

The race directors and USATF officials are notoriously dogmatic. They will quickly tell you it’s a liability issue, but when pressed no one can back up those liability assertions with any hard facts or statistics. They will instead give allusions to incidents where some hapless iPod wearing runner wandered into the path of an oncoming semi.

Of course their first reaction is to ban the use, but as the RRCA has learned, you can’t stop these types of revolutions by decree and fiat.

The personal rights crowd can’t really explain why not wearing the headset is such an intrusion. Where in the constitution does it say you have a right to listen to AC/DC in a 10k? What’s the harm of leaving it at home for those 45 minutes?

If it is dangerous to society to race with an iPod then surely it’s dangerous to walk around a city, ride the subway and go shopping with them right? (I’m sure the activist socialists in my home country of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts are already working on a ban in public places. Soon to be followed by California.) Where is the line drawn? Is it a slippery slope?

What’s the reality?

My personal experience has been innocuous enough. The negatives are when people can’t hear you and won’t get out of your way or are startled when you pass them. There are those stories about people causing pile-ups or injuries by not being aware of their surroundings, but I haven’t seen it. You can put the volume such that it is more of background music and you can still hear everything around you.

One of my buddies and I have made up a game based on the iPod. When we pull up behind someone wearing an iPod we try to guess what they are listening by looking at them. Then we get their attention and ask them.

I have seen people remaining relatively happy in linger races by having their own entertainment with them. You pass them and they are singing off-key to themselves and have a little boogie in their step.

I have run a few races, short and long with the iPod. I’ve had good and bad experiences. In one short race the pounding Nirvana music that I had selected was a huge boost to my energy and focus. I’ve worn it at marathons when I hit the wall and it was just a big pain in the ass. It was just one more thing to worry about. I’ve worn it in marathons that I was running for fun and have had some nice epiphanies.

I don’t wear it that much anymore because I like to talk to the people in the race. That has become harder to do with everyone wired up in his or her own worlds. In that sense I would say this trend has moved to isolate people further in an already individualistic sport.

My official position so far has been one of social Darwinism. I say let them wear whatever they want. If they get hit by a car, that’s the choice they made. I’m sure the whole insurance liability thing could be solved with a waiver of some sort.

This is not the end of the issue. This is the tip of the iceberg. With the advance of technology there are stranger conundrums coming with new technology. What about cell phones in races? What about devices that network runners together? Video devices? Where does it stop?

Let’s face it folks, whether you’re for it or against it we have to come up with some sort of détente that allows everyone their space, freedom and safety.

What do you think?

See you out there…



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