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home > community > viewpoint > to ipod or not to ipod?

To iPod or not to iPod?
Is there an alternative . . . maybe. Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray weighs-in on this hot topic.

To iPod or not to iPod?

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By Dave McGillivray
Posted Wednesday, 25 July, 2007

Two days before July 4th, I was at my office at the Boston Athletic Association in Boston’s Back Bay and decided to go for a run along the Charles River, something I did regularly in the 80’s and 90’s but haven’t done too often lately. I wasn’t actually taking a break from work, I was simply taking my work “on the road.” When I run, I multi-task and continue to work. I was interested to see and make note of the physical set up at the Hatch Shell of the Boston 4th of July celebration.

It was 8 a.m. as I hit the pathway around the Esplanade. I began to notice one runner after another, ALL wearing an iPod or some other form of headphone. I couldn’t believe it, just about EVERYONE was wearing one…except me. I decided to actually count every runner that past me going in the opposite direction and every runner I passed going in the same direction as me. In total, I saw 62 runners (or joggers – I hate that word but it’s probably more appropriate in describing the majority of folks out on the river).

Of the 62, I was astounded to count 55 of them using a headphone device (mostly iPods)…that’s 90%....90%! My first reaction – why didn’t I buy stock in this item!! More amazingly, every woman I passed except just ONE was using an iPod. I was beginning to think that they all were looking at me as the “outcast” since I was just about the only one running without wires coming out of my ears.

Interestingly, I noticed all types of iPod aficionados. It seemed the ones that did pass me (going in the other direction – can’t let anyone pass you going in the same direction, God forbid) without Ipods were the real fit and fast guys. They were hammering and it was obvious that Ipods were not part of their repertoire. I saw one runner wearing an iPod with one ear piece in and the other out…thought that was a creative way to balance listening to music and simultaneously being sensitive to his surroundings. As I approached one guy wearing an iPod, he seemed startled and turned to look at me before I even reached him which indicated to me that perhaps he had his volume way down as he heard me approaching him (and/or my breathing is so heavy these days people in the next town could hear me coming). Many runners have the device attached to their arm with a black Velcro strap…from a distance it looks like they are having their blood pressure taken!

Then I passed two guys running together and carrying on a conversation, however, one guy was wearing an iPod and the other was not…that seemed pretty perplexing. Next came the guy pushing his kid in the baby jogger – I thought, okay, good, at least this guy is not wearing an iPod…then I looked in the baby jogger and the kid in the jogger is wearing one…I kid you not!!!! Finally, I see a guy walking his dog and I thought if this dog is wearing an iPod, then I must be on medication and hallucinating now. I’ll keep you guessing.

So, what is up with this iPod phenomenon? Personally, I don’t use one so I must be from the old school. Although I don’t use one, that doesn’t necessarily mean I am totally against them. However, as race directors of events sanctioned and insured by USA Track and Field (USATF), we are obligated to apply the rules they have established and one of them is “no use of headphones” in all competitions. USATF rule 144.3b prohibits electronic devices…period. Whether you agree with the rule and its rationale or not, that is the current rule.

In contacting a number of officials at USATF, they sum it up this way….
“While competition rules are adopted or modified for competitive reasons, the rule also recognizes an important safety issue. USATF, its insurance carrier, race directors, and race volunteers have significant safety concerns with headphones. These concerns are not limited to participant safety – all parties must consider the safety of event volunteers and spectators.

Participants wearing headphones are less aware of their surroundings and may not be aware of (1) starting line announcements; (2) instructions on the course from race management, volunteers and police officers; (3) warnings that a car is in the immediate vicinity or that participants have strayed off course (an example would be running on the wrong side of a coned line when the other side is open to traffic); (4) friendly warnings from another participant that is approaching to pass; (5) finish line/chute announcements; and, (6) directions in the recovery area. In basic terms - when you can't hear what is going on around you, you lose one of your most valuable senses - at a time when you need all of your senses working. Even if a participant is cognizant of their surroundings and “wants” to be aware, the inability to hear clearly is a significant risk factor that cannot be ignored. Event personnel must be able to communicate with participants before, during and after the race.

Of course, most participants assume responsibility for their own actions and likely do not have a claim of liability to others if they (the headphone-wearing participant) are injured due to their own negligence. However, in any race, a participant is responsible for him/herself and also has a responsibility to respect and allow his/her fellow participants to have the safest and most enjoyable race possible.

This rule is not new nor is USATF’s and race director’s concern for safety. Further, USATF is not trying to be "big brother” and micro-manage thousands of events. Beyond our obvious concerns for safety, we must act pragmatically – insurance rates continue to increase rapidly and accidents, near accidents and other claims require proactive, thoughtful action from all involved. We are under substantial pressure from our insurers to reduce the risk of injury to participants, volunteers and bystanders. It is very possible that insurance coverage will be reduced or eliminated with respect to claims based on headphone-wearing participants.

Given the impact on everyone – the increased risk of injury to all participants and higher insurance costs that will inevitably be passed along to participants – and confusion to existing competition rules and safety guidelines, race directors have requested clarification. In many cases, race directors have asked for rules and safety guidelines that eliminate headphones.

We understand that race directors may not actively apply all competition rules to all participants (in most cases, applying all rules to those competing for top overall and age group place finishes). The race director and his/her technical officials (jury, games committee) must review the application of rules, resolve disputes, and decide appeals. Ultimately, the race director is responsible for event safety and event technical officials are responsible for the application of competitive rules. We strongly encourage the race director and event technical officials to put safety first, abide by all competition rules, and prohibit headphones at sanctioned events.”

Personally, I question that in ALL cases wearing a headphone / iPods in a road race with a closed course is truly unsafe or dangerous but I can see where they can be unsafe in certain circumstances which is enough to prohibit them. Certainly wearing them out on the open road can be (and usually is) unsafe as specific cases can be sighted where some runners and bikers have been hit by a moving vehicle while they were wearing a headset. However, this is a difficult behavior to control outside of a race unless a law was created prohibiting them in certain locations and at certain times. I think it all has to do with “responsible” use (as with almost anything) like keeping the volume low so you can still hear what is going on around you (possible?) and not wearing them in congested locations. It is up to the individual user to be responsible for themselves and for the safe use of this device.

However, this is now a USATF rule and to be compliant with the USATF position and rule, we need to discourage and ban the use of headphones in all our sanctioned events. Runners are usually very cooperative when informed of the rule…which is the key…making them aware of the rule before they even register for the race. Some races have recently announced that they will be strictly enforcing this rule so it will be interesting how this all plays out. Again, it is more about informing the runners in advance than it is about the enforcement on event day.

Now a bit about my personal alternative to the Ipod. I do not wear or even own an iPod or headphone. However, before I leave to go out for a run, I never leave home without my “device.” Drum roll please…it’s not an iPod, it’s a small, 3 ½ inch, handheld voice recorder. I have been running with a voice recorder for about 15 years now. I “never leave home without it.”

My version of the “iPod”.
I like to multi-task. When I run, I’m also working. By carrying my voice recorder, I force myself to think about everything going on in my life – business, family, health, etc. As creative ideas or “to do list” items pop into my head, I record every one of them…I NEVER lose a good thought or idea. I have my best thoughts and I’ve done some of my best work out on the road. I also take my voice recorder with me when I am driving so as to minimize the boredom and to better cope with the frequent Boston traffic jam frustrations as now I can take advantage of that time with clear, quiet, productive thought. I’ve done so of my best Boston Marathon planning, written speeches and have come up with some of my most creative ideas while on a run. I would have lost 90% of those thoughts if I did not record them while I was running.

So, why do people use iPods while running? I suppose one reason is to be distracted from the physical challenges running inflicts. Another simply may be to be inspired and motivated by the music. The same thing happens to me while carrying my voice recorder – many times I’ll do a 10-mile run with the recorder and actually not even remember very much about the run or where I went as I was so busy “working” while running.

When I ran the Esplanade two days before July 4th, I took my recorder to “work” on some race management business. As I noticed all the iPod wearers running along the river, I began recording exactly what I saw and my initial “work” took a back seat. Ironically, I would not have been able to write half this article if it weren’t for my being able to record these thoughts in my voice recorder.


“Carrying a voice recorder is very safe. No noise in the ear. I can still hear all the cars and trucks coming right now. So, it is safe, I am accomplishing (for me) the same thing as what an iPod would provide and I am being highly productive all at the same time while also getting in a good workout.”


In fact, I’m going out for a run right now (of course, with my recorder) so I can think about how I want to finish this article. I will be right back….

One hour later…OK, I’m back! This is what I recorded…

I recall that on occasions I’ve left the house without my voice recorder and when I realize I didn’t have it, I immediately turned around and go back to get it….just can’t afford to lose any good thoughts.

Now I am trying to invent a way to install the computer chip that is in my voice recorder into my wrist watch so I don’t have to carry the recorder with me anymore but still have it with me everywhere I go!



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