Truth and Consequences in the Marathon
Every once in a while, amidst the endless stream of race results, an attention-grabbing story emerges, one that makes you stop and say, “That is absolutely amazing!”
Posted Tuesday, 22 November, 2005
One such story came from the world of marathon running recently. No, not the photo finish at the New York City Marathon, in which Paul Tergat outlasted Hendrick Ramaala by less than a single second to earn the victory. We’ve seen that before. What was truly amazing took place a week earlier at the Marine Corps Marathon, where a group of runners from Toronto, invited to the event as part of the races’ charity-based program, were urged by their coach and group leader to cut four miles from the course in order to receive their “finisher’s” medals before the seven–hour time limit expired.
Race coordinator Rick Nealis disqualified dozens of the runners and stated the group would not be welcomed back to the race in the future. This reaction makes sense, even if the act does not. No self-respecting runner would be able to truly believe he or she actually completed a race after cutting more than 15 percent of the course. What’s the point, after all? Medals are only cheap slabs of metal with the race logo affixed. It is the hard work and accomplishment behind it that brings true meaning to the hardware. One would have to have his or her values seriously out of whack to claim a finish after cutting the course. This is not just an infraction of race rules; it is an offense against the spirit at the very heart of the sport.
The reaction from the media and running community has generally been one of shock and indignation. But really, should we be surprised at this turn of events? (By the way, if you think this is the first time something like this has happened in a marathon, think again.) This is just another step in the direction in which the sport has been heading for a long time.
Interestingly, at about the same time this story was gaining legs (so to speak) in newspapers and on web sites, another report was published, one that hardly caused a ripple, but in a way is directly related to the Marine Corps fiasco. It was a first-of-its-kind study undertaken by Road Race Management, analyzing compensation of race directors. (The full study can be read at: www.eliterunning.com/fwmr/archives/2005/11/race_director_c.html) The study concluded that nearly a quarter of race directors earn more than $50,000 per year for their efforts. (Now I know I must be doing something wrong!)
It does not take much of a leap to trace what took place at the Marine Corps Marathon back to dollars and cents. Most race directors realize early on that fast runners are nice icing on the cake, but do not pay the freight when it comes to staging an event. Nowadays, even the rank and file from the running community is not even enough. Unless it is an Olympic trials caliber road race, or one completely financed by a sponsor, an event most likely will need to have the field buffeted by “fringe” runners and walkers in order to cover ever-increasing expenses. (That is not too mention the race director’s fee, which we now know is not insignificant in a fair number of events.) Police details, race timing, building rental, shirts, awards, medals—it all adds up pretty quickly.
More than anything, these increasing costs, combined with the tremendous growth in charity-based race programs, have been the driving force behind growing race fields and the breakdown in the structure of many events, and even the kind of gross negligence of race rules and regulations witnessed at the 2005 Marine Corps Marathon. All of this hasn’t happened overnight, but rather a little bit at a time, year after year.
From a race director’s perspective, the more runners one can attract to the event, the greater gross income will be, thus making those aforementioned expenses more manageable. Of course, the wider the net cast to attract a larger field, the more likely it is that some of the participants will be less than optimally trained. In a five-km or even 10-mile, this is usually not a major issue, as long as the race is willing to keep the finish line open for a while.
But a marathon? That’s a different story. And as almost everyone knows, the lure of the marathon has drawn literally millions of participants to the 26.2-mile distance in recent years. The exponential growth in the marathon has been fueled largely by the charity-based running programs, led by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT). Millions of dollars are raised annually for the worthwhile cause of disease research, and in the process thousands of runners have the chance to participate in marathons all over the world. It is what TNT likes to call “a win-win” situation. The runners get to experience the event, while the organization raises money for research. What could be wrong with that?
On the face of it, nothing, unless you consider that there really can be too much of a good thing. Charity-based running groups are about much more than marathon running now; they are big business, and as any financial executive will tell you, big business must be fed a constant diet of cash, much a like a fast-growing, hungry animal must be given food. In light of this ever-increasing financial pressure, does it really matter how fast or slow the runners are, how hard they have trained for the race, or whether they have truly embraced the sprit of the sport, as long as they can produce the money?
So, on one side you have race directors, who need money to pay for race expenses and on the other side the charity-based running groups, who need to finance cash-hungry fundraising programs. In the middle you have those that are paying for it all—the runners. Some are fast, others slow; some are serious, others in it for fun. The days of race fields being comprised of those who fully embrace the spirit of competition and are all fully trained for the challenge of the distance are long gone. Big marathons have become so stratified that those competing for victory often start at a different time and place than “the masses” and are long gone by the time those thousands cross the finish line hours later. As a self-professed “old-timer” I am always amazed that some back-of the pack runners are so removed from the competitive nature of the event in which they are participating that they do not even bother to remember their finishing times. For one indoctrinated with the philosophy of fighting for every minute and every second of improvement, it’s hard to imagine such a nonchalant outlook. For better or for worse, it’s a new world of running.
Is it any wonder then, that some participants would be willing to cut four miles from the course and still accept a finisher’s medal (or what they may construe as an “effort” medal,) especially when urged to do so by their coach and group leader? As long as the runners walk away from the event with a “good feeling,” and “having done the best they can,” does it really matter if they do not complete the full distance?
Yes, says Marine Corps director Nealis, it really does matter. He said of the incident, “I, for one, say ‘enough.’ Runners, event organizers, sponsors, media outlets and businesses involved with the sport must stand up and be counted. The almighty dollar cannot be what drives us in our quest. Product sales, entry fees, sponsorship dollars and charity pledges can't be the path to justify our actions. Core values of integrity and honesty are a must. We respect all involved in our sport whenever they are giving 100-percent effort. Competition is good and makes us better. We strive harder to accomplish more. And in the end, if we are courteous, and do to others what we want done to us, then compassion and fairness and truthfulness and good sportsmanship will be our anchor, keeping us fixed on achieving our daily goals.”
That’s a laudable objective, but is it an achievable one? Perhaps in the future this incident will prove to be a landmark event, a line in the sand finally drawn in order to protect the integrity of the sport. There is also the possibility that such incidents will continue to happen, or even proliferate, driven by that “almighty dollar.” Time will tell.
John Mellencamp once sang, “There’s winners and there’s losers, but that ain't no big deal.” As much as we may not like to admit it, it’s true of world of running as well. There are certain individuals blessed with the ability and motivation to excel at the marathon, while others do not possess those traits. Making the sport all-inclusive and suggesting “we are all winners” can seem admirable and heart-warming, but let’s not pretend it comes without a price. In this new age, it is money that makes the world of running ‘go round.