Crosscut By 2: Why slow runners are good for marathons

Easy for me to say, with what's likely to be my slowest-ever race coming up. But the sport needs more than just elite athletes.
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Monte Enbysk after (his slow) 2008 Seattle Marathon

Easy for me to say, with what's likely to be my slowest-ever race coming up. But the sport needs more than just elite athletes.

Editor's note: Monte Enbysk, an experienced (but not elite) runner, was thrown off his Seattle Marathon training schedule by an injury last month. He's chronicling his comeback effort and 'ꀔ if he makes it 'ꀔ his race day for Crosscut. His previous installments appeared here, here, and here.

I was a wet, sopping mess when I finished my 16.5-mile training run on Sunday afternoon, with no one cheering or even noticing as my legs ground to a halt near my parked car. But with that, my major training for the Seattle Marathon was done. I have several weekday runs, plus a 10- to 11-mile final tuneup this Sunday, and then the race on Nov. 29.

As I'ꀙve said, I'ꀙve come back from a leg injury that sidelined me for more than a week in October, derailing what started out as a promising training cycle. As a result, I am not going to be as prepared as I usually am for a marathon — and even in those races, I typically finish in 4½ to 5½ hours, which is slow.

Am I headed for a six-hour marathon on the 29th? My goal is to beat my Seattle Marathon time last year (5 hours, 32 minutes), but we'ꀙll see.

Speaking of slow, a recent New York Times article debated the notion of whether finishing a marathon in six or more hours is actually 'ꀜparticipating'ꀝ in it. The article also noted that marathon participation has more than tripled in 30 years and average finish times have increased by nearly 45 minutes. Many hardcore runners lament this trend, chastising the people who simply want to add doing a marathon to their 'ꀜbucket list.'ꀝ Many purists would like to see qualifying standards or other ways to cut out runners likely to finish in six or more hours.

I say marathons should remain equal-opportunity events. See my 'ꀜTop 5 Reasons Slow Runners Are Good for the Sport," below.

But, first, a caveat. I personally plan to stop running marathons if and when my times begin to regularly exceed six hours. Of the 16 marathons I've already done, 11 have been under five hours, and three others just barely over. All have been under six hours. But I see the possibility ahead for crossing the dreaded six-hour mark — which means I am walking a good share of the race because of an injury or ailment.

For me, if I can'ꀙt complete a marathon without getting hurt, I need to focus on shorter distances.

Even so, here is why I think slow runners are good for the sport:

  1. Slow runners increase community interest in marathons and other runs. If only elite and faster recreational runners can enter, marathons draw fewer people and thus provide much less help to charities and other sponsoring organizations. There are likely to be fewer marathons, which means fewer opportunities for even elite runners.
  2. Slow runners expand the diversity, age, and makeup of races. That can'ꀙt be bad. I am thinking here about runners such as Renton'ꀙs Bob Dolphin, 80, who has completed more than 460 marathons since he started doing them at age 51. Bob'ꀙs times are more often crossing the six-hour mark these days. But who dare cut him out of a race? He often does two or three in the same month. I am also thinking about the huge influx of women now running marathons and other races. In most of the races I do now, the majority of entrants are women. I don'ꀙt see that as bad for the sport.
  3. Slow runners eventually get faster, or they quit running. I know that many race officials and race volunteers don'ꀙt like the idea of waiting an extra hour or two for a few slowpokes to cross the finish line. It happens a lot — a group of would-be runners comes to the race without adequately training. Many drop out, but some still want to finish, even if it takes seven hours or more. These people are not likely to repeat this mistake; they train better next time or put away their running shoes. I do have a problem if slow runners are impeding the leaders of the pack. But most marathon routes are not double-looped courses where slower runners get lapped, and so don'ꀙt allow this to happen.
  4. Slow runners are getting fit — and the world needs more fit people. John 'ꀜThe Penguin'ꀝ Bingham, a nationally known slow runner who writes a column for Runner'ꀙs World magazine called 'ꀜNo Need for Speed,'ꀝ has popularized the idea of average people getting off couches and getting fit by running marathons. He was an overweight, middle-aged smoker who turned his life around through running. I was an overweight, middle-aged non-smoker who did the same. Having more healthy, fit people in the world today is a good thing, right? So why discourage participation in running by limiting marathon entries?
  5. Slow runners add character, as well as money, to the sport of running. Let'ꀙs face it: With more slow runners in the mix, the potential for human interest — and media interest — in marathons and other big races increases. Of course, you'ꀙre always going to read about the runners favored to win a race. But you'ꀙll also likely read about people who overcame all odds just to get to the starting line, or people running for noble causes or for loved ones beset by illness or tragedy. Human interest adds to the community interest, which, back to No. 1, adds to the revenues for races.

I might add, selfishly, that slow runners give me some people I can beat.

But also, for gosh sakes, what does it hurt having runners of all ages and abilities running a marathon? If you'ꀙre an elite runner, you'ꀙre not even going to see those finishing in the back of the pack. I am surprised there are people who get worked up over this.

Do you have a strong opinion? Please leave a comment below.


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