Yesterday, a friend posted a link to an article about the way that commercialization of races has affected the sport. Specifically, the author focuses on the Competitor Group and the way that their Rock ‘n’ Roll series of races draw people to the sport for the wrong reasons, that the well-attended races have all but demolished the more indie running culture of the past, that RnR series races are for “your bucket list (half) marathoner, who will run it or walk it once or twice, and spend a lot of money on memorabilia.”
This post ignited a firestorm of comments, from me (probably the newest and most inexperienced runner in the pack) to seasoned trail runners to coaches to race directors. I went on a short run to think about it all after work. Conclusion? My head is still spinning.
Today, with the benefit of races like the Jazz Half Marathon and the Louisiana Marathon half under my belt, I better understand the criticism of the large, commercialized race that’s engineered to appeal to people who might not run otherwise. You may have read about my first half marathon, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras half marathon in 2011, and what a personal milestone that was. It changed the way I thought about my abilities—me, the swimmer who had struggled with running injuries almost to the point of giving up, but had now done something I never thought possible. I don’t know that I’d have run four half marathons now, with more on the horizon, without the incredibly rewarding experience of that race. I don’t know that I’d love running if I’d never run that first half. And this year’s experience running it with a first-timer was pretty awesome.
But my point here isn’t to defend Competitor, since it’s unlikely I’ll run RnR New Orleans again and instead plan to run smaller, local races that fit better with my schedule and that I prefer to run for various reasons (lower registration fees among them). I don’t wish to defend Competitor. To me, my issue is with this blog post, and many of the comments it received, that reek of elitism.
I understand what’s happening to long-distance running. I get that it’s not the same—that parks and neighborhood streets alike seem to be crowded with people training for something or another. To the runners who have been in the game since the days when running wasn’t cool, I get it. I understand your frustration. But to say things like you’ll stick to the relatively untouched trails because they’re free of “idiots,” whether corporations or individuals, is another thing entirely. Some of those comments made me feel as though I found my way into running the wrong way, that I’m a sheep running my lousy 10:00 miles on paved roads instead of trails, that I am unworthy of calling myself a runner. Cool, thanks for that.
There might be nearly a billion articles and impassioned blog posts that affirm one thing we have in common—we who like to put on shoes (or not) and enjoy the outdoors (or treadmill) in search of something that brings us joy—we’re all runners. It doesn’t matter if you run fast, run in minimalist shoes, run only on trails, or run without music. It doesn’t matter if you got started running RnR races or as a kid on your soccer team. It simply doesn’t matter. While I wholeheartedly believe that competitiveness has a place in sports, I don’t believe elitism does. None of us are elite runners by the definition, anyway.
So here’s my point: running is open to everyone. Need I remind you that women weren’t allowed to run major races, let alone even encouraged to run, until recent decades? I think many would agree that until corporations became involved, running was particularly exclusionary and unwelcoming to those who wanted to try it out. I can’t find a reason to be nostalgic for this time that some runners now herald as the glory days of the sport. Few of us would fit in or feel welcome, given that climate.
With the Summer Olympics on the way in a few short months, running will be thrust into the media spotlight in a way the sport rarely is. And I, for one, am happy this time around there will be more of us educated about the sport, feeling a connection to those true elite athletes at the pinnacle of the sport, and experiencing the ups and downs of that level of competition as if the race being run were our own. Whether we’re professional runners or first-timers afraid in coming in last at a 5K doesn’t matter. Each of us is a part of this community, which I believe to be welcoming, encouraging, and inspiring. Let’s keep it that way.