We often hear how “the sport is changing”. Some people devote inordinate amounts of time lamenting these changes and wondering about the future.
I strongly believe in values – our values and vision drive our personal lives, our businesses, and then ultimately our individual lives translate into the state of our sport – these few and fundamental values do not change.
However, everything else does change. Constantly; like, all the time.
So we might as well get used to it – or better yet, embrace change, because the universe really doesn’t give a darn about what we like or don’t like.
So what does all that mean for the sport of running?
I ran my first X-C race in 1967. There were maybe 20,000 non-scholastic runners in the US back then. Fast forward to last year, when have 42 million runners just in the US, 516,000 of whom raced a Marathon.
This is massive growth in our sport, and I do not know what that means to you – you are the only person to decide that – but here’s how it effects me – – –
Since many more people are doing what I’m doing, I can now run with my friends instead of alone. What I love to do is understood in the workplace as well as at home, and I fit into society without a sideways glance (except maybe when I show up dirty and sweaty wearing skimpy shorts at the supermarket). And very unlike 48 years ago, I now see dozens of runners out there every day, no matter the weather, time of day or year. And every one I see makes me happy. Seeing people running is like seeing birds flying – something in my heart is lifted when I see a person breathing air, moving their body, exercising their beliefs, all from their own self-will.
42 million runners also means the big races charge big fees. One race has 50,000 participants (!), sometimes to gain entry you have to enter a lottery (!!), the winners of the World Marathon Majors win a $500,000 paycheck (!!!), and naturally with so much on the line, some people will extend their desire to excel by ingesting illegal substances, which will require an even larger expenditure of money to figure it all out.
That second part is unfortunate, I’d prefer it didn’t happen, but what does it mean to me? If I was trying to win 500,000 dollars it would mean a lot, but myself, along with the other 41,999,990 of you, do not have to be part of all that. We are having own experience, which we control ourselves.
The summer after that first race in 1967 I ran 10–20 miles every day. Wearing a cotton t-shirt, cotton gym shorts, cotton socks, and split leather shoes that weighed almost a pound. Each. My entire workout plan was to run down a road from my house until I got tired, then turn around and run back. I could not believe how much fun that was. I had no clue what the world was about, I had no bloody idea what I was going to do with my life, but somehow this had meaning, and I could hardly believe how happy I was.
So while the sport supposedly has changed, for me, not much else has! (Except for my knees and my mileage).
The following summer, on one of my scientifically crafted, “run in one direction until you get tired then turn around” workouts, I must have been fairly fit because I went 16 miles out before turning around. On the way back, about 1 1/2 miles from home, I suddenly found myself lying on the ground. I looked up confused and bewildered, and realized the 5” height of the curb while crossing a side street was too much and I had collapsed. Since this was July in Michigan, and I never carried any food or water, in retrospect the outcome was to be expected.
At that time, there were maybe 2-3 Ultra-Marathons in the US; today there are 136 hundred mile races alone, along with 6.8 millions trail runners, and the 200 mile race is becoming the new high bar.
That is enormous growth just in ultra running. I’m not sure what this means either.
To me, running is running. Road, trail, ultra – I personally find kinship in all – and I have never thought going longer, like 100 miles, was at all better. I’ve been an active “ultra runner” for decades, mostly because I like going places I’ve never been before, and it simply takes time to get wherever that is.
If I could have dunked a basketball back then I’d probably never have taken up running. Or if any girls liked me. If I could surf the winter swell at Bonzai Pipeline I’d probably quit running right now. But this is my sport, and it’s as good now as it ever was, even if my knees aren’t.
The most impressive running I’ve ever seen was my 4 year old granddaughter, chasing after seagulls, barefoot in the sand and water on the beach at Lake Michigan. Totally fruitless endeavor, except for the joy. Running away from Sabertooth tigers was probably even more impressive, but we don’t see much of that anymore.
What we do see is ultra runners getting paid actual money. And all the big races require a hefty fee to enter a lottery, which at the original 100 miles race you have a 4.6% chance of being allowed to show up at the starting line. The “aid stations” are unbelievable – there’s more food at those tables than I eat at a regular meal – if the nation’s homeless people found out about this bonanza, ultra races would become even more crowded.
Interestingly, though I’m one of the people paying ultra runners to run, even I am not sure why I’m doing it. Maybe it has something to do with my long run back in 1968 – 32 miles with no water left an indelible impression so I want to promote everyone to carry water when running.
Other than that, the whole “sponsorship” thing seems sort of pointless really – all runners are going to run whether they get paid or not, so why bother with “sponsorship”? So while some people decry these “changes to our sport”, I’m not seeing how it actually changes anything.
It’s like after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Some brilliant TV commentators were saying this would be the end of “Boston”, as runners would be to afraid to come back the next year.
Terrorists are stupid enough already, but if any of them thought they could destroy the human spirit with a little bomb, runners were the wrong group of people to target.
Sorry; after all this musing I’ve come up with no answers. I still have no clue what running means. This essay is stupid, totally pointless, and a failure.
But it just seems that if you do what you love, with respect, integrity, and joy, and myself and everyone else does the same thing … well, that IS our sport. We are our sport. We create it every time we go for a run.
I hope it’s a good one, and I hope to see you out there!
What do YOU think? Is the sport changing for better, or for worse, or is it time to not worry about it and just go?