The fact that more and more North Americans are becoming recreational runners should be thought of as a good thing, right? One would have thought so. I can’t imagine that we’re hurting other people, except maybe our family when we’re out on the trail for an hour or so a few times a week. It’s good for our health, right? Helps control weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes? Boosts self-esteem. How could this be a problem for people?
Well, according to Rory Gilfillan, who writes a blog for the Canadian Running Magazine website, long distance running at less than an elite level is somehow not worthy of our attention; it’s lacking in significance. His opinion piece in this past Saturday’s Globe and Mail – “Ultra-marathon? Underwhelming” – was puzzling in the extreme.
He starts off by questioning the current efforts of Julie Weiss, who is attempting to complete 52 marathons in 52 weeks to raise money for pancreatic cancer in memory of her father. Gilfillan’s point seems to be that because she is not breaking any marathon records in any of her races, her efforts should be discounted. He goes on to muse that people who run in ultra-marathon races such as back-road 100 milers aren’t really racing if they occasionally stop to walk. And if there aren’t enough people in a race to provide his notion of a coherent result, in his opinion such events and personal achievements aren’t worth discussing.
I don’t know if Mr. Gilfillan just woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or if he’s jealous that Julie Weiss is getting attention for her running and he isn’t. It’s not like he has to donate to her cause. In her case, long distance running helped turn her life around several years ago, as it has done for many, many recreational runners in many different ways. Her running was an integral part of her relationship with her father. She qualified for the Boston Marathon a week after her father died, which was something he had encouraged her in. She is taking her marathons slowly during this year of 52 marathons so that her body can recover faster. What’s the problem?
His negative attitude is particularly puzzling because runners are usually such a positive, supportive group. The most negative thing I’d ever heard about recreational runners prior to Gilfillan’s column was the concern made by an unconvinced young woman that people in her Running Room clinic were all “so happy”.
Sorry, Rory, but we recreational runners are everywhere. In the U.S., the number of people who have completed marathons in a year has risen from 225,000 in 1990 to more than 500,000. The number who have completed half-marathons has risen from 300,000 in 1990 to a whopping 1.5 million this past year. You can’t get rid of us. We’re here, we’re having fun, and we’re celebrating each others’ success. And we’re measuring our successes in terms of individual personal achievements, not against elite times.
Ironically, the magazine Mr. Gilfillan blogs for wouldn’t be financially viable without us recreational runners. We can’t get enough of the advice, motivational articles, and even the advertisements in running magazines. We fuel record sales of running attire, shoes, GPS watches, and all other manner of paraphernalia. We populate the growing number of road races around the U.S., Canada, and around the globe, starting in corrals well behind the elite runners. We’re your market!
Gilfillan ends his article by saying, “Undoubtedly, running 100 miles or back-to-back marathons represents some kind of athletic accomplishment, but until more elite distance runners choose to contend in ultra-events, luminaries of the sport will continue to be big fish in a very small pond.” To which I respond, “Some kind of athletic accomplishment?!”, followed by, “So what????”
Recreational runners embrace running because we enjoy the feeling of pushing our bodies beyond what we thought was possible. When we become injured, most of us don’t give up, we slowly figure out what’s wrong, work on recovering, and then lace up our running shoes again. If some runners decide to take their running to “ultra” distances, they do so in the same spirit. And, by the way, Mr. Gilfillan, most of us do not think of the mementos of our races as “detritus”.
Happily, Mr. Gilfillan’s unpleasant comments on the efforts of runners who aren’t up to his standard will not impact our joy of running. Perhaps at some point in his life, Gilfillan will learn to relax and embrace personal achievement for what it is, a personal achievement. That in itself is a meaningful result.