Marathon Times – A Perspective – Part II

As I introduced in my previous post, there have been quantum improvements in race management, course accuracy, split timing, registration, place and final time accuracy as well as ability to correct errors quickly. The entertainment value of some races (i.e. Rock’nRoll series) have lead to huge entry lists and reasonably lucrative businesses as well as boons to charity fund raising.

With the bulge in race sizes it has also increased the numbers of slower runners by comparison to 20 or 30 years ago. We have become a victim of our own success. At one time, faster runners could easily find there way to “seed” themselves at the front. This is no longer the case. Without coming off too elitist there is a very real problem with races growing size in respect to fast racing.

What once was “understood” for racing etiquette is no longer the case. Faster runners have always known who they are, second tier knew themselves and so on once upon a time. In recent years, so many runners enter races who have never been – for lack of a better term – indoctrinated into race etiquette. Everyone wants a front row seat – walkers, joggers, run-walkers, race walkers, baby stroller pushers, pets-on-leash-runners, 8 year olds; and the faster racers. Everyone wants to get their picture in the local paper by being in the front in the first 100 meters.

The issue is not one of 15 seconds of fame. The issue is threefold:
* Faster runners are impaired from achieving their goal of running fast times, winning age group categories, or even qualifying for Boston.
* Safety is jeopardized for all runners as a result of race sizes and lack of seeding.
* Race courses are held open – closing roadways and occupying facilities – for many hours beyond reason.

I have heard hundreds of stories and I have experienced it myself. Pushed hundreds or even thousands of runners to the arrears (heaven forbid a walker give up that front row to a five-minute miler) once the gun goes off, faster runners struggle as they dangerously weave their way past strollers, walkers and children to get on pace.

Efforts have been made to ameliorate this. Some races like Boston do better because at least you are seeded by a qualifying time. Your number dictates your corral. Much more difficult to cheat this. In many races there are corrals created by minutes per mile pacing. Other races post huge signs at the sides of the starting area “x” yards apart that state an estimated minutes per mile pace. But, in most races this is an honor-system deal. It fails.

Chip timing helps in some ways. However, remember that only gun timing determines places in the top places (i.e. state, national, and age group USATF championship races for instance). Also, it is possible that someone who finishes behind you actually beats you. Yet, you never knew where they were or who they are because they were always behind you. You find out only when results are posted that you lost to a competitor you never saw and actually physically finished behind you! [Yup, that happened once to me.] You should be able to start with your “peers” and know who you’re racing. You should be allowed to hunt someone down in your race and allow competitive spirit to prevail.

Finally, to close down roadways for 6, 8 , 12 or more hours for a marathon is an imposition on the community. As athletes we share but do not have a right to monopolize a community and disrupt transportation indefinitely. I am glad that people are out getting in shape. But, I would call for separate events… like a volksmarch in Europe. But, let’s keep it on the sidewalks and allow communities to keep moving too.

I do not mean to portray the running and racing explosion in bad light. I absolutely do not infer that any novice runner or charity team runner does not have a place at the starting line. They absolutely do! The good aspects far outweigh the bad. But, the ones who have suffered from the explosion has been the faster runners.

Systems need to be developed to identify and seed faster runners. OK, OK, I know what you’re thinking. No, I don’t think we need a sudden proliferation of qualifying times submitted (though nowadays with every race electronically scored and followed that is not an absurd proposal). And yes, I realize that self-reporting has it’s flaws. But, even a self-reporting with registration would be better than what exists now. My experience is that the group of runners I am talking about tend to be quite accurate in their time reports. I guess my faith in human honesty outweighs my skepticism of a novice runner entering a misleadingly fast time. Putting it in writing (on a registration form) has more power in being honest than a sign on the side of the road saying “eight-minute mile pace starts here”.

So, there is my two cents worth. I welcome your civil replies.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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9 Responses to Marathon Times – A Perspective – Part II

  1. Pat Monahan says:

    there are many races for the 2nd tier runners to compete in. They are the smaller races of 100-500 runners. All the negatives you mentioned would not occur. Instead of running the Surf City Marathon, the 2nd tier runner, should run the National Ding A ling Marathon. Both run in the same city.

    But, as a faster runner you decide to run in a big time race with 10,000 other runners, I think you should accept the good and the bad.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      I agree that there are quite a few options. In fact that is one aspect of coaching athletes I use to a runner’s benefit – choosing one that optimizes their results (i.e. smaller certified races). But two problems still exist in doing this: Many of these races are not chip races. The problem of seeding slower runners still exists; and therefore the race “etiquette” issue still hampers runners seeking personal bests. Even in these smaller races, I have had runners miss their PRs by seconds and only later they tell me about how far back they had to start.

  2. run4change says:

    The slower runners should NEVER be at the front. Being at the front is not that important anyway. The portland marathon is very good at organizing this as they have an 8 hr time limit. The runners are “seeded” according to their desired finish time. These times are posted on signs among throngs of people. And then walkers are all together at the very back. I have been in situations where I wanted to go faster but it was hard because of the crowded street but you get through some how.

  3. In NYC all we really have is the New York Road Runners to organize races. I don’t think they do an event under 4,000 people. It’s crazy.

    I’ve turned to listing my pace at 1:00 to 1:30 faster than my goal pace. Even then, at a recent 10k with a listed 5:00 minute pace, I still ended up in the same corral with some FuelBelt-wearing, iPod-listening Team In Training Moms. I’d consider upping it to 2:00, but then I’m in the front row and in the way of those who really are running that fast. It’s hard to find the right balance of doing what you need to do to cheat the system (like everyone else is) and being fair to those who are faster.

    All of this is part of the reason why I refuse to run the NYC Marathon or do the NYC Tri. In fact, I’m planing on flying from NYC to Oregon this summer to run the Newport Marathon in a bid to make Boston. They cap it at 800 people!

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    Yes, this is pretty typical in the Phoenix area too.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    You should never expect to have a PR if you’re signing up for a Rock-n-Roll marathon. If you want that run a smaller venue. They’re more fun and they all are doing chip timing now. Instead of a huge Rock-n-Roll marathon/half run Tucson or the Lost Dutchman. Better yet, take a vacation and go to wine country and do one of the limited entry Sonoma/Napa valley races.

    Yes, people do LIE about their pace to get in faster pace groups but that’s been going on for a long time.

    Or don’t worry about it and become an ultra marathoner. No one is going to slow you down at the start of a 50 or 100 miler.

  6. Dean Hebert says:

    I do agree that there are some great smaller races. But – the chip timing as described above though is still insufficient to solve the issue. And races like Lost Dutchman – which is gorgeous – is a VERY slow course and is not AS conducive to RnR as far as the course goes for getting a decent time.

    One other thing I did not mention is that it doesn’t help the crowding for the faster runners is when these bigger races actually advertise that they are “fast Boston qualifier” courses.

    I’ll join anyone for a wine country race!
    I like the ultra idea… I have a number of runners opting for that.

  7. jim says:

    this is a great discussion..that unfortunately doesnt have alot of easy answers. We want people to run and exercise..and the more out there doing it ..the better. But, the overcrowding and inappropriate seeding is a huge problem. Is a serious eduction program necessary for anyone entering races? Most races
    have information about starting in an area that it proper for your pacing. But..as we all know that doesnt happen. And a my friend CT above mentions, he is reduced to fabricating his times, in order to get in an area that will get him the best chance to run well. Unfortunately that thought process trickles down to the 8 min miles, 9 min milers 10 min milers etc. Everyone thinks they need to move up a little to compensate for others not seeding themselves properly. Its a mess that just doesnt have any easy answers. Do races have to resort to having people list races and times they have run , check that the times are correct, and then give out seeded numbers accordingly. And then, on race day have monitors at the start line making sure that you are where you should be? not very practical unless you are the boston marathon and have qualifying times to run. If anyone has a good answer here…it will be worth a great deal to runners. racers, and race directors.

    with all of that said, small local races can be the most fun, and the most surprising in the aspect of what they have to offer. How can you beat a small town cookout after a race, an awards ceremony that gives out gift certificates to local establishments, maybe a band playing music. And more often than not, the course is certified and measured acurately, with acurate splits. Its back to the “old school” way to run races. I understand the allure of the “BIG” race, but to me, the charm of the small town local race is the way to go.

  8. Dean Hebert says:

    Dead on.

    Unfortunately due to things like liability insurance, cost of cops on every intersection etc. there aren’t many “small town races” to be had in certain locales… i.e. AZ; there are a few… that is one thing i do miss about the New England racing scene.

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