Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 28 Oct 2006 06:22:08 -0400

Speaking of Slowpokes

RUNNING COMMENTARY 647

When I told a longtime friend my latest marathon time, she asked, "What happened? Why so slow?"

I'd taken a minute past five hours to finish. It wasn't a time to shout from a mountaintop, but neither was I ashamed of it.

She added, "That makes my times look pretty good. My personal worst was 4:10."

I took no offense. Friends are allowed to place gentle digs in their comments to each other.

Besides, she did what we all do. We measure other runners against ourselves. Anyone faster is "fast," anyone slower is "slow," and we're the dividing line.

At best this is an innocent ranking by time; all races do it, all runners expect it. At worst, when the slower runners are judged as unworthy and unwelcome, it's pacism (or to spell the word more clearly, pace-ism).

Which brings me to a pacist article that several runners sent me recently, asking for a reaction. Its title tells most of what you need to know about writer's theme: "Running with Slowpokes -- How Sluggish Newbies Ruined the Marathon."

This article appeared online, but it wasn't the product of a chat room where the under-informed and over-opinionated can spew unedited criticism and sarcasm from behind a curtain of anonymity. Such pieces wouldn't be worthy of comment, or even of reading.

Occasionally, though, a respected online journal carries an opinion piece by a professional journalist. The "slowpokes" article in Slate.com didn't go unread, and it can't go unanswered.

It was signed by Gabriel Sherman. He's credited as "a staff writer for Conde Naste Portfolio."

Sherman describes himself as "an avid runner with six marathons under my New Balance trainers." He doesn't list his times and doesn't define "slowpokes," but surely they would be runners slower than himself. (The last listing on Marathonguide.com for a Gabriel Sherman is 2:56:40 at the 2003 New York City Marathon, when he was 24.)

The provocative title perhaps isn't his but an editor's. The views that follow are surely his own.

He makes just finishing a marathon, at any pace, sound as easy as "joining a gym and then putzing around on the stationary bike. We feel good about creating the appearance of accomplishment, yet aren't willing to sacrifice for true gains."

He ends with, "It's clear now that anyone can finish a marathon. Maybe it's time to raise our standards and see who can RUN one."

By that he apparently mean running one faster -- maybe almost, but not quite, as fast as he runs. He implies that we slowpokes are slow because we don't try hard enough.

So we must try to overcome the genes that didn't grant us a fast-runner-like body? Try to shed decades of age? Try to ignore a history of injury or illness? Try to have fewer kids and an easier job?

I'd ask writer Sherman how many slowpokes he knows personally and talks to about their histories, motives and training. Not many, I'd guess.

I know these people from coaching them, as well as now being one of them. We aren't a nameless, faceless blob of unfit laziness. To say we aren't trying is wrong.

For the sake of discussion here, let's draw the "slow" line at five hours. That's twice as long as the average winning time for U.S. marathons (a little more for men, less for women, but close enough as a talking point).

From my most recent marathon I know exactly how it feels to finish just over five hours. I know too that about a quarter of the runners on my Marathon Teams take at least that long, and they aren't slacking in training or putzing on raceday.

Let me introduce some friends of mine whose marathons usually take five hours or more.

There's Bob Dolphin, who at age 77 runs about two dozen marathons a year and soon will reach the 400th of his life. There's Cathy Troisi, who is well into her second round of running marathons in all the states.

There's the late Paul Reese, whose marathon PR was 2:39 but who took more than twice as long in his last one -- at age 85. There's the late Fred Lebow, who finally ran his own New York City Marathon, while weakened by terminal illness, in the high fives.

From my Teams, I could tell about Max and Gregg, Emily and Katie. They all started in the fives but have since graduated to the next lower hour.

Paula and Susan, mothers of 10 young children between them, ran 5-1/2 hours together. Andy and Matt took much longer to finish, while carrying lineman-like weight. Joyce and Al ran-walked their first marathon at ages 66 and 67.

I looked these teammates in the eyes every Sunday for four months and told they should feel proud what they'd done. I dare any pacist to tell them to their face that they've ruined the event.

Yet that's exactly what the title of Gabriel Sherman's article dared to tell the these people en masse. I would send them the opposite message: How Slowpokes MADE the Marathon.

We make possible the 400 U.S. marathons each year. We're the critical mass that lets the young, skinny and fast call themselves "elite."

Walt Stack, a tough old San Franciscan who was slow before he had much company at that pace, gave the best answer to the pacists: "Be nice to us turkeys. We're the ones who make you look good."
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