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

Thu, 11 Oct 2012 04:43:40 -0400

Stop the Music?

RUNNING COMMENTARY 958

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the November 2007 issue.)

Just when I think I’ve seen everything, along comes something new. I was stretching after an early morning run when another runner passed by. Nothing unusual in that, since my hometown swarms with runners. I greeted him with a “good morning,” as is my habit.

He said nothing in return, didn’t even look my way, which wasn’t surprising given that he wore an iPod. Nothing unusual there either, as the runners with their ear holes NOT covered are the oddity these days. What set this man apart was that he also was reading a magazine as he ran.

This was the most dramatic case I’d seen so far of input overload. As if the sights and sounds of running weren’t enough to occupy him for a little while. As if he couldn’t run without these distractions from the distasteful task at hand.

I couldn’t know what this runner was hearing; iPods and their generic clones mercifully keep that choice from reaching others’ ears. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if he wore the Nike+iPod that measures distance and breaks into the music to announce progress and pace. It’s an information-junkie’s dream device.

I’m not anti-iPod and not anti-music. I’m not even anti-running-with-music. If that’s what you need to get you out the door or to keep you out longer, go for it.

The P.E. department at the university where I teach running classes has a rule against wearing music players in class. I’ve given up trying to enforce it, knowing that as soon as the students leave my sight they’ll tune in. My only requests are that they turn down the volume in traffic so they’ll come back alive, and that they unplug at least one ear to hear announcements and times.

Another strange sighting, this one in a class: So compatible are the musical tastes and paces of two women students that they often share a single iPod, one ear-bud apiece.

I own two different iPods and love their sound quality and portability. While walking across the campus, and while waiting for students to return from their runs, I’m the oldest iPod wearer on campus. A student once joked as I fumbled for the off-switch hidden beneath a jacket, “What are you doing, adjusting your pacemaker?”

Music, from a computer library that bulges with thousands of songs, travels with me much of each day. I sit and type this column with musical backing, take a sound track along on commute-walks, sometimes even drive this way instead of letting a radio DJ program my listening. But the sound goes off when I go for a run. Don’t want it then; don’t need it.

To wear or not to wear would normally be the runner’s own choice. Now it is less so. USA Track & Field recently passed a rule that banned wearing headsets in races. It’s a well-meaning move, taken in the name of runner safety (and event liability). Runners whose toys will be taken away are certain to challenge it.

Good luck trying to enforce this ruling. What are officials to do, conduct pat-down searches at the starting line? Rush onto the course and yank buds from ears? Runners who have trained with iPods won’t happily surrender them on race day. So the ruling will create a whole new class of rule-breakers and a needless point of conflict between runners and officials.

Some runners will fight, physically or legally, to keep their iPods. Some will skip a race that threatens hard-nosed enforcement rather than give up their music. Do we really need go to the mat, or the court, over this matter? I don’t think so. We can make a better case for going iPod-less at races than do-it-or-else.

The best reasons have little to do with safety. On race day, when traffic is controlled, might be the SAFEST time to run to music. The most risky is running alone in the dark on a busy street. If you stop to music, do it by choice. Do it to make your runs better, not just to obey the law.

George Sheehan never let a headset come between him and his runs. The sport’s greatest thinker said he ran for three reasons: “contemplation, conversation and competition.” Music in his ears would have interfered with all of these results.

George ran alone to contemplate. Runners can’t think well when we’re distracted by canned sounds.

George ran with a few friends to converse. Runners can’t talk with each other if our ears are otherwise occupied.

George ran to compete. Runners can’t “listen to the body” (one of his favorite terms) and adjust to what it’s saying moment by moment if outside voices shout at us.

A young runner on my Marathon Team never heard of George Sheehan, and probably wasn’t aware of the USATF’s no-iPod edict. Tim Cole always trained to music, but on Eugene Marathon day he chose to go without – and won his age group. Tim is uncommonly wise and well-spoken for a 19-year-old. I’ll let him have the final say here:

“It was the first time I had run without my iPod. This came as advice from the first marathon runner in my family, my mom. The experience of the race would have been incredibly tarnished by such artificial sound.

“In hindsight it was the quickest three hours and 13 minutes of my life. After the marathon, many of my fraternity brothers asked me, ‘What did you think about during the race?’ The truth was I thought less than I expected. I did not need to escape. I enjoyed being right where I was.”

UPDATE: I’m no longer the oldest iPod wearer on campus. The music player stays at home. Don’t need it now that I’m doing more talking and listening to live voices and sounds.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting with the September issue.]
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