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

Thu, 08 Nov 2012 04:45:58 -0500

Not So Fast

RUNNING COMMENTARY 962

(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 March 2007 issue.)

Just as road races opened up to every type of runner, the Internet democratized writing. Anyone can write anything in today’s chat rooms and blogs, and on Facebook and Twitter. The writer in me appreciates and encourages these efforts. But as a reader I’m more selective than ever before.

I used to read almost every line written about running. No longer, and not just because of the sheer volume makes that impossible. Some runner-writers spew unedited criticism and sarcasm, usually from behind a curtain of anonymity.

They attack other runners, often friends of mine, by name. These writers are free to say whatever they want, and equally I’m free not to read them. They can only upset me if I let them.

One online article grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. It attacked no one personally but took on a whole class of runners who are friends of mine. This piece kept eating at me, and the only way to make it stop was to answer it.

It appeared in widely read Slate.com. Its title told most of what you need to know about writer’s theme: “Running with Slowpokes – How Sluggish Newbies Ruined the Marathon.” It was signed by Gabriel Sherman, credited there as “a staff writer for Conde Naste Portfolio.”

Sherman described himself as “an avid runner with six marathons under my New Balance trainers.” As you’d expect from his article’s attitude, he’s younger (at 27) and faster (2:56 PR) than most of today’s marathoners.

The provocative title perhaps wasn’t his but an editor’s. The views that follow were surely his own. Sherman made 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 ended 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 this he apparently meant running a faster marathon. He implied that slowpokes are slow because they don’t try hard enough. So they must try to overcome the genes that didn’t grant them 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’ve spent my running and writing lives fighting against the views expressed in “Slowpokes.” I side with folksinger Woody Guthrie, who said, “I hate a song that makes you think you’re born to lose, no good to nobody, no good for nothin’ because you’re either too young or too old, too fat or too thin, or to ugly, or too this or that. I’m out to sing songs that’ll make you take pride in yourself.”

I hate a story that makes you think you’re too slow. I’m out to write stories that will make you take pride in yourself.

Gabriel Sherman suggested that slowness is shameful. He didn’t define “slowpokes,” so who are they? How many of us slowpokes does he knows personally and did he talk 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. And 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 training groups I could tell about Max and Gregg, Emily and Katie. They all started in the fives but graduated into the next lower hour. Paula and Susan, mothers of 10 young children between them, ran 5½ 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 anyone to tell them to their face that they’ve ruined the event.

Yet that’s exactly what the title of the Slate.com article told 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 anti-slowpokes: “Be nice to us turkeys. We’re the ones who make you look good.”

UPDATE: Bob Dolphin has now finished more than 500 marathons. Cathy Troisi is about to complete her third round of the 50 states. Marathonguide.com shows no marathon results for Gabriel Sherman from 2007 to 2012. Better to run a slow marathon than no marathon, I say.


[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. Just released was Learning to Walk. 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.]
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