IN SEARCH OF THE DIFFICULT PLEASURE

Meb on top of the world at Boston 2014

Meb on top of the world at Boston 2014

I am a purist at heart, one who believes in the redemptive power of effort in whatever form it may take.  Through a combination of luck, pluck and timing, however, running became the expression of effort that engaged me most fully.  And it has been in the hold of that expression that I have remained for the great swath of my adult life.

Looking back over that now lengthening span, I see how once upon a time racing used to be so simple, so elemental: one foot in front of the other, beginning with either, counting neither.  Truly, it was a heroic sport of thinly clad fools bent on making the connection that critic Edmund Wilson once ascribed to Ernest Hemingway in 1927, “…all that seems to him most painful is somehow closely bound up with what seems to him most enjoyable.”

This apparent paradox of pain-as-pleasure is why it is difficult to explain the sport of distance running to the uninitiated. I have often asked runners at races, ‘what is it about running that those that don’t do it, don’t get?’ as  the concept of the difficult pleasure is beyond the scope of most for whom the passive, purchased pleasure is preferred.

Much like learning to play a musical instrument, learning to run well takes time, dedication and practice; there is no short cut.  Only after a painstaking apprenticeship does one reach a level of proficiency that allows pleasure to be extracted from effort.  Yet it is that very investment in time and discomfort which leads, eventually, to the feeling of accomplishment upon reaching the finish line.

bill_spaceman_lee1970s Boston Red Sox baseball pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, an avid runner himself, once said: “The whole purpose of life is to defeat gravity.” Well, racing on foot with the wind cutting hard across your face, lungs aching for air, is one of the ultimate expressions of that maxim.

As foot racing remains the most egalitarian of all sports, its soul — simplicity — guarantees the widest array of forms, from the world-class to the pedestrian. But even the joggers of the past strove for improvement, for such was life’s struggle brought to metaphoric form.  Somehow, somewhere, at some point, however, it changed.  Now glory has lost its luster.  Now, simply doing has become the equivalent of doing well.  Today, even the venerable Boston Marathon, the Olympics for the average runner, sports entrants with the thighs of Rosie Ruiz, who are awarded finisher’s medals rather than a stern chastising for excessive chafing over hallowed ground.

Speed has become a now-haggard siren whose charms have dimmed and whose call has faded.  And it’s a sad thing — though doing at all should not be diminished out of hand.  Yet this same attitude in the early 19th century would have engendered the following from Lewis to Clark: “Come on, Bill, Yankton, South Dakota is far enough. Slap another prairie dog on grill, and let’s head back.”

Admiral Robert Peary

Admiral Robert Peary

So, today, we witness the burgeoning catalog of heart rate monitors, GPS devices, sport watches, GU-carrying belts, electrolyte replacements, and wonder: what, exactly, are all these people prepping for, Admiral Peary’s expedition to the pole?  Is it merely God’s restless irony that has sent this on-rushing flood of technological doo-dads to drown the seeds of speed in the sport ?  What ever happened to stripped-down racing?

Well, God only knows, and He ain’t talking. Strong, silent type, don’t you know.

END

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18 thoughts on “IN SEARCH OF THE DIFFICULT PLEASURE

  1. That seems like very poor planning on the part of RnR. It seems to me that sag wagons should always drop participants at a spot beyond the finish line or, if they want to allow people the chance to cross the finish line, confiscate their timing chips when they board the bus. (The real problem of course is that I’m thinking like a runner and not like a for-profit company like Competitor Group that needs to keep their customers happy.Competitor Group doesn’t care if someone gets a BQ or an unearned finishing time because it is not their problem.)

    • I think in the case of a participant being unable to finish on their own power, you have to drop the runner off at the family meeting area, and prohibit them from crossing the finish line. You can’t confiscate anything that would make it more difficult for families and/or medical personnel (in case of actual emergency) to identify a participant. NYC bars runners from future NYC Marathons who leave the course and then cross the finish line as it screws up the race results. Having done NYC the past two years, I like this policy to limit demand. Too bad RnR events don’t have an excess demand problem because the NYC policy would be a great one for RnR to adopt.

    • Yes, the the sag wagon to the finish line practice happened in RnR Las Vegas this past year, although she is no longer counted as a finisher according to Competitor.

      Here is RnR’s course time limits policy per the RnR AZ Marathon (http://runrocknroll.competitor.com/arizona/event-details):

      “To ensure that roads reopen to vehicular traffic at the scheduled times, the course time limits will be STRICTLY ENFORCED. Participants must maintain a pace faster than the course time limits in order to complete the race on closed city streets. A cut-off location will be enforced on the course; runners or walkers who do not reach the cut-off location by this time will be stopped and shuttled to the finish line area. Please note – this is timing tag time, not gun time. Course time limits begin when the last participant and Tail Vehicle cross the start line.

      If a participant’s pace falls below the course time limit, they have a few options:

      * Increase their pace to stay within the event minimum pace;
      * Board a “sag wagon” shuttle to move forward on the course, where they may continue to participate in the event, maintaining the minimum pace required; or
      * If the participant cannot continue, they may board a sag wagon to be dropped off at the next shuttle location, at a nearby medical station. The participant will be seen by a Medical Team captain to be cleared for the medical shuttle to transport the participant to the finish line.”

      Not exactly the kind of race we all grew up doing and watching. …

  2. Oh, and Greg, Boston has the history and higher elite payoffs than most major urban marathons to be deserving of World Marathon Major status. What was Berlin before 2006? Does Berlin even have Boston’s payoffs? Do you seriously think Rotterdam, Paris, Amsterdam, and Tokyo recruit better elite fields than Boston? Come on.

    • Guys,

      Some of what I write is to create just these sort of discussions. Believe me, I am not totally opposed to charity runners at all. I have many friends, even relatives, who have been in that position. I just don’t think “everyone is a winner”, or should receive rewards for mediocrity. They used to close the clock at Boston at 3:30! Not saying they should now, but whether the BAA intended it or not, the time qualifications beginning in 1970 became the bar to define general excellence at the marathon distance. Though it might have been unintended, the consequence is what has elevated Boston to a special wrung among the Majors./ Thanks for reading and responding.

      Toni

      • “I just don’t think ‘everyone is a winner’, or should receive rewards for mediocrity.”

        Do you mean like the back of the pack straggler at the recent RnR Las Vegas Marathon who achieved a BQ after she was picked up by the sag wagon, and given a ride near the finish line so she could cross under her own power?

  3. Greg M., apparently you seem to think those first 73 Boston Marathons — including ones that John Kelley and Amby Burfoot won — weren’t about excellence. But I hate to tell you and Toni this — but they, too, are a part of Boston’s history and tradition of excellence.

    “If Boston isn’t about excellence and (just a touch of) elitism, why doesn’t the BAA get rid of the qualifying standards? Why not open it to everyone on a first-come, first-entered basis? Surely they could still fill the field, and there would be an even higher-proportion of local runners, if that is, as you claim, what they really care about?”

    That’s easy. It’s called logistics. Having qualifying times and seeding runners by their qualifying time is the most efficient way — maximum number of runners with maximum amount of room to run — of moving tens of thousands of bodies through 26.2 miles. With Boston’s narrow roads, it’s an absolute logistical necessity to have qualifying times based upon maximizing the amount of room to run. There’s simply no other way to do Boston logistically without having qualifying times the way they’re set up with starting positions based upon qualifying times. First-come, first-served — even lottery — would produce inefficiencies that the race can ill-afford to have.

    But clearly the BAA cares about having locals in the race. Most of the non-qualifiers are locals. Some have watched their parents do Boston growing up; who have watched their parents do Boston growing up; who have watched their parents run Boston growing up; who have watched their parents run Boston growing up (long before qualifying times existed). … This, too, is part of what the BAA sees as Boston’s mystique — generation after generation of locals growing up watching the race then doing it themselves. I don’t think too many race directors will buy your and Toni’s argument that having a 2:50 finisher — still a loser — adds more to the race’s mystique than a 4:40 fourth or fifth generation finisher (or a celebrity) — also a loser. This includes the BAA.

    Also, note how the BAA has never used the words “earning your way” into Boston. …

  4. As someone who has never done Boston, but (1) lives along one of the eight towns that receive invitational bibs, (2) has friends who run and/or work for the BAA, and (3) has trained with many of those supposedly sacrilegious invitational runners, let me speak to the invitational bibs at our city’s marathon.

    The reason the Boston Marathon exists is for locals to run the race year after year on Patriots’ Day the same way their parents and parents’ friends did on Patriots’ Day when they were watching them growing up; the same way their grandparents and grandparents’ friends did on Patriots’ Day when their parents were watching them growing up; the same way their great grandparents and great grandparents’ friends did on Patriots’ Day when their grandparents were watching them growing up; the same way their great great grandparents and great great grandparents’ friends did on Patriots’ Day when their great parents were watching them growing up (long before the qualifying times existed). … A tradition of over a century of athletic excellence in the sport of running, the BAA advertises. The qualifying times and seeding qualifiers by their qualifying time achieved is the most logistically efficient way of moving tens of thousands of bodies through the eight towns that comprise of the world’s oldest annual marathon. Given how narrow Boston’s roads are, the qualifying times are a logistical necessity to maximize the number of runners and amount of room to run. But I don’t think the BAA frowns upon third, fourth, and fifth generation Boston Marathon finishers — even if those finishers aren’t time qualifiers. I think the venerable organization considers this part of the race’s mystique. Even if that third, fourth, or fifth generation Boston Marathon finisher has thighs the size of Rosie Ruiz’s. …

    • So you’re saying the Boston Marathon is just a big family reunion and picnic??? You’ve gotta be kidding me. I lived in Newton for 12 years and know plenty of charity runners, too. I am not as opposed to them as Toni is, but your comment makes no sense at all.

      • Well, I am just regurgitating what my friend who works for the BAA has told me. A marathon is whatever the host city says it is. Toni can wish all he wants for Boston to turn into the so-called “People’s Olympics,” but the BAA has never advertised the Boston Marathon is what he wants it to be.

        Boston is no different from any other major urban marathon — NYC, London, Chicago, Berlin, etc. 99.9 percent of participants have no chance of winning. They are all races (in the sense of wanting to push the limits and get better) but not in the true sense of a race (except for the elite athletes) — they are a folk festival (to use Chris Brasher’s words), a major social gathering (to use a Boston Globe 2010 piece’s words), an experience (to use Tom Grilk’s words during the heat deferrals in 2012). A large part of these races’ mystique is locals growing up watching the race year after year generation after generation with their family, their friends, their neighbors, etc. and then doing the race year after year after year generation after generation. This is why all of these races give preferential treatment to locals and legacies. Boston is no different: most of the non-qualifiers are local or have lived in MA at some point in their life, and the legendary race has a streaker provision. Boston is not the “People’s Olympics” — never has been, never will be.

        I realize I’m in the minority on this blog. It should also be noted that I hate puppies, chick flicks, and tropical weather. Humbug!

      • But Boston *is* the Olympics for ordinary runners and has been for decades – ever since the BAA introduced qualifying standards in 1970. And it’s why Boston (which otherwise has no right to be a major marathon, what with its narrow streets, hilly, difficult course, and mostly boring suburban route, compared to major marathons like London, Chicago, Berlin, etc.) retains its mystique among ordinary runners. Run any marathon in the world, or even with any marathon training group (yes, even training groups running for charity), and you will hear people talk of striving for their “BQ” (Boston Qualifier). To earn it and to run Boston is the everyman’s (or everyrunner’s) Olympic medal.

        Answer me this: If Boston isn’t about excellence and (just a touch of) elitism, why doesn’t the BAA get rid of the qualifying standards? Why not open it to everyone on a first-come, first-entered basis? Surely they could still fill the field, and there would be an even higher-proportion of local runners, if that is, as you claim, what they really care about?

        Yes, a marathon is whatever the host city says it is, and the BAA has said that Boston is special; that it’s not for everyone; that (for most of the field) you have to earn your entry.

  5. And the exalted Boston Marathon plays right along.
    For 3 of the past 4 years, they have rejected huge numbers of entrants with legitimate qualifying times (2015-1,947, 2014-2,976, 2012-???) to make room for charity runners and so-called “Invitational Entries”.
    Example – for the ’14 and ’15 races, a 34 year-old male who submitted a legitimate qualifying time of 3:04 was rejected. In his place, it’s very possible the number would be given to a runner(?) who has never run a race of any distance, never mind a 26.2 miler. And when that person finishes in 5:59 after taking numerous photos, sending text messages of their progress, stopping along the way to greet family/friends, they collect the prized finisher’s medal and, along with their race t-shirt, prance into the office the next day and announce that they ran(?) the Boston Marathon.
    Meanwhile, Mr. 3:04 goes back to his training plans to figure a way to knock off another minute.
    Seem fair?

  6. Back in the early 80’s, the Mission Bay Marathon closed the course if people weren’t keeping at least a 4:15 pace. No finisher medals then, and you didn’t get the finisher T-SHIRT unless you broke 4:15 either. We used to laugh at the “fat guys” sprinting to the finish to get that shirt.

  7. Nice post, Toni….and yeah, the simple days of running have past. I did try the HRM for a while, but noticed I was spending more time looking at it to keep from running too fast than just enjoynig the run, so it’s sitting in my drawer unused now like ti was back when they didn’t exist.
    Where in Bill Rodgers’ log do I see any of these things when he was the best marathoner in the world? Never…

  8. Well said, Toni. With each passing race, I find myself finishing higher in the field at 52 years old than I did when I was 22 (with much faster times)!

    Once again, it’s the same old refrain; why compete when it’s good enough to complete?

    As I ready myself for my 41st marathon in three week’s time, I hammer my 20 milers with my only company being my wife on her bicycle. Back in the 1980s, my brother and I would have six or eight people joining us for our Sunday long runs. Where have they all gone?

    I’ve recently been organizing some of my racing archives. In doing so, I came across some of my old Falmouth photos and results. In 1984, I was one of 202 people to finish the race in under 40 minutes. The 2014 edition of that race saw only 77 people achieve that feat. Thirty years later, and the field is 62% weaker?

    I guess our dilemma can most simply be stated by asking the question, “What other sport loses interest in competition?”

    Or perhaps, “What other sport’s PRIMARY function is fundraising?”

    Sorry for being a curmudgeon.

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