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

Mon, 26 Nov 2001 16:50:29 -0500

Good Sport


On a recent trip I heard the same sentiments voiced twice within a half-hour. The phrasings were different, and both would have been irritating or insulting if they hadn't been so off-base.

A runner felt the need to say, "Your view of running is very different than mine. I think of it as an athletic event."

Mr. Serious implied that I don't know or care about the top end of the sport, but only about the fun-runners and exercisers. My answer: You don't co-author a 400-page book on the history of road racing (as I did with Rich Benyo for the new Running Encyclopedia) without having some interest in the athletic side of running.

A reporter went even further by asking if running is athletic at all. "What is your response to people who say that it isn't really a sport?" he asked during an interview.

These weren't Mr. Reporter's sentiments. He runs himself and must face this question from his own editors and readers.

The question implies: How can it be a sport if no ball or stick comes into play, or if it only employs a "skill" that we pretty well master by age two? My answer: You don't improve your mile time by two minutes or increase your starting distance 26-fold without uncovering some hidden talents.

The two back-to-back questions set me to thinking about running as a sport. That was the only way I originally knew it. Before running also became a way to exercise, relax or meditate, the only reason to run was to compete.

Running was then and still is the purest of sports. You don't compete against an arbitrary standard like par for a course or points against an opponent. You compete with the most objective and inflexible of foes: time, distance and yourself.

You can play in a sandlot softball game without practicing. You can shoot baskets without taking lessons.

But you can't fake a running event. You can't go to the starting line with hopes of finishing in good shape and at your best pace without doing the training.

Almost anyone could train to run a race. But how many would?

Great numbers of runners do it, you might think. USATF figures put the total finishers in American road races at seven to eight million. Nearly 500,000 of those are marathoners.

Even if you cut those totals in half by eliminating multiple finishers, the road racing population is still large and growing larger each year. You might think that your efforts are insignificant; you're just one more runner among hundreds of thousands.

If you think that, you're reading the wrong numbers. Let me start pointing you to the right ones by telling of another set that I follow closely.

Those are the book-sales figures updated daily by Several of my books appear there, and most stand 100,000th or above on this best-seller list.

Discouraging? Not at all, because Amazon sells more than a million books and mine are well above midpack.

The better reason for me not to feel down is that my books make the list at all. I'm not only comparing myself with the authors on Amazon's list, but also with the people who could never write a book, or who want to start one and never do, or those who begin but never finish, or complete a manuscript and never find a publisher.

Runners can do likewise by looking at who isn't at the races. Fewer than one in 10 Americans ever runs, and of the runners maybe one in 10 ever races, and of the racers only one in 10 ever finishes a marathon.

At the time I became a marathoner, we thought of ourselves as among the one in a 100,000 Americans who could and would do this. The odds have decreased, but we're still oddities.

Figure conservatively that about a quarter-million U.S. runners finish marathons this year. If you're among them, that makes you one in 1000 -- or one-tenth of one percent of the population -- willing and able to run this far.

This makes you pretty special. A sport that makes you feel that way is a true and good one.

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