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

Thu, 15 Nov 2012 04:48:11 -0500

Slow Going


(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 May 2008 issue.)

This is not a response to the Chicago steambath of 2007. These comments took shape during a talk I gave the day BEFORE the temperatures Ė and the tempers Ė soared on that cityís marathon day (and at the less-reported but almost-as-hot Twin Cities).

I spoke as a non-race director at a race directorís conference at the Portland Marathon. First I thanked these people for all they do in their sometimes thankless job, where they arenít really noticed unless they do something wrong.

Then came a confession: I donít get around much anymore. A few years ago I stepped off the national race circuit, and now think locally, act locally as a teacher/coach of runners. Many of these runners are marathoners, and some are slow. I am slow myself.

National news now interests me less. I canít tell you who won most of last fallís big marathons, where these runners are from and how much they earned. These facts once would have been almost as obvious to me as my own childrenís names.

Sometimes, though, the big-picture issues seep into what Iím trying to teach locally. The central lesson is that marathons arenít just for the fast.

The day before the Portland conference, a sports reporter called from a major newspaper on opposite coast from me. He marched out statistics on how the percentage of runners who break 3:00, 3:30 and 4:00 has shrunk compared to a quarter-century ago.

Then he asked why I thought this was so. The subtext of his question was: Is U.S. marathoning poorer because itís slower? And below that: Are the runners slower because they donít train and donít care?

If this reporter expected an old-school answer from an old-time marathoner, I disappointed him. The event has changed, I told him, but not for the worse. In the month ending with the New York City Marathon, somewhere north of 100,000 runners (and run-walkers and walkers) would finish U.S. events. The enormous growth in their numbers has come mainly from mid-pack on back.

You wonít catch me speaking ill of the slow. Their contribution to the health of the sport, and the nation, and especially themselves, has been enormous. Yet at the Portland conference I also heard the exact opposite argument: that marathoning can be unhealthy for slower runners, and the slow might be unhealthy for running as a sport.

This issue was hot among officials and pundits even before it hit the boiling point at Chicago, where everyone running slower than four-hour pace was pulled off the course before they could finish. The problem, some say, is that marathons are too big and too slow.

The solution: Cut from the back, by reducing cutoff times Ė perhaps even adopting a more lenient version of Bostonís qualifying process. That solution would make marathons smaller and faster again Ė more truly races and less survival tests. But it also would imply that the slower people donít really belong here and are expendable.

I know better. Iíve watched marathons grow and slow for more than 40 years Ė first as a runner, then as a writer, now as a coach. Iíll defend the slow as long as anyone will listen. Trouble was, the race directors in Portland would have been in no mood to listen Ė especially this early on a Saturday morning Ė if I preached at them.

So I began by acknowledging the constraints that they work under. How long a course stays open depends on how long the public officials will allow such use of ďtheirĒ roads, and by how long the volunteers can endure the controlling of human traffic.

Runners need to know, in big and bold print in all race materials, what the longest allowable time will be Ė and what will happen when it expires. Slow runners need assurance that theyíll receive full service to the end. The too-slow need warnings that those services end when time runs out.

For their part, runners need to train to finish well within the time limit (while allowing a cushion for a bad day). If finishing in time doesnít look likely, then the runner need to choose a shorter race on that dayís program (say, a half) or to look for another marathon with a softer cutoff.

At the risk of becoming preachy, I told the race directors in Portland that dedication and preparation are not measured by time alone. Iíve stood at many marathon finish lines, for as long as eight hours, and seen how the runners look as they take their last step. Iíve seen that pain and exhaustion, along with strength and elation, are equal-opportunity experiences.

A three-hour marathoner who cheated on training or started recklessly can look as sore and tired as a six-hour runner who didnít train enough or went out too fast. Likewise a slower runner who trained and paced correctly can look as strong and happy as one who finished in half the time.

Slow runners arenít all created equal, any more fast ones are. Before speaking ill of the slow en masse, get to know some of them as individuals. Let me introduce two of them.

Matt is the slowest finisher Iíve coached so far (but still was almost an hour below the cutoff time in his event). Heís also the heaviest. Heíd lost about 50 of his football-lineman pounds when his marathon training started, but still qualified easily as a Clydesdale.

Matt never missed a training run, always finishing with good humor and great pride. After his marathon he moved on to physical-therapy school, and eventually listed me as a job reference.

I told a would-be employer that Mattís determination to show up as scheduled and get the job done, to take direction and to be a good teammate, even when he trailed behind the group most of the time, will serve him well professionally. The marathon didnít make him this way. These traits made him a marathoner.

Another slow friend is an 80-year-old woman. To avoid embarrassing both the innocent and the guilty, I wonít name her or where I last saw her run, at a race with rain all that morning.

When this woman finished (safely inside the listed time limit), no one but a few of her friends greeted her. Finish-line officials had fled the scene, leaving only a chip-mat to do the scoring mechanically. This shouldnít happen to a legitimate finisher of any pace.

My final note to the race directors in Portland: Treat the slow as if the future of your race depended on them. It just might.

UPDATE: Four years later the woman unnamed above still runs races, in her mid-80s.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joeís 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 Englehartís book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
Previous Posts