Friday, September 20, 2013

I CALL FOUL: Once again, slow runners are seen as a problem

Saw this article today, and let me tell you...this is some garbage right here. See my comments in bold.



Saying I finished in the top 15% of my age group in last month's Chicago Triathlon is like bragging that I could outrun your grandpa. My age group was 50 to 54.

But against the entire sprint-distance field, I finished in the top 11%. That's right: Team Geriatric outperformed the field. (Self-imposed ageism. Hope when I'm in my 50's I'm not feeling that way.)

I'd love to report that this reflects the age-defying effects of triathlon. But my hair is gray, my hearing is dull and my per-mile pace is slower than it used to be, even at shorter distances.

Rather, this old-timer triumph is attributable to something that fogies throughout the ages have lamented: kids these days.

A lack of competitiveness among younger runners is turning some races into parades.

. They're just not very fast. "There's not as many super-competitive athletes today as when the baby boomers were in their 20s and 30s," said Ryan Lamppa, spokesman for Running USA, an industry-funded research group. While noting the health benefits that endurance racing confers regardless of pace, Lamppa—a 54-year-old competitive runner—said, "Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it's good enough just to finish." (There are way more new runners, so maybe you're losing sight of the more competitive ones amidst the crowd of the loud, slower ones who are there to make a good time of it. They say that more people are qualifying for Boston every year, even as they make it harder and harder to get in. How would you explain that phenomenon, then, dear sir?)

Now, a generational battle is raging in endurance athletics. Old-timers are suggesting that performance-related apathy among young amateur athletes helps explain why America hasn't won an Olympic marathon medal since 2004. (Couldn't that be due to the increasing competitiveness of other countries? Documentaries such as the Spirit of the Marathon depict the training that occurs in some countries before kids hit double digit in age.)

Of the two Americans who won marathon medals that year, one—Deena Kastor, who is now 40—was the top finishing American woman at the marathon World Championships in Moscow last month. The other—38-year-old Meb Keflezighi—was the top American male finisher at the London Olympics marathon last year. Hunter Kemper, the 37-year-old winner of last month's Chicago Triathlon, remains arguably America's top triathlete as he aims for his fifth Olympics.

"Why isn't any younger athlete knocking them down a notch?" said Lamppa.

Some observers see larger and scarier implications in the declining competitiveness of young endurance athletes. "This is emblematic of the state of America's competitiveness, and should be of concern to us all," Toni Reavis, a veteran running commentator, wrote in a blog post this week entitled "Dumbing Down, Slowing Down."

Median U.S. marathon finishes for men rose 44 minutes from 1980 through 2011, according to Running USA, and last year nearly 75% of road-race finishers were 44 or younger, with 25- to 34-year-olds representing the largest age group.

Last month, Competitor Group Inc. announced it would no longer pay appearance fees for professional runners to compete at its Rock 'n' Roll marathon and half-marathon series in the U.S. CGI still pays travel expenses and more for the elite. (What's the complaint? Rock-n-Roll events are pretty much the parades that are so despised. They've cropped up all over the US, growing in popularity BECAUSE of this running boom and people with an end goal simply to finish something they never thought they could do. When the Chicago Distance Classic~RIP~was sold to Competitor Group, I instantly knew it'd be a different race...even as a slow runner, I knew this. GASP)

But to some observers, that change contributed to a growing embrace of mediocrity.

"If you're going to get just as much praise for doing a four-hour marathon as a three-hour, why bother killing yourself training?" asked Robert Johnson, a founder of, adding that, "It's hard to do well in a marathon if your idea of a long session is watching season four of 'The Wire.'" (That's a real messed up mentality...because the celebration should be that of your own, and the fact that you set a goal and met it. Question is, are YOU happy if you do a 4-hour marathon. Hell, I'd be ECSTATIC.)

But instead of fighting back, the young increasingly are thumbing their nose at the very concept of racing. Among some, it simply isn't cool, an idea hilariously illustrated in a 2007 YouTube Video called the Hipster Olympics. In those Games, contestants do anything to avoid crossing the finish line—drink beer, lounge in the grass, surf the Web. (I raced a 2:22:00 half marathon last year. Busted my ASS. Took everything I had. It's my heart rate, my breathing, and my PR. You can't define what is racing to me. I raced the hell outta that race.)

Yet something remotely akin to that is happening. Perhaps the fastest-growing endurance event in the country, the Color Run, doesn't time participants or post results. "Less about your 10-minute mile and more about having the time of your life, The Color Run is a five-kilometer, un-timed race," says its website. (I participated in that and noted that it wasn't even a 5K, according to my Garmin. There are a shitload of stupid races out there. I've got a fantastic idea for you: Don't participate in them, especially after you've found them out to be just some group trying to capitalize on the running boom.)

Then there is Tough Mudder, a fast-growing series of obstacle-course challenges that proudly dispenses with an endurance-racing staple: the results page. "Since Tough Mudder is an event, not a race, we do not post the finish times on our site," says the Tough Mudder website. Arguing that results pages detract from camaraderie, Tough Mudder adds that obsessing about finish times is "lame."

That idea sounds downright un-American to Joe Desena, founder of the rival Spartan Race obstacle-course series. His competitors are timed and their results posted, with many aspiring to earn a slot in the Spartan World Championship this weekend. Likening to communism events that promote "hand-holding over competition," Desena said, "How well is that everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality working in our schools?" (What sounds un-American is suggesting that people shouldn't be free to choose the events they want to participate in, quite frankly. Don't go! Hype your race up as the one that doesn't give medals to everyone. And for the record: I think medals for 5 and 10K's is ridiculous, too. But I won't trample on your wish to obtain one if that's what you want to do.)

Desena also contends that eliminating timing chips and results pages is a sure way to increase profit—while shielding one's customers' names from competitors. For Spartan, the cost of tracking and posting performances is significant, he says. "If you can pull the wool over your customers' eyes and convince them that communism is better, you can drop at least $40,000 to your bottom line every race," he said. (Communism. Really. Some people take this way to serious. Again...if you see these kinds of races the way I do--see above about the influx of races designed just to grab $$--then exercise your right not to participate.)

Of course, there are countless super-elite young athletes. And only because the young have no need to prove they're not old was I able to outrace so many of them last month. Still, apathetic competition offers little comfort to some aging athletes. (wah wah wah...)

After finishing last month's Virginia Beach half marathon in the top 2% of the 50-54 age group, Brendan Reilly was shocked to find he'd made the top 1% of the overall field—despite running 27 minutes slower than the personal best he'd set more than two decades earlier. (What kind of barometer is this? Don't you tend to slow down in age?)

"I wasn't thrilled," said Reilly, a sports agent in Boulder, Colo., adding that "races are turning into parades."

Write to Kevin Helliker at A version of this article appeared September 19, 2013, on page D10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Slowest Generation. Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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