Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Open Post to Everyone Who Read My Letter in the NY Times and Thinks I'm An Asshole

Welcome back. I had to take the blog down for a bit because the attacks on my personal integrity were starting to get tiresome. I deleted any comments that referenced my religious beliefs, or intimated that I was morally defective. Comment moderation remains on. Comments engaging issues will be posted. Comments attacking me personally will be read by me, but not by anyone else. They will be posted, and mocked, if sufficiently entertaining.

Most people who commented, while they clearly (clearly!) disagree with the idea of a cut-off time or a qualifying time, took particular exception to the following: “So, when I pass some fat dude who looks to be gearing up for a 7 hour finish I get a little annoyed at the fact that he's even there-because its obvious he hasn't spent too much time in training.” Now, I didn’t hear from any undertrained fat dudes, who are really the only people who should be taking exception to what I wrote, but I got an earful from cancer survivors, heart transplant recipients and the like, who seemed to think that that comment applied to them. I’m not sure why. I certainly didn’t say anything negative against first-time runners, cancer survivors, or anyone else who wants to run 26.2 miles as a sign of their recovery/survival/whatever. I have nothing but respect for people who have overcome adversity and want to celebrate this by running. Could I have framed this in a better way? Absolutely. I apologize to undertrained fat dudes everywhere, and anyone else I may have offended.

My intention was not to question why people run, or their motivations for wanting to finish a marathon. People’s goals are all different. MY goal is to set a PR while passing as many people as possible between the start and the finish lines. After all, the marathon is a RACE. (I’m not sure why competition has turned into a dirty word when it comes to the marathon.) If your goals are different, who am I to question them? That said, I don’t think the course should be open until every single person who signed up for the race and wants to finish, crosses the finish line. Nor should the people who stopped for lunch and to socialize with their friends along the route get a medal for finishing. Not if you’re going to give the same medal to someone who ran the whole way. It isn’t fair to the runners.

Remember, I also said this: “I have no problem with people plodding their way through a course in 6 or 7 hours” and this: “My personal belief is that stopping for lunch should result in instant disqualification, but this is America and I suppose if you pay your entrance fee you have a right to toe the starting line and take whatever detours you want.”

If anyone wants to debate these points, I’m all for it. Interesting ideas I’ve heard include specifically differentiating races with qualifying times with those without to try to strike a balance between those who want to go out and race and those who are looking for a less competitive experience.

Anyway for those of you running a marathon this fall, good luck. Hopefully I’ll see you at the finish line.


  1. I can't help but say your comments were the most upsetting to me as I have tried to get in shape for my 8th marathon at the age of 60 and with each training race have had to face the music that I will finish at the back of the pack.

    Can you give me 30 seconds to walk/run in my shoes?

    The mental challenge of a marathon is a marathon in itself. One has to come to terms with the fact you are not a gazelle in the front racing to beat your best time AND you shouldn't because you might have a heart attack or worse do something serious to your body that might affect your ability to maintain your job.

    I am a woman, who gained 20 pounds since my last marathon 3 years ago (the weight which is a plague for all women past menopause). I swallow my pride with each training run and yet I see that my Age Graded percentages are still close to the 50th percentile. It's the one fact that keeps me going along with so many other encouraging voices, like my students, friends and fellow marathoners.

    At my age and time we only make up about 10% of the pack and humbly line up at the end. We look the other way when they tear down water stands because we weren't there in time...or there aren't any bagels or popsicles left at the end of the race..or as I experienced in one marathon, the garbage truck was right at my tail. And, what is the difference in time? Maybe a 2 min. pace differential from the majority of 30 year old runners and my pack. That's all.

    I hope with all the posts you are getting you also get some compassion for the rest of the runners that you are so proud of passing. I am sure you are a very fit dude and I must say I enjoy looking at the really fit dudes and gals out there. At my age they are all real eye candy. But, may I ask of you to show a little respect for us "not as fit" penguins? Just a little genuine respect for what it takes at this age with a little extra weight and a lot more determination than when it was so much easier.

    I can't imagine there are that many lunchers on the course that you need to be bothered by them.
    Just let it go....and chill out a bit so you can continue running into your 60s, if you want.

    Good luck on all your marathons and I hope you enjoy your runs.

  2. Susan,
    I appreciate your comment. To my horror, over the last few days I have come to realize that because I inartfully expressed my opinion about the subject of the article, people have come to view me as the poster-boy of arrogant snobby marathon runners. I suspect that's why the Times did me the dubious honor of nominating my comment as an Editor's Pick. What can I say? I believe that the runners world is a big tent and there is certainly room for everyone. You seem like someone who puts in the time and training and goes out there giving 100%. My only issue is with the fact that there are a lot of people who show up sporting a very different mindset.

    What is the solution? What will satisfy every runner? I don't know. Marathons bring in a lot of money for organizers but they cost cities even more. Keeping courses open and streets closed for hours costs a lot of money in police overtime, sanitation services and lost business and productivity due to street closures. I would have to imagine that most citizens who pay taxes aren't runners and (other than in New York where the race is so iconic) probably see the entire race as more of an inconvenience than an asset.

    Personally, I favor the idea of having two different types of marathons. Some, like Boston, would have qualifying times-which differ for every age group-and others should be open events.

    I don't take any pride in passing 60 year olds or guys with one leg. I'm competing against myself (primarily) and the people in my age group secondarily. But, well, the marathon is a race and racing implies competition. I would argue that if you don't see competing against other runners as having a place in the race, then why call it a race? Why have prize money and invite elite athletes to participate? I suppose my question is, ultimately, what is the essence of the marathon?

    I'm just a middle-age mid-pack runner, but I've been running for 18 years and I used to be a very fat, undisciplined person. Running changed my life. I'm really not so arrogant. I've been there. There will always be someone faster. Good luck with your race.

  3. Hey there, I am a beginner runner, yet I did understand and respect where you were coming from. I felt the need to share that much with you, considering I, myself, am one of those overweight (but I can't really agree I am undertrained) athletes. I'm just not that good yet. Yet.

    I train with a USAFit running group. I do run 5 days a week with a long run, speedwork and tempo runs. I do get out and do core, I work on nutrition. I cross-train; swim and bike. I see, admire and respect the great runners on my training courses and hope one day to even remotely feel as they seem to appear on their runs. Their determination is unfailing. The article left me wondering if those folks even know how much they are admired/respected for their abilities? No beginner ever intentionally enters an event to devalue it or steel the "mystique" from the marathon.

    We just want to get better and have to start from somewhere.

    I know I'm not great... but I make sacrifices too. It is all relative to the individual's lifestyle. I'm a full-time working Mom and wife with a Daughter who says, "Mommy, you're running again???" So when someone implies I don't make sacrifices, it takes a moment for me to compose myself. How are my sacrifices any less than another's? In this electronic day and age, it's easy to be impulsive with a "leave a comment" button or an email address.

    I do feel the "purists and elites" have a right to be upset, but I also feel the Race Directors hold the ultimate responsibility for setting appropriate logistics, limits and rules of entry. They know who their target demographic is and there are enough venues and days in the year to hold an event that caters to a particular crowd.

    Incidentally, I came upon the NYT article today 10/26, the day after I completed my first half-marathon as a relay and had, frankly, a sh*tty day. Most probably a day as bad as the first day I started training. After reading the article (not your comment specifically), I had second thoughts, for a moment, about my official entry into the running community.

    So while I may have had a bad day, but I also know there is better in me. I see marathon as the triumph of determination over desire.

    I guess what I'm saying is, I think understand what your saying and maybe you need to hear that from a self-proclaimed 5/1 plodder. The only thing I took issue with was your opinion of sacrifice and commitment. It may be one of those things that the groups will never see eye-to-eye on and will have to agree to disagree.

    Good luck to you.

  4. Hi Mark,

    I wanted to chime in because your comment was, well, upsetting.

    What upset me the most was that I'm in the process for training for my 5th marathon at age 31. I had lived a sedentary life before I started running at age 27, and I've found that that meant that I'm slow. Horrifically, embarrassingly slow. I've watched runners my age start with me and then move on as they get faster and faster. I stay slow. I'm getting faster, but it's at a snails pace, and the problem is, quite frankly, that I just started too late. I'm not sick. I'm not a cancer survivor, I didn't have a car accident. I just started late, and spent my high school and college years with intellectual types who never ran a step. I'm different now.

    What bothers me about your words is that you assume that those who are completing a marathon at an 11+ minute pace didn't train. That because I'm slow I wasn't out there. That's so insulting to me. On October 17, it was 40 degrees in Maryland. There was a nor easter going through, and it was pouring raining. I wasn't inside eating chocolate bars, thinking about how I'll just show up at the race and run... I was out there in that weather, and in the mud, with 4 of my other slow pokes, doing 21 miles on the trail. Yet, someone who has been done my target race for 2 hours when I cross the finish line is going to think that my time was 6 hours because I DIDN'T TRAIN?! Seriously? I run EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND. I don't put in as many miles on a day to day basis as elites because my body just won't let me, but I am out there. I'm doing it. I'm training.

    It's not like we're choosing to run Boston or choosing demanding people leave the course open. I'm running Disney - a race with a 7 hour time limit and one that is known to support runners like me. Or maybe I should say "runners" - I guess I didn't really run any of my 4 previous marathons because my time was over 6 hours. There are different races with different purposes and there are plenty of competitive races out there for those who wish to run a race without those of us in the back of the pack.

    It's disappointing to see these opinions, and it makes me sad that I could have chosen the easy way. I could have stuck with my plan of sitting on a sofa reading a book rather than doing what I'm doing. But, I didn't. And I hear criticism either way.

    I'm sorry that you feel the way you do. But, the good news is that my next goal is under 6 hours, so I guess I'm a little closer to being worthy of wearing my medal this time. Or, maybe I should just quit now and give up, since running 11 minutes for 26.2 is actually unattainable to me - no matter how much I train.


    PS. I wish you could meet my friend Davida, who started with her first marathon in 2005 at 5:30 and just qualified for Boston in Chicago with a 3:45. And she took walk breaks.

  5. Mark, let me first say I am sorry you've had to endure personal attacks as those of comments are defeatists. I am currently training for my first half marathon and may plod along but I do view it as a competition and the pride of being able to say I am even training for a half is tremendous so I can't wait to actually complete and possibly move up to a full one day.

    I agree with some sort of time cutoff and that it is a competition. That some people, on their cell phones or stopping or for chow should be disqualified. To complete it should be to continuously pursue the finish line.

    My issue with your comments is to remind you that the "fat guy" you passed may have trained and may be giving it his best. How do any of us know what struggle or strife someone else is going through as it may not always be visibily evident?

    Unless someone else is hindering my progress, I run my own race and can't be wrapped up in the speed, or lack of, of others.

    Good luck and God Bless!

  6. Kim & Donna,
    Thanks for your comments. I have enormous respect for both of you as runners and as human beings. Kim, I spent my formative years doing drugs, smoking and eating, so I know where you're coming from. The point I was trying to make which was lost due to my poorly worded letter was very simple. What I really meant to say was that people who don't train properly, put themselves in the front corralls and stop for lunch along the way should probably be finding other ways to spend their time because they gum up the course for people that are making a real effort. For example, I heard privately from a reader who volunteered at a finish line of a marathon. At about 6.5 hours she related that she saw a "large" man cross the line, looking awful, who immediately lit a cigarette.

    I was NOT intimating that I'm a better runner than anyone else or that my motivations were somehow superior to anyone else's because I can finish a race in under 5 hours. Unfortunately that's not the way it came across and I have only myself to blame. Thanks for being respectful and not piling on.

  7. SMS,
    Agreed, on all counts.

  8. Kim,

    Hear, Hear! The point is that you can't tell from looking at someone, or by their finish time, whether they put in the time or not.

    Despite being fit and fast my entire life, I have just barely been able to complete a half marathon.The idea of attempting a full marathon is painful to me. Yet someone close to to me without the genetic gifts and childhood training that I have, trained for 3 years and completed (yes, ran) a marathon. Equating a slow time with someone who has not trained makes me angry to the depths of my being. Saying "they shouldn't get the same medals and acknowledgment"... It's more than a wording problem.

  9. Well, since I was the one writing it I think I'm somewhat better qualified to expound on what I meant. Nevertheless, to follow your argument to its logical end, anyone who signs up for the race and gets over the finish line, no matter how long it takes-a day, a week, whatever. should be recognized as accomplishing the same thing. Yes? How about someone who stops at water stations and smokes a cigarette? Or drinks beer during the race? I've seen both. Equally deserving of recognition? Curious.......

  10. And on the other side, should runners be forced to submit training logs to prove that they put in the effort, even if they are fast? (I've seen 13 year olds, who are not even old enough to put in the time, run 6 minute miles). I don't think anyone is saying there aren't people out there that shouldn't be. It's that you (and I) shouldn't be making that determination. No one is saying there is a problem with Boston's, or any other course's, time limit either. But if a city chooses 18 minute miles as the cutoff, why is anyone complaining about that?

    To me, it is like the criminal justice system: "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."(William Blackstone) Likewise, I would rather 10 slackers get a medal rather than one deserving person have their's taken away. After all, it doesn't hurt anyone to give out a medal, but it hurts deeply to tell someone they don't deserve one when they do.

  11. We all run for different reasons. I think that is a relatively safe statement to make insofar as I have heard a variety of reasons offered up by the people who have been commenting here the last few days. One thing I’ve noticed is that people who cop to entering races for the competitive aspect of the sport seem to be seen in a different light than those who have other reasons for toeing the starting line. It is as if being competitive against other runners is somehow....unseemly.

    In most other sports, be it boxing, football, or NASCAR racing (not a sport, really, but you get the idea), a certain amount of trash talking is par for the course. Runners, it appears, are different. An injury to one is perceived as an injury to all. We're a thin skinned bunch, considering how much pain we go through to train for a marathon. Running isn't like other sports, I guess, or more aptly, the marathon isn't really a sporting event as, say, a game of basketball is.

    However, it strikes me as more than a little odd that an event in a sport where every single statistic is based on speed, and your speed in relation to other's speed, people have serious objections to somehow differentiating (by a different color tshirt or certificate or something) between people who finish a marathon in 5 hours as opposed to 10. The logic escapes me.

    In my letter to the Times I never, (never!) said that people shouldn't be recognized for their achievements or denied medals. I mean, the winner of the race gets a big check and a car, but we all get a piece of tin and a t-shirt. That's ok, right? But, after all, we all covered the same distance. Where's my check? Well, I don't get one because I didn't win the race. I'll never win the race. So I get a medal and a shirt. Fine by me.

    However, where you start to talk about differentiating between a 3 hour runner and 7 hour runner, (by a different color medal or certificate or something) people go ballistic. This makes no sense.

    BTW, I agree with Blackstone, but I dare say the stakes are a bit higher in the realm of criminal justice.

  12. Sorry Michael, I wanted to address your other points. Race courses have the discretion to set whatever rules they want, I’m not arguing with that. I believe that was actually the focus of the Times article-some courses do set cut-off times and it has gotten runners mightily pissed off. People weren’t complaining about the marathons with 18 hour cut-off times, they were complaining about ones with 7 hour cut-off times. Predictably, people abuse the ones with longer cut-off times-I think that’s where the stopping to have lunch thing came from.

  13. I actually think it's a great idea to have a special or additional medal for the faster folks (additional or some other prize would be preferable). That would give me a new goal.

    " Race courses have the discretion to set whatever rules they want, I’m not arguing with that. I believe that was actually the focus of the Times article-some courses do set cut-off times and it has gotten runners mightily pissed off. "

    I don't think that's the case. I think what has people pissed off is that the tone of the article is that slower runners are somehow killing marathons, watering them down, making them not "real" anymore. I talk to a lot of 5,6,and 7 hour marathoners and I've never heard a single person complain that they can't get into Boston. They just don't run those races.

  14. Hi Mark,

    First of all, it's really unfortunate that you've been personally attacked for expressing your opinion. I, in contrast, would like to respectfully disagree with you.

    I understand what you were saying about the "fat man", and that you are annoyed passing him because you feel he did not train. But that might not be a fair assumption. I am a good example of that. It embarrasses me to think that anyone passing me is feeling the same as you, and assuming I didn't train and don't belong there. And even if he didn't train, he's going to seriously suffer for it himself in the coming days. I do take issue with people who go to run a marathon and don't put in the time or effort to train. But I don't assume that someone I pass who is overweight or struggling did not put in the effort. What I do get annoyed with however are people who clearly start in a pace corral that is above (or even below) their ability. Perhaps those are the runners you should take issue with, because they are disrespecting those who want to be competitive at that pace.

    In regards to the medal, it is a finishers medal, meant to be given to those who finish. The check? It's a prize. What do you get for running a marathon sub-5 hours that I don't get? You get to say you ran a marathon and people accept that, while I have to defend myself to people, that just because I have a slow time, I still trained and I still worked hard.

    The NYT article really upset me, because I felt like my accomplishment was suddenly completely invalidated. My story is similar to Kim's. I was so completely sedentary for so much of my life, and now I have a lot of trouble increasing my speed. I didn't start running until I was 27. I didn't think I'd like it, but I knew I needed to do something to get healthy. And then I ran my first road race. The ambiance was incredible, and as I got near the end of the 4 miles, not only were people still there cheering, but runners who finished well before me were there cheering me on as well. I was hooked on road races since then, because of the overwhelming support the running community had, no matter the athletic ability. This article, and I'm sorry to say that even your comments, made me realize otherwise.

    Two years after I started running I ran my first marathon. Slowly. I trained for a full year. And then to have someone tell me, well, okay, but you didn't really run it? And someone else tell me I shouldn't get a medal? I appreciate that you at least acknowledge that everyone has their own reasons for running the marathon, but please don't tell me that my accomplishment doesn't deserve a finishing medal, because I did finish. We both ran to the best of our ability.

    I think it's also safe to say, and this is more in response to the article than to your comments, that all the "plodders" make marathons more accessible to the more competitive runners, by increasing the revenue and giving organizers the money to put on such elaborate and incredible events.

    Anyway, the reason I commented here is I felt the need to say something, but also because while we might disagree on some things, at least you are having a conversation and are respectful. And I thank you for that.


  15. Simone,
    You do realize that I support everyone who is making an honest effort, right? Have I at least made that clear over the course of the last few days in my responses to everyone? God, I hope so.

  16. Hi Mark,

    Absolutely. And I really do appreciate that, because the tone of some people in the article do not even give us plodders that. I did not mean to imply that you do respect those of us that make an honest effort - I'm sorry if I did. I meant to just be disagreeing with your assumption when passing certain people during the course of a race that they did not give an honest effort, and with your opinion that not everyone should get a finishing medal.

    I also just realized looking over my comment how long it was - sorry about that. I tend to ramble!


  17. I should have been more precise in my words, and believe me I'm paying for that lack of percision. My really, truly only point was that someone who isn't prepared shouldn't be running the race. That's it. But, (and there's always a but), I don't have an issue with, say, a 3 hour medal, and a 4 hour medal, etc., and whatever reasonable cut-off the race directors agree on in consultation with local authorities and their own standards.

    Please believe me, I'm not running by people and passing judgment. I'm more interested in running the race, but if you're a big guy dressed up like a ballerina chugging a can of Fosters (which I have seen), I think it's ok for me to make certain assumptions about his level of fitness.

  18. I understand you much better now, thanks Mark.

    On another note, I've been reading more of your blog, and really like it. I hope you don't mind if I stop by again - I love reading runners blogs, especially by those more accomplished by me. They give me inspiration.

    All best,

  19. Simone,
    Thanks, you made my day. Stop by anytime.

  20. Mark,

    At 46, ten years ago, I put together a group of 12 people from my then-workplace to run the Paris Marathon as a fund-raiser for Memorial Sloan Kettering. Eventually, it whittled down to 5 people who went and we raised over $3,000 each to do it.

    I was - still am - a tennis player and HATED - and still do - running. However, I spent 16 tough weeks, from Thanksgiving (when I decided to do it) to early April (when the race took place) training through the wintry weather of Philadelphia.

    I finished the race in 5:19:21, which you would consider a slow and worthless time undeserving of a medal. Given that I already had a meniscus problem (surgery later), and given that it was my FIRST race EVER, and given WHY I put myself through it, comments like yours reek of arrogance and ignorance.

    I am proud of my time and of my achievement and no jerk like you can diminish that or the achievements of the thousands of others who take on the challenge of that distance.

    To elevate yourself by tearing down others is immature. If running is also about character and perspective, yours is small and narrow. The year before that marathon, 1996, I did a 3-day, 250 mile ride for AIDS. Want to also belittle the hundreds of us who did it at a pace that you would have considered "unworthy"?

    Grow up, Mark. Learn a little humility: you can be proud of your accomplishments without trying to diminsh others'.


    P.S. I ran one more race after that marathon, a 5K Race for the Cure.

  21. Harrison,
    If you hate running so much why not try another sport? I post your letter because you are the classic example of a misinformed reader. You project your own fears and concerns onto writers with whom you think you have a disagreement. Obviously you didn't bother to read anything else except my letter to the Times, which you completely misinterpreted. Good luck managing that anger. Maybe you can use it in training.