Monday 6 February 2012

The 'De-sportification' of Running? P-K POY!

A couple of very good magazine articles-- one in the December/January edition of Canadian Running, on the disappearance of the 10k as a popular race distance, and the other, in the December issue of Running Times Magazine, on the 1984 US Olympic Marathon Trials-- got me thinking, once again, about the future of running as a sport in this country and, indeed, in the larger culture.

I was interviewed at some length by author Mihira Lakshman for the first piece, and a few of my comments were featured. The larger context of our conversation, and of the article itself, was the apparent decline of "serious" racing and training in Canada, of which the decline of the 10k as the standard racing distance can be seen as symptomatic. As I suggested in the piece, until sometime on the late 1980s, runners typically identified themselves by their 10k bests, rather than how far they had managed to run in a race. In those days, the 10k seemed to be the most natural measure of running prowess. It was short enough to race more than a couple of times per year, yet long enough to actually require a few years of hard work to master. The eclipse of the 10k and its loss of status as the standard measure of distance running ability can be understood as a product of the what I’ve often called the 'de-sportification' of running—a strange and paradoxical product of the third and current "running boom".

The second piece discussed the marked decline of elite marathon performances in the U.S. over the past 30 years (in spite of the advent of prize money, increased knowledge about training and nutrition, better footwear, etc.) as seen through a comparison of the fields assembled at the 1984 and 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. Ordinarily, in sports, we can expect an improvement in performance over a period as long as 30 years. And, indeed, the top performances globally far outstrip those of the early 80s, both in terms of world record progression (over 3 minutes) and average for the top 10 (something like 6-7 minutes), with the vast majority of the improvement coming courtesy of runners from East Africa, who had just begun to enter the sport en masse in the early 80s. In North America, however, the quality and depth of marathon running, and of distance running in general, have not increased, or have declined, as is the case for Canada. In both countries, the best athletes of the 80s would be competitive with the best of the new millennium-- and this, in spite of the unprecedented popularity of the sport as measured in terms of youth involvement, availability of information on training, races entered, and gear purchased per year. Here too, the gradual de-sportification of running offers a broad explanation.

In the early years of the first running boom-- the one ignited by Frank Shorter's marathon victory in the 1972 Olympics, the first in many decades by an American-- runners at all levels tended to approach the sport as just that-- a sport, something at which one competed. This was understandable, considering the fact that it had been the preserve of serious athletes throughout its history (i.e. would-be Olympians and student athletes). The first running boom represented the mass popularization of a competitive activity, with both its harsh physical demands and its romance, rather than as a form of physical hygiene, or as a spiritual balm (although it would come very rapidly, and famously, to be promoted in these terms by the sport's first major entrepreneurs-- people like Complete Book of Running author Jim Fix, and Dr. George Sheehan, the sport's answer to Henry David Thoreau, minus the politics!). The first citizen runners tended to be interested in emulating the people they saw in magazines and on T.V., and were more likely to be fans of the sport at the elite level than were those in subsequent booms. There were some simple demographics involved here too. The average age of runners, and of people in general, was younger than in subsequent booms, meaning that there were many more runners of "peak performance" age. (At the same time, however, masters-- over 40-- running began in this era, and performance levels were at least on a par with those of today).

The post-Shorter running boom was associated with rapid increases in road race participation (although nothing like they would later become) and with very high average levels of performance by today's standards. The second boom-- beginning sometime in the mid to late 1980s-- was driven in large part by the mass marketing of running shoes and apparel. This boom made companies like Nike, New Balance, and Reebok the major sports and leisure brands that they have become, and it swelled road race entries by the thousands. The oldest events on the calendar-- Peachtree in Atlanta, Bloomsday in Spokane, Falmouth in Cape Cod, and the Boilermaker in Utica, among others-- saw their numbers climb steadily, and several new players enter the mix, going on in a few instances to become behemoths in a matter of years (and here we could list our own Vancouver Sun Run, which, with over 60,000 entries in some years, vies for the title of biggest 10k on the continent each year). By the peak of this boom in the mid to late 1990s, signs that running was on the way to morphing from competitive sport for the masses into mass "lifestyle activity" were beginning to become apparent. Among the symptoms of this shift were the above mentioned decline of the 10k--the "racers" preferred distance-- and steady rise of the 5k and marathon-- the beginners' and "completers'" distances respectively.

The third and current boom has added to the second's growing emphasis on running as a health promoting activity as opposed to an athletic pursuit, a trend supported both by changing demographics (again, an aging and an increasingly health conscious population) and the successful marketing of running to women, many of whom were coming to, not only to running, but organized sport in general for the first time. The real drivers of the current running boom, however, have been the successful symbiosis between road racing and charity fundraising, and the marketing of running through retail “learn to run" groups. The successful recruitment of runners by large charities to participate in targeted events for the specific purpose of raising funds for a given cause (and here the Diabetes Association's "Team in Training" concept is probably the best known) and the successful promotion of weekly shoe store “learn to run” groups focused on encouraging beginning runners to “complete” various race distances (with the marathon as the ultimate goal) have multiplied both the number of races on the calendar and the average size of their fields, such that even smaller scale, regional events frequently reach their permitted capacities weeks or months beforehand-- something that was all but unheard of in either of the preceding booms. As result of this massive influx of charity runners and beginners looking to simply complete the assigned distance , it is no longer quite accurate to refer to most organized gatherings of runners as "races" anymore. If the motivation of the average participant is what is at issue, the more appropriate designation is probably "running events". Many of the bigger, longstanding races still proudly retain the word "race" in their titles (as in Ottawa's annual "Race Weekend"), but it's clear to long time observers and participants that "racing" has become an increasingly small part of the festivities as the years have gone by. Road race organizers have gained much and lost nothing with the eclipse of serious racing in favour of "participating" and "completing", so they have had no incentive, beyond the directors’ love of the sport, to retain prize money, elite fields, or even age-class awards (and amounts still spent on these things have not even begun to keep pace with vastly increasing revenues in instances where race directors still claim to take them seriously). In this latest boom, everyone but an increasingly tiny subculture, it would seem, is happy to see road running turn from an erstwhile sport into a vehicle for health promotion and doing charitable good. Race directors who give short shrift to the competitive side of their events, in favour of serving the needs of "completers" and fundraisers, can justifiably claim that they are simply meeting market demand. If the average, entry fee-paying participant doesn't approach the sport as a competitive enterprise, why, for instance, should prize money purses keep pace with the growth of entries and fee levels?

The incredible commercial and cultural success of running in this third boom has without a doubt coincided with its increasing "de-sportification"— a process that, I would argue, has some unforeseen negative longer term consequences for running in general, to go along with the undeniable epidemiological benefits of its unprecedented mass popularity. The first of these downsides is the loss of raw excitement around the activity that only its competitive dimension can generate—a loss that threatens running’s future popularity among younger people. (One only need ask the average teenager, even an otherwise athletic one, what sorts of things he/she associates with running and runners to see that its desportification is all but complete for those under 20). Running has succeeded on the scale it has because it is a relatively cheap and simple fitness activity for the masses; but, it is ultimately only one such activity among many possible alternatives. As such, it is acutely liable to fall out of fashion and into obscurity if it abandons its competitive dimension, which is integral to its long heritage. Indeed, trail/adventure “racing”, “cross-fit”, and yoga threaten running's popularity even as we speak. The long term survival of running as both a sport and, I would argue, as mass fitness pursuit lies in its ability to generate a passionate and knowledgeable base of fans and aficionados. And, as other successful sports have clearly shown (and think soccer, cricket, baseball, rugby, or hockey here) nothing generates lifelong passion for an activity like the thrill of competition-- both watching and doing. Most of the world's successful sports have legions of serious recreational participants of all ages who continue to play in the same spirit as the world's best, and are knowledgeable fans of their sport at its highest levels. It may not be apparent in the short term, but the complete erasure of the competitive dimension of running at the popular level might well threaten its survival as a lifestyle and fitness activity too.

And second, to the extent that Canadians or Americans care about how our best do in international competition, the desportification of running outside of the environment of schools undermines our ability to develop elite level performers. If we fail to keep pace with the rest of the world in the sport, we will be denying ourselves the pleasure and excitement of watching people we might know or have met compete against the best in world in international fora. We will in the same instance be denying the most talented of our youth the life-altering experience of serious international competition, thereby also limiting the supply of inspirational figures and role models for the very young. While it’s true that other sports might fill the void in this respect, the disappearance of running as a sport in this country should be of concern to those of us who think that it has a special and time-honoured place among sporting pursuits. At its best, running as a sport is an historically rich (indeed, ancient), simple, beautiful, and global test of both athleticism and character. Unlike many team sports (like hockey and football) and some emerging individual sports (such as MMA), running can be pursued in a relatively safe and healthy way even at the highest levels, and it practitioners are among the most thoughtful , humble (because it is a universally humbling endeavour), and civilized of all athletes.

Can the desportification of running be reversed; can running by progressively re-sportified? To answer this question, it should be born in mind that running is still very much a sport within the school system in North America (although its popularity is highly uneven, truth be told) and within a small but very strong sub-culture of older runners (who are now showing up near the top of the open category of local road races in unprecedented numbers, due to the steep decline in the number of serious of younger runners). It is also no doubt true that many of the vast numbers of new runners filling up road race fields are not opposed in principal to the idea of running as a serious sport, and could be sold, both on the idea of training to race themselves, and on the need to support the re-development of elite sport. Hope, it would seem, lies in rebuilding competitive running outside of the school system through both the expansion of serious running/training groups for older recreational runners and convincing the mass of casual road runners to become fans and financial supporters of elite running. Running as a health and fitness pursuit now attracts millions of people and generates hundreds of millions of dollars per year in entry fees alone across North America. A small fraction of these numbers and these dollars would be more than sufficient to rebuild running as a serious sport here. In fact, this rebuilding has been underway in small pockets of the U.S. for a decade now, and shoots of renewal are appearing in Canada too, in places like Guelph, Ontario and Montreal, QC. Complete restoration is a decade or more away, but serious runners—and fans of the sport—can do their part by promoting serious running among the fitness crowd, starting training groups, working in clubs for youth, and supporting elite running financially whenever such opportunities appear. And, perhaps more fundamentally, race directors can help by not neglecting the competitive side of their events. They could, for instance, simply increase prize money purses in proportion to increasing numbers, rather than spending it on the ever growing trappings of “participation” (e.g. ever more expensive and ornate finishers’ medals); or, they could convince their patrons to pledge a small deduction from their entry fees to support national team programming. Where there is an interest and a will, there are many possibilities.

2011 P-K Performance of the Year:

The third annual addition of the P-K POY has proven the most difficult yet when it comes to settling on a recipient. Time prevents me from reviewing all of the POM nominees, but they’re all there in back-postings of the blog. And be reminded that performances are not evaluated based simply on speed or honours won; they are also, and primarily, considered in terms of the special effort it took to produce them, and their quality relative to the average for the athlete who produced them. Often, really outstanding performances in-and-of themselves are passed over, because they represent relatively routine efforts for the athletes in question (for instance, neither of the two OFSAA championship performances from within the junior group were POMs this year, in spite of the sheer scale of that achievement among high school runners). This, of course, makes deciding all the more difficult and, ultimately, quite subjective. (And there is no committee involved; this is entirely my call, based on my intimate familiarity with the background of each athlete and his/her situation at the time of the performance.) Each POM, and many of the monthly runners-up, was exemplary of the kind of thing I look for in a great individual performance. Yet, I managed to whittle down the contenders to a short list of three:

Newfoundlander Joe Dunford’s 5 minute personal best at the Huffin’, Puffin Half Marathon, which he did at the end of a year filled with big revisions of his P.B. numbers;

Cleo Boyd’s one time, 15 second carving up of her 3000m P.B., which she did on a warm and windy night, in her final attempt of the season, and in spite of a painful calf strain that saw her confined to the elliptical trainer for most of the fall (although she would return to claim POM honours for Nov, based on a similarly outstanding run at the National Junior X-C Championships in Vancouver);


Dylan O’Sullivan’s bronze medal winning, personal best-setting performance over 5000m at the National Junior Track and Field Championships in Winnipeg, the July POM.

And the 2011 POY belongs to... Dylan O’Sullivan! Dylan’s accomplishment came at the end of over two years of frustration, caused first by iron deficiency and later by a string of minor injuries that would land him some 10-15lbs overweight not 8 months before this breakthrough performance. Using all of his ingenuity, self-knowledge , and innate determination, Dylan would claw his way back to the top ranks of his age cohort, never once doubting his underlying abilities. And I can happily report that he has continued to improve at the same rate throughout his freshman year at Dartmouth College in Hanover NH, recording back-to-back personal bests of 8:31 and 14:40 over 3k and 5k respectively this January. Like past winners, Dylan will receive a small Mizuno prize package for his efforts. Congrats Dylan!