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In defense of the marathon plodders

A friend from college ran her first 26.2-mile race at the Marine Corps Marathon this weekend. New to running, she was, um, talked into the challenge from some of her co-workers. She trained for seven months, just like everyone else, and on Sunday she crossed the finish line. She didn't expect it would take her 6 1/2 hours but the hills of the first eight miles took their toll and she plodded through the last half of the course.

Regardless of her time, she is a marathoner.

Whether you like it or not.

My first, and only marathon to date was a 5:02 adventure where I learned to (a) not throw away my nutrition plan after Mile 8, (b) to hold off walking as long as possible, and then a bit longer and (c) that I can indeed soldier through cramps and a bloody foot to the finish line.

The marathon, like other endurance events, is about a journey. It is about you versus yourself, your fears and demons and anxieties. It's about where you've come from and about where you're going.

But apparently that journey is creating some "controversy" within the running community.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that the plodders in marathons -- those who take six or more hours to complete the course -- are annoying hard core runners. As the piece by Juliet Macur reads, hard core runners believe that, "slow runners have disrespected the distance ... and have ruined the marathon's mystique."

Oh really?

From a safety standpoint, time limits for courses make sense. Eventually, roads have to open, water stops have to break down and the finish line has to close. Each race director makes his or her own call as to how to navigate time limits.

But to imply that slow runners "disrespect the distance" is really quite disrespectful in itself.

Marathons have become more accessible to the masses in recent years. More people are able to pick up running, to enter and train for a marathon. Many people get involved with the sport as fundraisers for charities, including the well-known Team in Training for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society while Roswell Park Cancer Institute has its own version in Team Cure Challenge.

So what if there are more people finishing at the back of the pack? My 5:02 marathon doesn't diminish the accomplishment of someone who has run a 3:15 marathon.

"Let's face it, in order to complete 26.2 miles, it must have been preceded by at least some form of base endurance training," said Vicki Mitchell, the track and field coach at the University at Buffalo, coach for the running club Checkers and a former elite distance runner herself. "To me, this means individuals are promoting healthy lifestyles, improving heart health, improving overall quality of life. 

"Participation is one of the beauties of our sport. We should not be excluded for being a professional athlete versus an amateur. We should not be limited by our genetic-given abilities, or lack or. We should not be limited by socio-economic status. And we should not be excluded for our ability to run fast."

Indeed, why would any sport want to limit participation? Why wouldn't you want your sport to grow, to create interest, to have as many people as possible choosing to participate in your sport? Mitchell points out that there are marathons which cater to those who want an "elite" level of competition. Many strive for the elusive Boston Marathon qualifying time as a sign of success. Which is fine. Others just want to complete the distance. And there are events for that.

There is room at the starting line, and the finish line, for all types.

There is better karma in supporting and expanding than there is in judging and closing ranks. Because for all those who complain about the "plodders" well, they might find themselves in the back of the pack some day.

And the rest of us will still be cheering and encouraging them.

--- Amy Moritz
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