The Oprah-Marathon Runner’s World Article

This morning, I woke up to the following in my Twitter notifications:

Runner’s World published an online article from a contributor, JoAnna Novak, listing 5 reasons why she doesn’t want to run a marathon. “OPRAH” (in all caps and boldface) is her #1 reason. I was considering writing a blog post about it, and this tweet sealed the deal.

The following is an excerpt from the article:

1.) OPRAH:  Ever since Oprah ran the Marine Corps Marathon (with her time of 4:29:20) in 1994, marathons have been about completion. According to “How Oprah Ruined the Marathon,” Edward McClelland’s 2007 article in Salon, the queen of daytime television ushered in a new era of populist racing. Forget a competitive time—the point of running 26.2 miles could simply be … to finish? For better or for worse, I’m a perfectionist, an all-or-nothing gal, who wants to go big or go home. I’m not going big with a marathon so … I’ll stay home.

2.) THE ME-ME-ME SHOW: Just like that pesky friend who’s always announcing her new-found pescatarianism (minus oil, minus dairy, plus chia), the hobby marathoner just rubs me the wrong way! From her Facebook posts about the amazing sights she sees on her long run, to the adoption of idiosyncratic lingo, to the epic race-day dramas (fueling stations! strains!): call me a scrooge, but all that attention just cramps my running style.

This article struck a condescending tone, drew the ire of many, and was praised by a few. Here are a few points I took from the article, and my reaction to those points.

1. The perils of populist racing. A large, diverse, inclusive running community results in the following:

  • more runner-friendly trails
  • more races
  • more running groups
  • more running gear to choose from
  • more running magazines/articles
  • more RUNNING-RELATED EVERYTHING!

These results are wonderful for all runners! Can any runner honestly say he or she doesn’t value a greater number of choices in gear and trails?

BOTTOM LINE: All runners realize the benefits of a large, growing, inclusive running community.

2. Complete vs. compete: I’m not sure what the author is trying to say with these remarks. Is she saying that it’s not worth running a race if you’re not in contention to win? St. Jude, the headline charity of the marathon I recently ran, would certainly disagree. The St. Jude Marathon alone raises nearly $6 million annually for St. Jude. We ran through the St. Jude campus twice and were thanked countless times for running for the kids. Sorry, kids with cancer, JoAnna thinks only winners should run marathons. Also, see point #1 above – the number of marathons in existence would shrink considerably if the 3-hour-plus crowd stayed home.

I don’t believe she truly feels that way, but as an author, she should realize that words have meaning. “Competitive” means “of or relating to a situation in which people or groups are trying to win a contest or be more successful than others” (thanks, Merriam-Webster).

More likely, JoAnna doesn’t want to run a marathon because she may not be able to run an arbitrary time that she has deemed “competitive”. She implies that those who run four-hour-plus marathons didn’t care about their time and trained only to finish. I’d like to believe that I’m living proof that isn’t true – read my St. Jude Marathon training posts, and decide for yourself if I was training only to finish (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I also know slower marathoners than myself who trained their asses off and did their best.

I’ve observed an attitude among some above-average marathoners that ignores genes/natural ability as a factor in a person’s marathon time. A well-meaning runner friend once told me, “You can definitely run a 3:30 marathon. Just do speed work. That’s what I did.”

I could have countered, “You can definitely run a 2:02 marathon. Just train like Dennis Kimetto.” It’s an extreme example, but it illustrates my point.

I’m NOT suggesting that runners should begin telling each other they aren’t talented enough to meet their stretch goals. Rather, I believe that we should be proud of doing our best within genetic and other constraints (life, work, family, etc). No one in this situation is deserving of judgment or condescension. See #1 for further reading.

BOTTOM LINE: Results aren’t directly proportional to training and effort. Don’t write off slower marathoners as not being “competitive,” lest a faster marathoner/5k racer/etc do the same to you.

3. [Paraphrase] “People annoy me with their social media activity, so I will not participate in the same activities as they do.”

JoAnna, it sounds like you need to clean out your social media friend/following closet if it upsets you that badly. There’s no rule that you have to Instagram a photo from every run if you choose to train for a marathon. You do you.

You will probably never do any of the following if you apply this attitude consistently:

  • eat food of any kind
  • go on vacation
  • have children
  • have political opinions
  • cheer for a team playing a sport

BOTTOM LINE: Someone on social media will annoy you with their posts on any topic, including puppies, kittens, and bunnies. I cannot think of a more ridiculous reason not to do something that you otherwise would want to do.

My position is simple: don’t run a marathon if you don’t want to. If you don’t want to run a 5k, don’t. If you don’t want to attempt heavy weightlifting or crazy yoga poses, don’t. And don’t pressure someone to do something they don’t want to do. It’s not hard.

Someone once asked Jeff, a two-time marathoner himself, if he encouraged me to run a marathon. He responded, “I would never encourage anyone to run a marathon.” He went on to explain that training for a marathon requires time, sacrifice, pain, ungodly grocery bills – it has to be something you want to do for yourself. I agree with him.

There’s no shame in saying “I don’t want to run a marathon,” or “I only want to run a marathon to finish” and leaving it at that. We shouldn’t have to justify these desires to anyone. If someone tries to shame you or another runner for not conforming to his/her ideal of running, my belief is that person’s opinion doesn’t matter.

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9 thoughts on “The Oprah-Marathon Runner’s World Article

  1. Totally with you on this one! Why discourage something that has helped encourage so many to be more active and gain a sense of accomplishment? I suppose she’s free to express her opinion, but man, what a hater! Personally, I’ve given up my Ironman goal since it turns out I don’t enjoy long hours of cycling, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to hate on other people who want to do it.

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    • Bravo to you for doing what you enjoy and not sweating the rest! I tried triathlon and it wasn’t for me, but I have major respect for triathletes and love following friends who compete at all distances! Good luck with training this spring – you’re chasing a big HM PR if I recall?

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  2. Love this!! I think that how you define competing in a marathon is very personal… not everyone is out there to win, but we are definitely out there to compete against some goal — whether it’s just to finish! And there is nothing wrong with that. So many things make me angry about this article… but your response is great. 🙂

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  3. Wowww. Why is that person so unhappy and mean? If she has that much venom for the bourgeois marathon crowd then I can’t imagine what she thinks of murderers and rapists. I’ve seen a bunch of blogs about people starting at 6 hour marathons and then spending 5 years eventually qualifying for Boston. And other people are told their child might die so they start a running blog even though they suck because they desperately need a distraction from the horror of a children’s hospital. Why can’t we just support each other? Really that person isn’t worth our time. Mean people are very often unhappy people. I hope she finds happiness.

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    • Wow, it sounds like I have some new blogs to research and read – how incredible! I agree with you – I too hope she finds happiness. I wonder if she has been shamed by fellow runners for not ever taking on the marathon, which has led to insecurity and bitterness. I wrote the end of the post thinking that might be her situation. Whatever the situation, I hope that no one who was on the fence about running a marathon is dissuaded by her comments.

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  4. Excellent post Sarah. I loved reading your perspective and agree with so much of what you shared. There seems to be a strange little bubbling up of anti-running sentiment, mostly focused on running becomingtoo trendy and “look at me.” Anyone who has really trained for a marathon knows that is not the case and it is so much more than just running. The depth of emotion and human spirit that comes from our sport is hard to explain to those who don’t want to try to understand it. The great thing about where we live is we are all free to pursue unique and different interests. I’m right with you … If you want to run, fantastic. If you don’t, I hope you will find another passion that brings you the kind of joy I’ve found in running and with the people who do it. We should celebrate everyone’s interests and passions, and certainly not degrade people for making choices that will keep them healthier and happier. Life is not a one-size-fits all approach 🙂

    PS You are capable of a 3:30 if that is a goal you want to pursue. It’s not easy and it may take several years (I’m still working on it), but I believe it is possible for YOU 🙂 Just sayin 😉

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    • Thanks Jes! For some, it may take speed work while it may take others many years of building, but it’s hard not to love a sport that allows us the chance to work hard and amaze ourselves with the results. I don’t believe either of us have met our full potential (in a good way – there’s more left to achieve). I’m excited to see how running continues to shape us both, and our little Atlanta running community 🙂

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