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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