by Dante Zappala
Pace Men stood tall atop the winner’s podium, his funny name emblazoned on his running bib for the world to see, casting a long shadow over the great Wilson Kipsang who stood next to him in the runner’s-up spot.
If you found yourself in Moravia last weekend, you certainly came home raving about Kenya’s latest distance running sensation. Pace Men won the Olomouc Half Marathon in the Czech Republic by defeating none other than the current marathon world record holder. Odd moniker, you would tell your friends, but Pace Men is the guy to watch this fall at one of the major marathons.
Pace Men is actually not the man’s name, it’s just what was written on his singlet that day. He is really Geoffrey Ronoh, a relatively unknown runner with only one other professional race under his belt.
Ronoh was on hand to lead Kipsang through about 10 miles of the 13 mile race. He was paid to set the pace and dropping out at that some point was all but assured, which is why he did not merit getting his own name printed on his race bib. But a funny thing happened on the way to Horní Square. When Kipsang didn’t pass him at 15 kilometers as expected, he kept chugging along up front. At some point, he decided not to drop out. Instead, he decided to win. Pace Men crossed the finish a good 8 seconds ahead of Kipsang. If you were there, you certainly know how to say “WTF” in Czech by now.
These stories are rare, but it serves as a great reminder that, at its core, running is a truly democratic sport. No matter who the favorite is, if you get from A to B faster than the other guy, you win. Other contests rely heavily on teammates, referees and judges. Subjectivity is rampant. Not here. “The clock don’t lie” is a familiar refrain in running circles.
There is no other sport that has a lower barrier to entry. You don’t need a ball, a hoop, a bat or another person. The notion that you even need shoes to run was blown away by Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic marathon running barefoot over the cobblestones of Rome.
Yet this romanticized image of running is fading fast. Commercialization and fear based marketing are moving in quickly. What should be free and open to all is, like many things in this world, rebranding itself as an exclusive endeavor that requires a certain investment of your resources to participate.
Think about what you supposedly need these days to run: expensive shoes, compression socks, energy gels, fuel belts, polarized sunglasses, foam rollers, technical fabrics, special detergents, recovery bars, GPS watches, heart rate monitors and a variety of supplements. That’s just cracking the surface of what is sold to runners under the banners of “Stay injury free,” “Recover faster” and “Get an advantage.” It’s absolutely dizzying.
I’m certainly not immune to this. I did some rough math to figure out how much I spend a year on running. Shoes routinely go for over $100 a pair. Most 10k’s are charging $60 or more. Don’t tell my wife, but I think I’m shelling out over a thousand dollars a year, and I do what I think is a good job of sticking to the basics. I have a dumb watch. I don’t bother with gels if the run is less than 90 minutes. I drink milk and eat bananas after a hard run. I do use protein powder every now and again in a shake. I’ll even throw in chia and flax seeds. Please, forgive my excess.
The most ironic introduction to this crowded market was when Vibram named one of their minimal shoes after Bikila. Yes, the person who epitomizes the equality of the sport has a $90 shoe named after him.
My suggestion is not that these things aren’t helpful in some way. Maybe they are to certain people. But we’ve been conditioned now to think that all of this is necessary. And in the process, we’ve made running look more like street hockey than the activity of our ancestors.
Geoffrey Ronoh did not succeed because of any special equipment. His catalyst was the man he beat, Wilson Kipsang. A second tier runner, Ronoh was hired in December to be Kipsang’s training partner. You gather that Wilson liked that he was steady and could take part of the thinking out of his training. But Ronoh benefited greatly. Not only did all of that training turn him into a world class runner, he also quietly figured out a strategy to win against Kipsang.
Sneaky, perhaps, but in the end, tell me what’s more honest than running with a person day in and day out until you are fast enough to beat him?
Kipsang and Ronoh smiled and hugged at the finish. They carried their country’s flag together. As the world record holder, Kipsang knows better than anyone that there’s no room for entitlement, only hard work. His greatness is not guaranteed going forward. That’s why he said, “In the end, I appreciate that he was there because without him, we would not have run a good time.”
I want to believe that after the all of this good natured celebration had subsided, Pace Men could be seen smiling and saying quietly to himself, “The clock don’t lie.”