by Dante Zappala
Scanning my morning e-mail, I came across an advertisement for a race this winter that is, I kid you not, 0 miles long. It is a race of no distance. And it costs $20. Before the price increase.
I had to go to the website to be sure I wasn’t misunderstanding this concept. Billed as a chance for runners to get together with non-runners, there is a simultaneous start and finish, followed by beer, food and music.
This is not a race, just a ploy to get people to go to Xfinity Live. Apparently, you need to peddle stolen truckloads of cynicism to entice people down there these days.
Make no mistake, this marks a moment in the history of the modern running movement akin to the release of Saturday Night Fever. The mainstreaming is complete to the point that every organic inspiration that comprises its meaning has been completely raided of value. The life force has been wrung dry. The last ounces of blood have been squeezed out and are overflowing the profit barrels, making our soles sticky when we walk by to take notice.
I know what you are thinking. How can I be so understated? Did I mention that the 0 race is subtitled “Instant Gratification.” Again, I kid you not.
I was down in the Wissahickon Valley early recently. Even the predawn light sheltered itself in the cold. Many of the bulbs are blown down on the trail, but I don’t run with a headlamp. I prefer the long quiet stretches of darkness and the view of puddles glistening with whatever specks of light they can horde.
Out of the darkness, I saw Bill and Willie – old friends of my dad’s, I was raised in part by these guys like a wolf cub in a pack. After catching up on my kids and their bad knees, we talked about the price to play these days on the running circuit. I coughed up $110 for the privilege of racing the half marathon in Philly. The full cost topped out at $145.
Bill said that the Boston Marathon used to cost $10. Of course, that’s what a car used to cost back in his day, I reminded him. Willie chimed in that they didn’t have cars back then.
Local road races were $2. But you had to keep up – otherwise you wouldn’t know which way to turn. And no one stuck around for the joggers to finish, so there were no joggers.
Now, I’m sure like any story told 30 years later, it’s imbued with a good bit of indulgence. But Bill does have a laminated copy of a 50-cent race application.
Theirs was the era when the running boom was fueled by competition and a personal desire for excellence. Now, we are driven by the social connection and the sense of achievement. I don’t knock these things. Like disco, it’s a good beat and everyone can dance to it. I endorse the idea of having more people out there grooving.
But that kind of scene attracts the coke dealers. The big race circuit in the United States is dominated by Competitor Group, a for-profit company owned by a hedge fund. Its goal is to make as much money as it can. When it cut off prize money last year, it was a statement about what mattered.
The winners don’t matter anymore. But the finishers don’t matter either. It’s the entrance fees that matter. Competitor received enough backlash from the professional running community to reinstate the awards money but the shockwave still reverberates.
I really shouldn’t be surprised by the 0. In fact, the exact logical conclusion of this running boom is a race of no distance. Why waste money on timing when no one cares about the time they run? Why waste effort training when it’s not really about getting into shape? Just show up and you are a runner. Believe us when we tell you, you’ve earned your beer.
We don’t have to accept this. In fact, we can’t. Because if this type of event succeeds and persists, it’s not long before the “Disco Sucks” shirts come out of the closet.
A majority of runners today may not care as much about competition, but they clearly care about running. They are drawn to the magic of measured improvement and endorphins. The act of running is an act of flying. It is uniquely defined by simultaneously having two feet off the ground.
Whatever our motivation, we relate to each other around the primacy of the activity. We recognize the rhythm of breath and steps, in all its forms, as we would our favorite song.
But it may take a rebel alliance of sorts to protect what is sacred. The first step is awareness. The miles you run matter as much as the dollars you will inevitably spend. Choose wisely.
We have to recognize the hucksters in our midst. They are selling a high that won’t last. They are pumping air into our heads with one hand and taking money from our pockets with the other.
What we need is the mutual belief that the $2 road race is still out there. Maybe that is now the $20 local event sponsored by your neighborhood running store and restaurant.
Or maybe the $2 race is a faded article of faith we point to when we can’t muster the words to describe what has gone horribly wrong.
Nevertheless, it’s a race we should all run together at the pace we’re most comfortable with.