Monday, March 21, 2011

The Road Not Often Taken: Girls and Running

I ran my first race when I was 8 years old. This was back in the days of gray sweats and Keds tennis sneakers. My parents took me and my 13 year-old sister to the track at a private boys Catholic high school not too far from our house in suburban New Jersey. It was covered in a green squishy rough material. I'd never seen or felt anything like it. I cannot recall what sort of event this was. There were lots of other kids there milling about. I remember noticing that my sister and I were the only girls actually running. Other girls were there, but I never actually saw any others run. The girls sat on the bleachers with their parents watching their brothers race around the oval. We lined up straight across the track, one girl, and five boys. I had never actually run around a track before, but I had run around my block many many times, and I imagined that it would be much like that. The starters gun fired, pop, and feet, knees and elbows flew. I remember moving my legs and feet as fast as I could possibly make them go. As we rounded the final turn I experienced for the first time the feeling you have when you push your legs to a point where you can no longer feel, nor control, them. When you make such an effort that your legs just sort of leave you - and you are your legs - they are no longer just part of you. I came in last, though it was close. That was it. I became a runner that day.

We have many experiences in life and different experiences effect different people in different ways. For some reason this race was life altering, or at least life directing, for me - it was one of those moments that changes everything. From the instant the gun went off I was a runner. It wasn't because some brilliant natural talent came to light. It wasn't because I won a ribbon (back then not everyone got ribbons!). It wasn't because my parents showered me with congratulations It wasn't due to any tangible outcome or result - it was the feeling I had when I ran. It was being on that track, standing and waiting for the gun, watching the other runners nervously step from foot to foot, and being part of an experience where we all really, really tried hard. Why did we try so hard? I really can't say. We were there to run around that track as fast as we could. The aim was pure and simple - and many would say, pointless.

That was almost 40 years ago. And that simple, pointless race turned out to be anything but pointless for my life. After that race I remember getting up early many mornings before school, driving with my father and sister to run laps around Cedar Brook Park pond. My father was a runner as a boy in Brooklyn. He ran many cross country races in Van Cortlandt Park. He ran on a banked wooden track in Madison Square Garden. In high school I ran races on the same cross country course in Van Cortland Park. And that wooden track moved to Setan Hall University, where my high school team had many meets.

I was not a good team player. My sister was the star athlete in the family. She played soccer, field Hockey, basketball, and lacrosse. She always lead the team and her name always turned up in newspaper reports. I ran. In 8th grade I could finally run on a team. My school had a boys team and a girls team. The only problem was that the girl's team didn't have any races scheduled. They practiced, a little, every afternoon, but there were no races. Really!!?? My friend Leslie and I asked the coaches if we could run with the boys. This was back in 1977 - Title IX was passed in 1972 - and the details were still being worked out. At first we were told "no", there was a girl's team and that was good enough. We threatened to go out for football if they wouldn't let us run with the boys. They gave in - I like to think, because of our threats. We were required to wear the boys uniforms which fell off our bone shoulders and skinny waists - but we did it and we ran the races with the boys as the girl's team watched.

And, I've never stopped running. I now find myself in middle age, looking at others around me, and I realize that running really has made a difference in my life. Many of my jock friends who played team sports in high school and college were left adrift following their collegiate careers. Sure, there's "adult leagues" for many sports, but it seems much more difficult to continue these sports after college ends and "real" life commences. Games and practices must be fit into work, and family schedules. With running, you walk out the door and run - and if the only time slot open is 5 a.m., then that's when you run. This is much more difficult, if not impossible, with other sports. As a result, many women (and men) become much more sedentary following college.

So, what's the big point of all this? I firmly believe in the power of running to empower and free girls and women. I believe that the self reliance I have developed through the challenges of running, the discipline, the hours upon hours of running with my thoughts, the appreciation of the natural environment, the physical strength and the feeling of strength it develops, all give me the energy and inspiration to do something important - to make a difference - to set an example. I am a wife and a mother and a teacher - but I am not entirely defined by those roles. Nor did I ever feel that I needed to be a wife and mother to be a real woman. I am not defined by what other people think of me: how I dress, what car I drive, whether my hair is just right (it never is;) - It is ultimately up to me whether I flourish or not. I was given an amazing gift when I was 8 years old (thanks Mom and Dad). I had no idea then. I do now.

While this could be a story about a boy or a girl, a woman or a man - I believe that boys and men are given many more options and opportunities and encouragement to take risks, to push and challenge themselves, and to trust that they can make it home again. We need to tell our girls that they can do it too. I am not alone in my assessment of the effects of running on girls' and women's lives. Here are some amazing organizations doing wonderful things for girls and women, today and tomorrow, and on and on. Check them out. Support them. It will make a difference in your world, their world, and the world of those who follow...

Girls on the Run
Girls Gotta Run Video
Girls Gotta Run


Girls Gotta Run Foundation: Team Naftech from sarah murrray on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Irish Blessing

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.


This old Irish Blessing is so fitting for runners - It is one that hung, framed,
on the wall of my childhood home, and my father loved to recite it in a beautiful Irish brogue. When I was 7 years old I kissed the Blarney Stone - the gift of gab was bestowed...And here I am.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Friday, March 11, 2011

What Good Does Running Do?: Is Running a Selfish Act?


A climbing friend recently told me that she stopped running because she came to believe that it was a very self centered, selfish pursuit. This is a common perception, and one, I believe, many runners battle, from without and within. I think many of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances assumed that at some point I would have grown-up and abandoned this silly distraction/obsession. It takes so much time, attention, and effort - and - for what end? As someone who has dreams, hopes, and aspirations for changing the world for the better, and who is committed to her family, the question today is: Isn't running just a huge waste of time and energy that could be used for better/more productive ends? This question concerns: a) Our relationships with friends, family, and co-workers, and b)Our larger actions in the world: Shouldn't we use our time and energy to help make the world a better place to live?

Now, first I want to state that most passions can be pursued obsessively and selfishly, it can be: climbing (most of my rock climbing friends pursue it with single minded abandon), yoga, painting, writing, reading, TV watching, spectator sports enthusiasm, gardening, house renovation, Facebooking, checking email, sex, eating/not eating - ANYTHING can be pursued obsessively. So, why are committed runners so often viewed as selfish and self centered just because they struggle to carve out a little time to run everyday?

Here's what I hear from many, many people: Running is a selfish act. Runners are self absorbed, obsessed, selfish people who really need to do something useful with themselves. When I tell friends that I ran 20 miles, I'm often greeted with a disbelieving shake of the head - Some respond that way because they don't know why I would do that voluntarily. Others clearly believe that I'm wasting so much time that could be spent: with my family, at my job making more money, cleaning the house, cooking nutritious meals, replacing the faucets in the bathrooms (yes, they all need to be replaced!), - whatever - anything is more productive than running. I've battled with this notion/reaction for most of my life. And this issue becomes larger, particularly for women, once children are added to the picture. How can I justify leaving my precious baby/toddler/preschooler for an hour or more to do something selfish like run? Add to that the fact that I spent hour upon hour pushing my daughter over mile upon mile, in almost all weather conditions, for the first two years of her life (beginning when she was only 5 weeks old). Oh, the horror, the abuse.

In her 2005 article "Racing: Sensitive to the Selfishness: Looking for balance" in "Running Times" Gordon Bakoulis claims that: "There’s a significant selfish component to our running...especially when race day rolls around. We need our pre-race pasta dinner, our morning coffee made just right, our hour or more before the start to warm up, stretch, check out the course, and adjust our shoelaces half a dozen times. We depend on other people—often a loyal spouse or significant other—to deal with transportation, parking, children, gear, and logistics, and we expect race officials and volunteers to stock the portable toilets, accurately measure the course, run the timing system, and deal with any medical issues. After the race, we take more time to warm down, exercise our bragging rights, and consume post-race refreshments. To a large extent, this selfishness is necessary too—we need to eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand on race day to make all our training worthwhile...[It’s] important that we all recognize the necessary selfishness of competitive running, and balance that focus with a generosity of spirit when and where we can. Many runners give back by volunteering at races and serving in the leadership of their local running clubs. They also, I’ve found, tend to be selfless in supporting the endeavors, both running and otherwise, of their self-sacrificing friends and family. Running is a great gift, and we can’t help but give back."

Of course when we pursue something with a passion we need others to work with us, to support us, to be there when we need them - and I think most people want this for themselves and they want to offer the same support for those they care about. It's a issue of give and take that all good/healthy relationships require if we are to become our best and bring out the best in those we love. This is not unique to running.

In the Lore of Running Tim Noakes discusses the "Selfish Runner's Syndrome" and warns his readers against succumbing to this milady. He notes that for the average runner, one who may be competitive but not elite, balance must be found especially with regard to work and family commitments. He seems to say that it's okay for the champion athlete to be selfish, but the mid-packers need to reel in the tendency to obsess too much. He suggests that serious running be limited, either yearly, or seasonally. That running should not interfere with family weekend and evening recreation, household chores and responsibilities - doing so, as Noakes puts it, "provides your family with a tangible reminder that they come second".

What does Noakes mean when he says that: running should not interfere with weekend and evening entertainment, household chores and responsibilities? I want to argue that everyone has a right to pursue something that may "interfere" with these things a little bit. Maybe I don't vacuum the house everyday - so what? Perhaps if I stopped running I could make more money. How much money do I need? If I'm a better person, for myself, my friends, my family, and the larger world beyond, then isn't the sum total beneficial?

As someone who has devoted much of her life to the study and teaching of philosophy, and in particular, ethics, I often challenge myself to try to justify my actions rationally, often applying some well tested moral theories. I've used this "thought experiment" method to sort out many questions, usually just for fun, though it has on occasion motivated me to act in a way other than I had planned:

For Aristotle: Does running develop my virtuous character as an individual and as a member of the community? Well, running develops discipline, courage, modesty, and good temper. Running has also offered me the opportunity to participate as a political animal/member of the community through raising money for worthy causes (many races benefit worthwhile organizations and I've raised money on my own as well). Now, for Aristotle moderation is key - Moderation in all things (except in moderation ;). So, if I go off the deep end, concerning any pursuit, then I am not living a good human life. For John Stuart Mill, the good utilitarian maximizes the greatest quantity and quality of happiness for the greatest number of (sentient) beings. I am allowed to count myself, but I can't give my happiness any more weight then the happiness of anyone else. Again balance is called for here - If I run and it makes me happy, allows me to be a better parent and partner and member of the community, then that's fine. If, however, my running becomes so obsessive that I neglect my other responsibilities (to the point where others are harmed) then this action fails to satisfy the necessary requirements. For Immanuel Kant: "Can I will that everyone do what I'm doing?" Again, balance is called for. If I wouldn't want everyone to run all the time (like my spouse for instance - because if he's always running, I can't because someone has to watch the kiddo!) then I shouldn't do it either. Would I will that everyone run everyday? Yes. For how long? Oh, I'd say perhaps an hour or two per day depending on the day and the desires/plans/commitment concerning others that day. So, on the basis of these three moral theories (which really are the Big Three theories in moral philosophy) running at a fairly intense level seems completely acceptable and perhaps even desirable.

Of course, we can all go off the deep end where passion becomes obsession - but I want to suggest, especially to all the women out there who feel guilty every time they do something for themselves, that taking care of one's self shows the greatest care and concern for one's family, contrary to what Noakes appears to argue. I take time for myself. My husband takes time for himself. We give our daughter a great deal of our time. We also give her her own time. At this point in my daughter's young, 4 year-old life, I can think of few other better examples I can provide her than to give myself time and take care of my needs on my own. My daughter is PART of the family, not the CENTER of the family. We are a FAMILY made up of individuals who each have needs independent of the others. And, we ALSO have family needs. When any one part of the family unit is absorbed into another part, then the integrity of the whole suffers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Culture of the "Bucket List" - An Argument in Favor of Boston Marathon Elitism

We seem to live in a culture obsessed with collecting "experiences". We have "bucket lists" and as we collect an experience, we check it off the list. If you "google" "bucket list" you will find many seemingly well meaning people advising you on how to create a "bucket list" as: "one of the best ways to make sure that you use your time and resources in order to accomplish and experience what you really want out of life." (http://abundance-blog.marelisa-online.com/2010/05/21/bucket-list-ideas/). This is apparently the path to creating an ideal life, full and rich. On most lists you will find "run a marathon". So, if I really want to have a rich and full life I should run a marathon and then I can check that one off the list and move on to the next item.

The questions I pose today may be elitist. So be it. This is my Blog. Here goes: What counts as "running" a marathon? Should there be time cut-offs and qualifications expected from those competing/running in marathons?

In a 2006 Slate article "Running With Slowpokes", Gabriel Sherman states that: "Today, the great majority of marathon runners set out simply to finish. That sets the bar so low that everyone comes out a winner. Big-city marathons these days feel more like circuses than races, with runners of variable skill levels—some outfitted in wacky costumes—crawling toward the finish line. The marathon has transformed from an elite athletic contest to something closer to sky diving or visiting the Grand Canyon. When a newbie marathoner crosses the finish line, he's less likely to check his time than to shout, "Only 33 more things to do before I die!" Sherman bemoans this trend, and asks: if this is what it's all about "what's the point?" I have to say that I am sympathetic with her view.

In her November 2, 2009 The New York Times article,"A Marathon Run in the Slow Lane", Tara Parker-Pope presents her counter example. She tells readers about her own effort: "to transform myself from couch potato to runner and complete a fall marathon." She tells the tale of the back-of-the-packers, complete with "jogglers" (jogging jugglers) and runners donning Eiffel Tower suits. "It’s true that marathons around the country are getting slower, as more charity runners and run-walkers take part. In 1980 the average marathon time was about three and a half hours for men and about four hours for women, according to Running USA. Today, the averages are 4:16 for men and 4:43 for women. About 20 percent of the participants in the New York City Marathon take longer than five hours to finish." She seems to have the view that "it's all good". Slow runners have their own challenges, like being out on the course for twice as long. It's just as much an effort for the slow as the fast. To some extent she's correct - but those "joggling" and wearing Eiffel Tower costumes seem to be doing something other than running a marathon. What is their point? I just don't know. Perhaps I'm just too uptight.

If you look at the correlation between American marathon running times and the increasing popularity of running marathons, you will see that times have slowed as popularity grew. Now, the reasons for this are many, but the trend in marathoning is worrisome for anyone who actually takes running more seriously than something to be ticked off the bucket List. As I've written about in earlier posts, marathons of all kinds are filling up long before the gun goes off. The popularity of marathoning doesn't just effect the "big-city" marathons like Chicago and New York. Perhaps this is just sour grapes - I want a chance to run New York (yes, I'm whining!), and it's just tough watching people wearing Eiffel Tower costumes "running" a race I've wanted to run since I was 10 years old. I know, I will get there.

In Juliet Macur's 2009 The New York Times article "Plodders Have a Place, but Is It in a Marathon?" John Bingham, a runner who is known as the Penguin and is often credited with starting the slow-running movement, is quoted as saying “I have had people say that I’ve ruined the sport of running, but what I’ve been trying to do is promote the activity of running to an entire generation of people...What’s wrong with that?” I agree that getting more people running is both desirable and admirable. However, the question is: are the majority of these "runners" really runners, or are they people looking to check another item off the "bucket list" never to run again? And, does that even matter?

The number of people running marathons "just to finish" has increased dramatically over recent years. Celebrities like Oprah do it - so can you. I think that marathons (and half marathons, and 10ks and 5ks, etc.) should be something one RUNS - not walks - even if that running is very slow. Running a marathon is not something you do strolling along while chatting with your friends. I've seen this many times in marathons and shorter races. I find it irksome, 22 miles into a marathon, to have to navigate around walking groups of half marathon "runners" chit-chatting away, who started an hour after me and will finish a hour or more after me. I suppose my gripe is not with those who are "slow" but rather with those who decide that "running" a marathon is something they need to do once in their lives. They bring to running an attitude I find egregious because it lacks commitment and breeds mediocrity. I can be a slow runner and still be a runner. But I am not a runner by running once. It's an attitude thing. It's a habit. Our habits are what makes us who we are.

The British Utilitarian philosopher, John Start Mill, while arguing that we should always act in a way that maximizes happiness for the greatest number of sentient beings, drew a distinction between "higher" and "lower" pleasures. Higher pleasures challenge us and are difficult to achieve. We experience a higher pleasure when we try to master something that is difficult. Higher pleasures enhance our human capacity to experience our dignity as highly endowed beings. So pushing ourselves and pursuing challenges are key ingredients of a happy life. Aristotle argues that "Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” For Aristotle virtue or excellence is not a act, it is an aspect of one's character. It takes time, discipline, practice, desire, and good examples (other virtuous people) to emulate. The "bucket-List" approach seems to fail on both accounts. What we are left with are lower pleasures (it's easier to tick something off a list then to try top master that thing) and mediocrity - excellence is a habit developed over a lifetime.

There's been much discussion, grousing, and cheering, about the new qualifying times going it into effect for the 2013 Boston Marathon - and concerning the rolling admissions (fastest runners get first dibs) registration process beginning with the 2012 race (see qualifying times below). Lots of posts on sites like "CoolRunning" and "Active.com" reflect a split opinion among runners and others. Many who now see the times as unreachable dismiss Boston as an example of elitist snobbery. Others applaud the change, and maintain that standards need to be toughened further (especially for women). I have to count myself in the latter group. Boston is Boston. I missed qualifying in my first marathon in 1993 by a measly 40 seconds (I didn't know the qualifying time) but I didn't care, and had no intention or desire to run Boston. I do now. And the tough standards make it all the more appealing. This is not a desire to check Boston off on the "bucket List". It is the desire to continue to push myself as a runner, to compete with myself, to see what I can do, to become an excellent me (as a runner) - as excellent as I can become.

How do the old and new times compare?

2012 Qualifying Times (effective September 25, 2010)
Age Group Men Women
18-34 3hrs 10min 3hrs 40min
35-39 3hrs 15min 3hrs 45min
40-44 3hrs 20min 3hrs 50min
45-49 3hrs 30min 4hrs 00min
50-54 3hrs 35min 4hrs 05min
55-59 3hrs 45min 4hrs 15min
60-64 4hrs 00min 4hrs 30min
65-69 4hrs 15min 4hrs 45min
70-74 4hrs 30min 5hrs 00min
75-79 4hrs 45min 5hrs 15min
80 and over 5hrs 00min 5hrs 30min
*An additional 59 seconds will be accepted for each age group time standard. For example, a net time of 3:50:59 will be accepted for a 42-year-old woman.

2013 Qualifying Times (effective September 24, 2011)
Age Group Men Women
18-34 3hrs 05min 3hrs 35min
35-39 3hrs 10min 3hrs 40min
40-44 3hrs 15min 3hrs 45min
45-49 3hrs 25min 3hrs 55min
50-54 3hrs 30min 4hrs 00min
55-59 3hrs 40min 4hrs 10min
60-64 3hrs 55min 4hrs 25min
65-69 4hrs 10min 4hrs 40min
70-74 4hrs 25min 4hrs 55min
75-79 4hrs 40min 5hrs 10min
80 and over 4hrs 55min 00sec 5hrs 25min 00sec
*Unlike previous years, an additional 59 seconds will NOT be accepted for each age group time standard.
2013 Qualifying Times (effective September 24, 2011)

The Things That Change Us

“The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” ~ Goethe Sometimes we never "go back" to what we were before....