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)


  1. Saw your link to this post on Active.com, and I hope you don't mind the comment.

    I think you raise a very interesting point. I see nothing wrong with Boston's qualification system and the organizers' desire to protect its elite status. I say this as someone who definitely considers himself a runner, but I admit one who currently has no real desire to qualify for Boston.

    I'm going to run my first marathon later this month (terrifying!) and I'm going to run the whole way. It'll take me about 4:45 and probably require 1 or 2 stretching breaks at the medical tent to work on my IT band, and I'll be a little disappointed with that time because a knee injury set back my training program considerably, but I still don't think I'll feel less accomplishment when (if) I finish.

    Different people get such different things out of running that it's hard for an event to be everything to everyone. Hopefully everyone who runs a marathon is getting something positive out of it, but you can say that about playing any other sport, too. Only a few are good enough for the major leagues. Boston is the Major Leagues...not everyone should expect to get there.

    But, as you try to qualify for Boston, and I wish you the best, you shouldn't have to trip over me and me 10mm pace, and I would rather not have to weave around the group of four guys dressed as leprechauns who are walking it, yet started in Wave 1 for some reason. I'd like to see better enforcement of the corral system at big races, and more use of (by race organizers) and adherence to them (by runners) of pace signs at 5Ks.

    And if someone is a run/walker, I have no problem with that. The Jeff Galloway folks will finish before I do. I just wish they'd be a little more attentive to what's around them as they shift into their walk portion.

  2. Brian - As I said, it's not speed that matters it's attitude (I don't consider myself very fast). When someone takes up running just to run a marathon so they can check it off their list and move on to sky diving, I have a problem with that. I suppose it's a bigger issue then just running - we seem to be living in a culture with a very short attention span - and I wonder how many of us really want to "master" something - and that could be running a 5 hour marathon - but it requires commitment to see where it might take you. I do have a problem with the folks walking along with their fanny-packs, three or four abreast, chatting away as runners try to weave around them. I've seen this much more in recent years. If you want to go for a walk, then go for a walk - but they don't seem to be challenging themselves a whole lot - perhaps it is I who does not get it. It's the "bucket list" approach that bothers me the most.
    Thanks for your comments! Good luck in your first Marathon. It's ALWAYS an adventure.

  3. ...wandered into this post.

    Its hard, isn't it? We want to say, "you can only run an actual marathon race if you can do this ______" But how do we fill in the blanks?

    I think your Hard Pleasure Challenge philosophy of John Stuart Mill is on to something.

    Running a good marathon (regardless of time) takes a certain amount of glycogen reserves which you can only get by running many many miles (at least 500 miles two months before the race).

    Running a good marathon takes a certain level of aerobic conditioning.

    Running a good marathon takes a certain level of lactate threshold training.

    I enjoy seeing record numbers of people running, but before you go do ANY race have you trained your body to meet the demands you place on it?

    Thank you for sharing. I think we're kindred spirits on this issue.

  4. Danny, thanks for your comment - I enjoy lots of seeing lots of people out there as well - and I don't care how fast they are going - but the idea that a person takes up running in order to run a marathon, makes it to the finish line, checks it off the "bucket list" and then drops running as quickly as it was picked up - that approach I'm suspicious of. I think some races should be reserved for "real runners" and by that I mean those who try hard (even if they are slow), push themselves, and even continue to do it long after cross the finish line. As JS Mill argues - the most difficult things are often the most enriching - and sticking with something is more difficult, challenging, and, in my view, rewarding.

  5. Thanks for the reply...I realize I might have missed your point a bit in the original post. I definately find it odd that someone would take up running just to run a marathon and then "check it off the list" and then be done with it. I very much agree w/you.

  6. Brian - lots of people do - compare the stats on the number of runners (people who call themselves runners and actually run on a fairly regular basis) and the number of people who run marathons. I suggest that there is probably a big difference between to two numbers.

  7. But who makes the rules? and what is the rule?

    You know what this sounds like to me? The Masters championship @ Augustus. We need a private arena, funded by private individuals who will provide organized races for the privileged (but not necessarily the elite).

  8. Danny, my point is a philosophical one, not a logistical one - I'm just saying that the trend says something, I believe, about our culture - one that I don't find very desirable - we seem to focus on checking things off our lists rather then pursuing things we're passionate about and willing to commit to and sacrifice for. This is as much social criticism as anything else ;)

  9. I found your post through Salon and I must admit I'm quite disheartened by your post. Am I somehow less of a person or a runner if the marathon I am currently training for may be my one and only? I am 32 and a mother of 5, juggling work, kids and training. I took up running one year ago. I have competed in a dozen 5ks, 10k, 2 half marathons, and a few sprint triathlons. I have continuously chipped away at my times. I may not be a fast elite runner, but I AM A RUNNER. Am I a disgrace because a marathon is on my “bucket list”? Really?!?!?

    I have learned from my 2 half marathons and current marathon training, that my body isn’t going to let me regularly compete in the marathon distance. I am on track for a 5 hr marathon. I can see the eye rolling now. Who knows, maybe I may decide to do more. How can I know if I don’t ever run that first one?

    I promise to try not to get in your way, and then I will quietly go back to the shorter distances. Sorry that I and the other slow pokes have irked you and diminished your ability to run a good race. I will continue to be in awe of those of you who can do it, and do it fast. I'll try not to take it too personal, that my admiration is returned with judgmental snobbery. Little did I know, I thought I had joined a sport… not ruined it.

  10. I am not saying that you are not a runner. What I am talking about here are those people who do something to check it off the list and then move on to some other item to check off. I have a problem with the whole "bucket-list" mentality - You clearly don't fit that mold. I don't care how fast or slow someone runs a marathon - I would NEVER roll my eyes at a 5 or 6 or 7 hour marathon - my target here is an attitude that some bring to these endeavors. I am not irked by the "slow-pokes" as you refer to them - These things are relative - I'm not very fast, but I try. I do not believe, and I am not saying that slow runners have ruined the sport - I welcome them and anyone who loves to run!

    You seem a bit defensive, and I'm sorry that you've taken this in this way. If you read any of my other posts you may come to understand that I am not judging you.

    That said, I do believe that there is a place for something like Boston.

  11. As a runner with the twitter name @ElitistRunner I (not surprisingly) agree. I was happy when I read about Boston's new rolling entry, even if it means I may not get in after working very hard to qualify--I only qualified by two minutes. Still, just gives me a new goal to shoot for... something not everybody will be able to do. Sure, everybody can COMPLETE a marathon, not everybody can do what I can. But, of course, there are people out there who can do a lot more than I can... it's what makes the world go 'round. I'll never be an elite runner, I'll stick to being an elitist runner. Without my elitism, my accomplishments wouldn't mean much.

  12. Stumbled upon this after reading NPR's article on the Boston Marathon. At first I felt a little offended, but as I finished reading your post, I totally get what you are saying. I'll never be an elite runner, the best I can usually hope for in a marathon is 4 1/2 hours. I prefer the half marathons because I experience fewer runner injuries to slow me down throughout the year, which is where I pick up your point, because I am looking FORWARD to those many runs I will have in the FUTURE. It's a lifestyle many of us hold near and dear, not to be picked up for six months, then discarded, because we accomplished some ultimate goal and now find it's time to move on to one of the 20 other things on our list.
    I also agree about the walkers! I love walkers and think it's great they are getting out there and doing it, but they often make courses almost hazardous! Why do so many insist on lining up behind the seeded runners during large races. I ran in a 8000 participant race recently that had a completely separate road for walkers to line up on, yet half of them insisted on lining up with the runners near the front....dodging them is maddening, especially when they form a wall of 5+ across and chatter away....*shakes head*

  13. I can understand being annoyed by people who casually participate in something you take seriously. And I wish you good luck solving this. I might suggest that you hang around the finish line for an extra hour or two and cheer for the people behind you. They have their story written all over their face and their tears might move you to tears and help you accept their presence at your event. Maybe the marathon isn't special enough to you anymore and you need to move on to bigger and better things, or maybe you feel like these bucket list people are not putting in the effort that you are and they don't deserve this honor. I understand this, I really do. I will tell you my 4:45 marathon was the proudest moment of my life, I conquered obesity and several other issues and worked really hard for that. I may not have trained right or as long as you but I did my best and I put in lots of miles so I could get where I was. I'll never forget it and I am okay with saying I may never do it again. That makes me a bucket list marathoner I guess, because I'm not fond of running but I started it and took it to a level I thought I couldn't do. I may not be a "marathon runner", but "I ran a marathon" and that can never be undone. Yes I took a few moaning and groaning walk breaks after mile 22 but I covered the distance, the same distance the elite runners covered. To my non running or 5k running friends I AM ELITE, even though I know they could do a better job than me if they tried. I worked hard and it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I respect and admire people who can do lots of marathons and I would say that anyone who has done ONE and ONLY ONE marathon does not see themselves as being on the same level as you - despite having checked "the marathon" off their list. People who check if off their bucket list cover the same distance you did. If they go home sore and say "never again", you should be proud that you are able to come back and do another one when they can't. It's not the attitude that you think it is, it's about reaching a pinnacle in an endurance sport that is not in your comfort zone. If you are comfortable running a marathon, you should check a century ride or double century off your own list and see how special it is to go way outside your comfort zone to complete an event like this.

    If you want to go back to the old days, I would say try the 50k. Bucket listers usually get their butts kicked in the marathon and don't go for the longer distances. The 50k and 50 miler are like the marathons of 30 years ago. They are hard to find, less organized, fewer runners, and less supported. They are hard core runners going the distance. In 10 years the 50k will be on everyone's bucket list so run them now while you can.

  14. Royanna and Sassy - Glad you got my point here - I think that there is something to be said about why and how someone approaches a challenge. If that means I'm a running snob, so be it. I believe that we use this approach for far too many things in our culture. Where is the effort, discipline, dedication, sacrifice? I don't care if I run a 6 hour marathon if I am REALLY trying (and staying out of the way of others - that's the courteous thing to do).

  15. Al - First - I have "hung out at the end of races" I volunteer at races, I run with "Girls on the Run" - and I am not, in general, talking about those who challenge themselves - I've said that clearly, already. I will not be checking things off my bucket-list, because I don't have one. My aim here is to point out something about our culture in general - the idea that I have to have lots of "experiences" just to say that I've had them. Let me give you an example - several years back I was at the Louve in Paris standing in front of the "Mona Lisa" with the masses. Everyone was taking phone videos of the painting, but no one seemed to actually be LOOKING at the painting. They can tell all their friends that they "saw" the "Mona Lisa" but did they SEE it. I also see this at my daughter's school during special concerts - parents video tape the concert but don't watch the concert. Sorry but I don't get the collecting "experiences" mentality.

  16. I just read this, via your link on FB Runners. I go into every race to PR, but I'm a runner. I'm constantly striving to better my performance through training. I hate speed work, therefore, I attack it all the more eagerly. Conversely, my loathing of speed work has led me to ultras, which is a challenge of an entirely different type.
    My personal belief in your post is this: if "crossing something off of the bucket list" leads people to be more active, I'm all for it. I live in MI, and spend many hours in the gym, on the dreadmill, during the winter months. I see many "out of shape" people there, but congratulate them (in my head) for putting forth the effort. If crossing a marathon off of the bucket list is something one wants to do, one will have to get into some modicum of shape to do so. So I say, "good for them." Hopefully it leads them to continue in the fitness vain.

    1. I agree with you 100% when it actually leads to a change that sticks. But I see a lot of people (and the stats support this) that do something to cross it off the list and then stop. perhaps they move on to something else, I don't know. I hope they keep moving! My only argument is that there is a place for something like Boston.


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