(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
April 1998 (retitled in the magazine). Occasionally – okay, make that often – I come across an article I’d like to have written myself. One such, by a writer I don’t know, appeared in a magazine I don’t normally read that covers a sport I don’t practice.
Bill Gray wrote this piece in Tennis magazine. With a few word changes its message fits running.
“I don’t know about you,” it begins, “but I’m through apologizing for Our Game because it isn’t a mass-consumption sport and doesn’t have a Tiger [Woods] in its tank to fuel it into 21st-century mega-popularity. And I’m weary of the outside mass media crowing about Our Game’s ‘demise’.”
Gray decries attempts “to make Our Game more like the other games... We’re not like the other games. What team-sports fans and the outside media that obsessively cover other games don’t understand is our unique culture. In tennis we’d rather play Our Game than watch it lying down like the team-sports couch potatoes.”
The same could be said for Our Sport. We need to promote running for what it is instead of apologizing for what it isn’t. It isn’t and might never be a high-ratings media attraction, but its strength is in its numbers of participants. Our tribe keeps growing, whether the outside media choose to pay any attention or not.
I’m not saying not to watch the mass-consumption sports. I casually consume several of them myself.
If nothing else, this viewing reminds us of how different those sports are from ours. We see that Our Sport attracts us for all that it does not have in common with the others:
No balls or sticks. No one hits or throws anything. Here the action centers on people, not objects.
No timeouts. Once a race starts, it doesn’t stop for commercials or any other excuse.
No overtime. A race ends at its finish line, with no one ever asked to go the extra mile to settle a score.
No scoring. Racing results aren’t figured by points but are a simple matter of time.
No substitutions. A weary runner can’t call for relief, and an eager but less talented one doesn’t have to warm the bench.
No cuts. Runners are never told to clean out their lockers and not to come back because they aren’t good enough.
No teams. There’s no one to hold you back when you’re running well, and no one to carry you when you’re doing poorly.
No sex-separation. In football and baseball the men play and the women cheer. In running they all race at once.
No referees. At least none in striped shirts who can blow a whistle during a race and assess a penalty on the spot.
No rules. At least none more complicated than filing an entry, starting at a scheduled time and place, and staying on the course for the full distance.
No fighting. When was the last time you saw two runners stop in midrace and settle an argument with their fists?
No stadiums. Spectators don’t sit in box seats. They stand beside the streets.
No ticket sales. Spectators don’t pay to watch road runners. Runners pay to entertain the fans.
No crowds. Boston and New York City Marathons aside, rare is the road race where the fans outnumber the runners.
No booing. People who watch our sport from the sidelines don’t act on the urge to verbally abuse a runner they don’t like.
No betting. Las Vegas publishes no “line” on our events, and no office pools ride on the results.
No off-season. We never have to wait six months for the races to start again; there’s always one next week, somewhere.
No one winner. When winning means meeting personal standards, a race has as many potential winners as it has entrants.
No clear losers. When losing means falling short of personal standards, the first finisher can “lose” and the last one can “win.”
No retirement. Runners never need to quit as they grow older and slower, and rarely do. They can always feel young again within a few years by graduating into a new age-group.
2018 Update. Still not fully retired. And I’m guessing that any of you who read this piece 20 years ago aren’t either. Running still gives us this way to win.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]