Marathon season is upon us, and the hard-core runners are not happy. That’s because in recent years, a growing number of average running Joes have been entering marathons, with the modest goal of simply finishing the 26.2 mile races. Some have even been known to stop en route for lunch. Elite runners say the slowpokes “disrespect the distance” and have ruined the marathons’ mystique. “It’s a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours,” veteran runner Adrienne Wald tells The New York Times. “There used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore.” The serious runners are pushing race directors to establish cutoff times—six hours, say—after which the stragglers would no longer be counted. But I admit that as a former jogger proud to have “run” five miles at a shot (don’t ask me how long that took), my sympathies are with the plodders.
This debate may not seem momentous, but it actually speaks to the character of our nation. The question is, do we prohibit the masses from competing alongside elites, or do we foster as much participation as possible? It’s true that as more people of various levels of athleticism have entered marathons, median finishing times have been creeping up, and the marathon’s aura has dimmed. But so what? At one time, only people with certain pedigrees could enter the nation’s top universities and professions, but our democratic impulses eventually prevailed. If people whose bellies shake when they run want to compete in marathons, we should be cheering them on—and maybe even grabbing a bite to eat with them along the way.
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