There better be reasons to participate if I’m not going to win, or I’d never have a reason to participate (given that my chances of winning are slim!). I just finished reading a fascinating book called Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run, by Matt Fitzgerald. It’s about the Ironman rivalry between Dave Scott, the first athlete to really dominate the Ironman triathlon (with six first place finishes), and Mark Allen, the one who (after several tries and much effort), eventually dethroned Dave Scott and went on to garner six titles himself.
The Ironman is that endurance race that originated in Hawaii, in the late seventies, with twelve participants in the first year. It’s a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and then a full marathon. At its inception, it was just about completing the thing. But when Dave Scott first took on the challenge in 1980, he wanted to turn it into a race.
Where finishing times in the first two years were over the eleven hour mark, Dave blasted the field, spending the entire race alone and taking first place in 9 hours, 24 minutes, and 33 seconds. The day he finished second to Mark Allen in 1989, he did the course in 8 hours, 10 minutes, and 13 seconds, just 58 seconds behind Allen.
Reading this book, you get into the mindset that winning is everything. It’s not enough to complete the gruelling race. It’s not enough even to complete it well. It’s all about winning, breaking records, pushing as hard as you can so you can beat the other guy.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the book and I got caught up in the drama. I felt badly for those poor dudes who, behind these two, had to settle for battling it out for third or fourth place in the Iron Man race in Hawaii. It was all very macho.
One topic that came up in Fitzgerald’s book and that I’ve heard in other circles as well (such as marathons), is whether the people who are aiming just to finish cheapen the race. It is, after all, a race. The rules of the game say that if you’re racing you’re supposed to be trying to finish as fast as you can and, while you’re at it, trying to beat the other competitors.
Sam pointed out quite some time ago that she thinks of her earlier self as her only real competition. See her post about that.
She also shared how she felt when a very competitive team trounced her team in the recreational soccer league she plays for in her post “It’s Just a Game.” The issue was that the team also played in a competitive league. They used the recreational league as practice.
Is there something wrong, unsportsmanlike (is there a gender neutral word for that?), with a team that is high-fiving, going for every goal they can, in a recreational league where they are clearly out-classing the other team? Should a competitive team even be allowed to play in a rec league? Sam thinks yes to the first, no to the second question.
In events like triathlons and marathons and so forth there are often two classes of competitors — the professionals or elite athletes and the “age group” competitors. But regardless of whether you’re pro or amateur, surely there is a place for people in the race who are not the ones who are going to win? Even Mark Allen didn’t win until his sixth attempt, for goodness sake!
So it doesn’t seem fair to say that the mere presence of those who don’t place cheapens an event. What people claim, rather, is that people who are not even trying to win but are just trying to finish somehow take away from the overall achievement of those who finish well.
In the early days of the Ironman, it was routine to spend a fair bit of time walking through the marathon. Remember, it began as a challenge to see if it could even be done, not to see how fast it could be done. In the first Ironman competition in 1978, only one person finished the marathon in under 4 hours. The rest who finished took between 4 and 8.5 hours.
One of Dave Scott’s reasons for not retiring earlier and for continuing to go back to the Ironman was that he didn’t want his legacy to be of the man who dominated “back in the day” when it wasn’t competitive. As an aside, his second place finishing time of 8:10:13 against Mark Allen in 1989 has only ever been beaten five times since.
Since marathons have attracted wide participation, the average finishing time is longer than it has ever been. Is that a bad thing? I don’t see why it should be. At the elite level, we can still see people testing the limits of what the human body can do, breaking records, etc. And at the level of the everyday athlete, we’ve got more people testing the limits of what their body can do, pursuing personal bests, extending their endurance from 5K to 10K to half marathon to marathon. Sounds all good to me.
I want to be a moderate here, and say that it’s possible to be super-impressed with the winners while also appreciating the effort of the finishers. I was totally humbled in my mid-summer triathlon that became a duathlon because so many women in the 60-65 age group beat my time by 20 minutes. It gives me something to aim for (if I can shave 2 minutes a year off of my time…), people to be impressed by, but didn’t in the least take away from my sense that I’d accomplished something just by completing the task set out for me that morning (especially since it wasn’t what I signed up for!).
So why participate if not to win? I can think of a few reasons:
1. It’s tons of fun.
2. It’s a training goal for participants at all levels. I wouldn’t make it out for runs and swims and bike rides nearly as often if I didn’t have the next triathlon on my calendar.
3. There is something about race day that brings out the best performer in people even if they aren’t going to win or place. I know that I’ve amazed myself each time I’ve raced.
4. It’s empowering.
5. Lots of events raise money for worthy charities. So you can pursue your fitness goals and support good causes at the same time. And there are lots to choose from. The Run for the Cure is not the only charity race even if they’re one of the loudest!
6. Finishing is something to feel good about. Look, when I started running, I couldn’t keep going for 2 minutes without needing a walk break. Now I can sustain over 20 minutes of running and I need just a minute or two of recovery walking before I can start up again. On race day, I can even do better than that.
7. It’s exciting to try new things. I never thought I’d get excited about triathlon. I just signed up on a lark at Sam’s urging. But now I love it! I love training for it and I am over-the-moon excited for September 15. Fingers crossed that the swim won’t get cancelled.