I have a box that I keep sentimental bits and pieces in for safe keeping. There’s the usual flotsam and jetsam of life: a ticket to my first Broadway musical, the tassel from my high school graduation mortar board, a funny postcard from my mom, a plastic Mickey Mouse, my girl guide pins and so on. Hiding in the box are also two mementoes from two sporting events I participated in: my first ten mile road race and my first (and only) rowing medal.
I hear a lot about how everyone wins these days, from school yard sports days to intramural sports. But what if you signed up for a race and no one was there to see you cross the finish line? What if you forked over your cash, and there was no medal because they ran out? What if you registered hoping for a personal best and the timing mats were gone so no one, including yourself knows your official time? Or the most most worrisome, you were promised water stations and sign posts, and neither were available by the time you reached the designated areas?
Hard to believe but these are all true stories as reported in this open letter to race directors published a few days ago. That ten mile road race I ran back in 2003? You do run on a road, and for the first two hours, the race route is closed to traffic. Go longer, as many walkers and some slower runners do, and you have to hope for the best as the road re-opens and the cars move in. But is it really fair though that only the elite athletes get all the perks — the water, the cheers, the medals, the time chips etc?
I understand time limits and I know many of these races depend on volunteers and the goodwill of the residents in the neighbourhoods these races go through. I really do. The first year I ran the Tely Ten, back in 2003, there were about 1400 participants. In the 2018 race, there were almost 4100 runners, walkers, and wheelers. That’s a whole lotta people getting their fit on.
Even though there’s three times as many people, the actual time difference for the back of the pack has gone from three hours and 17 minutes to three hours and 33 minutes. That’s only a 16 minute difference. So why are the water stations packed away, the roads opened, etc?
Part of me suspects this is the kind of anti-amateur athlete bias we see in other sports. I still remember the dismissal female rowers got for their Regatta efforts in some media coverage. They were only in it to lose weight or look good opined a few, both on and off the record.
Perhaps the feeling is if you can’t train enough to keep up with those who can run a 10 mile race in under 90 minutes, you aren’t a real athlete? Maybe people think you aren’t committed to your fitness goals or you aren’t training hard enough to keep up.
Whatever the reason, there’s a growing chorus out there saying every participant should have the opportunity to finish a race on equal footing with the same treats, water, supports, medals and timers whether you lead the pack or bring up the rear. Especially if you have paid for the privilege of being in a particular competition.
While I wasn’t best pleased to discover there would be cars in the roadway as I headed into the homestretch of my first real race, I did get my official time. I cannot imagine the feeling of having run a race and learning I had been bumped from the chip because I wasn’t fast enough. I can’t imagine not having water on a super muggy race day and having to depend on the kindness of strangers or making sure I could carry enough to keep me going. I cannot think how I would feel if I lost my way on a race course because the signs got picked up sooner rather than later.
We talk a lot here in Canada and also in the US about the need to become fitter so we can reverse the trend of fatter kids and obese adults. We have started having conversations on how we can best support access to affordable modes of exercise and sport and make them safe and inclusive spaces as well. And yet, when it comes to events that help us set benchmarks and allow us to compete with others, why do we have to treat the back of the pack with less respect than those at the front?
As race planners look ahead to 2019, we have to find a way to make sure everyone has a chance to compete on a fair playing field. From rowing, I learned we all have to pull together to make the boat fly. It’s time we pulled together so everyone, including those at the back, get a fair shake too.
Martha gets her fit on through powerlifting and swimming.