Why Have Marathon Runners Gotten Slower?

A current hot topic of conversation on our local message boards as well as on letsrun is the decline of quality depth in local racing and in marathoning more generally. In the late 70s to mid 80s, there was a running boom, much like there is today. That boom had some different qualities, but in some ways I believe that it came from a similar source. In the late 70s to early 80s there was a sense of general unease. Economic conditions were uncertain, and the national mood was anxious. Perhaps these general social conditions put people on the move. They make us nomadic as a culture, looking for a better way of life.

Also, in running, the relationship between effort and results is clear. It is a good proxy for the American dream--you put work in and you get results out. When this dream is jeopardized by economic uncertainty and high unemployment, running offers, perhaps a way to remake the connection between effort and results.

Despite what I see as these general similarities in the motivating causes of the running boom, there are some real differences in the nature and shape of these two different booms. In the 70s the iconic figure of the distance runners was Steve Prefontaine. The representative runner was young, male, defiant, and individualistic. Running was a way to escape social pressure, a way to take individual control over one's life. The country was captured by folks like Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar. These were household names, iconic figures who were admired not just because of their achievements, but also because they helped a nation understand itself and perhaps remake for itself the connection between individual effort and results. They were also elite. They inspired, but their story was about individual achievement, perhaps in spite of mediocre social conditions.

Nowadays, the iconic figures of the running boom are folks like Oprah Winfrey, Dean Karnazes, and Chris MacDougall. They are concerned more with positive health effects than with wrenching another few seconds off of their 10k PR. They are also concerned more with how running is representative of a certain lifestyle rather than how to get faster. Today running for the most part is understood as a social event, connected with charity causes, and its value is taken in terms of its social benefits rather than in terms of the achievements of individuals. There is more of an attempt these days to cash out the value of running in terms of the other challenges we face in ordinary life. Perhaps this reflects a different, less elitist, notion of achievement. It is also, not incidentally, a notion of achievement that is more marketable to ordinary folks. Not everyone can be Prefontaine. His life is interesting because it is exceptional. Oprah, Dean K, MacDougall--these folks are more like us; at least this is how they present themselves. Their challenges are ours, broadly speaking--how to lose weight, how to run without injury. Not how to run fast, but how to keep on going. They inspire, but their stories are pitched as ordinary folks overcoming ordinary challenges, not as extraordinary folks overcoming a mediocre social milieu.

When this discussion comparing the two epochs arises, an assertion is often made that today's runners are softer than the runners of the past. The lack of 2:20 marathoners and 15:00 5kers is taken as evidence that somehow we have lost our will as a nation, or as a recent poster put it, "If Teddy Roosevelt came back and looked at this sad sack of America that we have today, he'd whip us into shape or start a revolution."

I was born in 1976, so I came of age in the 1990s when distance running was at its relative low point. I have no experience of what times were like for adults in the late 70s and early 80s. So, I cannot judge their toughness. I admit that I remain impressed by the old school attitude of those runners, the emphasis on simplicity, on training hard, and racing with guts. I esteem runners like Prefontaine and Bill Rodgers, and I look up to local folks like Terry Coker who was getting it done back in the day.

Maybe my generation is softer, but I believe that many of those who look to the past to denigrate the present make a fatal error. They take the standards of success and values of the past to be the measuring blocks of current conditions. This method of analysis always ends in a judgment of the decline of civilization. My view is that not only must each generation strive to be tough and strive for success, but we must also work to transform the values by which success and failure are judged so that they are more adequate to the actual problems that we face.

This means a few things, concretely:
1) It makes sense today, when we are encountering a major health crisis, that our running be thematized first and foremost in terms of the health of the runners who take up the practice. This is the problem many runners are trying to solve, unfortunately. This problem is not rooted in a lack of willpower, but in a food production and distribution system that encourages and rewards overconsumption. This problem was born in the 70s and 80s, but it has tremendously disrupted the bodies of the American people in the last decade. Running, and the effort it requires, is one way of taking on this problem--a way that many folks have access to and which is successful and inspiring in many ways.

2) Running as a social event. In a world in which human interaction more and more frequently takes place through screens and in a sedentary position, it is no odd thing that folks would seek out running as a cure for the problems that such interactions produce. Every runner knows that we speak more freely, with greater humor, and more truthfully when our bodies are in motion. Sport does not only exist to test the limits of human achievement or even personal achievement. It also exists because we are better people to each other when we exercise together. Running is more social today because this is a social need.

3) Running as anti-elitist. In the 70s and 80s running fast was held in greater esteem than it is today. Many folks today are skeptical of the faster running crowd, even hostile to their values. They see elites as narcissists, caught up in an absurd and highly individualistic effort that carries no social benefit. Who really cares if you are fast? How does that make you a better person? These are anti-elitist attitudes, and they are perhaps a consequences of a society today that is skeptical of achievement. And why not? When the rich and powerful in contemporary life use those spoils to work for their own interests instead of providing for the common welfare, an anti-elitist attitude is healthy. In a society in which upward mobility is threatened, in which the rich get richer while the middle class spins their wheels, a little resentment towards those who do manage to achieve is not only understandable; it is likely rational.

Whether these changes in values are good or bad most likely depends on your perspective. My perspective is this: I think it makes more sense to see the changes in values as responses to a social scene that is quite different than it was 30 years ago. Running has changed, and the past will not return. It is we runners who have changed it, often unconsciously and without regard for the effects of those changes. We understand our own age by comparing it to the times that came before us. This is the only way we can take its measure. But, when taking that measure, we ought also to be attentive to the current conditions in which our practice takes place--and be wary of denigrating present actions only because they do not line up so precisely with the achievements of those who came before.

To return to the question that is the title of this post. Why have runners gotten slower? Well, which runners? Some have gotten slower--mostly the young male 2:20 marathon types. Others have gotten faster; our national elites have broken all the old distance records. Many more women are running, and running much faster. High school runners are now running faster. East African runners are running incredible times (and some Americans like Solinsky, Ritz, and Hall are closing the gap.) And finally, so many more people are actually running, which means that they too are faster.

The history of running is complex, not simple. How we narrate social change is colored by our political values, our personal values, our own experiences, our age, our gender, and our own identities as runners. Running is now more corporate, more materialistic, more mainstream than it has ever been. It is also more open, more diverse, more available to women, minorities, and ordinary people than it has ever been. Social change is never wholly positive or entirely negative. It is specific, complex, and ongoing--good for some, damaging to others. So it goes.


  1. Another great post.

    Fwiw, I've been running for 10 years and I've never run a race. I just don't see much connection between why I like running and why I might run a race.

    But I should probably get off my lazy but some time and try it!

  2. Was that a Vonnegut reference at the end?

  3. Hey Zach V

    You should definitely try it... there is probably a Jan 1 race in your area.

    Nice catch, brother!

    Happy holidays to everyone!

  4. Interesting thoughts Jeff.

    I pose that the eras of running are different and so a challenge to compare directly. Just like pitchers in baseball pre '69 to post '69 when they lowered the height of the mound. The context has changed and is difficult to correlate.

    For the past decade and a half, kids have to specialize in one sport. No room for anything else. So the one's that run are really good but others never get a chance to explore and pick it up until later in life. It's a sad direction IMO but that's the context I see.

    Good stuff as always.

  5. Hi Norm,

    I think it is a challenge, absolutely, and comparisons are bound to fail in a multiplicity of ways. But then again we can really only understand ourselves by attempting to make comparisons, however flawed.

    I agree with you that specialization could be a problem. I hope kids get a chance to try a bunch of different things when they are young--but also enjoy the chance to pour their heart into something, if they see fit.

    Thanks as always for your encouragement! And it was good to see you last week.

  6. I'll return the "Wow!" Thanks, Jonathan for reading and especially for commenting!!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What Is an Easy Run?

Eulogy for a Great Coach: Van Townsend

Hansons' Marathon Method and Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning -- the two aspects of marathon training