Lessons From a Loser

Of all the cardinal sins a runner can commit, the greatest is claiming to run a marathon when you really haven’t. The commandment is clear: Thou shalt not call thyself a marathoner if Thou hast not covered the entire 26.2 miles.

Dane Patterson, a contestant on this season’s Biggest Loser, learned that lesson the hard way last month, and incurred not only the wrath of God, but of thousands of angry marathoners. His is a cautionary tale that highlights a couple of vital lessons for novice runners.

First, some background. After being voted off of the show’s Feb 25th episode, the follow-up piece showed Patterson running a marathon in Arizona. Viewers saw him cross the finish line, and wear a finisher’s medal as the crowd cheered him. Meanwhile, a caption reported that he completed the race in 3 hours, 53 minutes, and Patterson’s voiceover described it as “the most amazing experience of my life to run an entire marathon.”

It was a great story, except for one problem: he didn’t actually do the whole marathon.

Patterson entered the marathon and ran about 17 miles before NBC producers realized that he wouldn’t make the finish line before the race finished and the sun went down. Somewhere around mile 23, Patterson agreed to ride the NBC van to the finish, where he was filmed crossing the line victoriously.

Like other scoundrels of the information age, Patterson’s undoing came via the Internet. Two runners reported on their personal blogs that they saw Patterson and his wife get out of the van just before the finish line. Mainstream media picked up the story, and NBC was soon apologizing for creating a staged accomplishment.

After the controversy broke, Patterson reasserted that he only rode for 3 miles in the van - but to anybody who has ever run a marathon, it didn’t matter. He became a lightning rod for an angry mob of runners accusing him of the highest form of treason.

The whole fiasco raises two interesting points – the first of which is that almost everybody is trying to do a marathon these days.

Twenty years ago, new runners targeted 10K races as incentives to get in shape; today, the marathon is an entry-level race. Training programs (many of which are fundraisers) promise to turn sedentary people into marathoners in a period of weeks. 10Ks and half-marathons aren’t impressive enough anymore; everyone is reaching for the brass ring right out of the gate.

While the notion is admirable, this isn’t always a good thing in practice. The injury risk for a novice runner starting a marathon program is quite high – and many of those who do complete the race find the process so dreadful that they never return to it.

Which brings us to the second lesson from Patterson’s story: the importance of setting manageable goals.

A new runner would probably benefit more by building up to the marathon challenge slowly, after successfully completing shorter distances over a longer period of time. Your chance of long-term success is much greater, which should be the primary reason you start running in the first place. Besides, it’s not like marathons are going away anytime soon – your goal race will still be there for you to tackle when you’re properly prepared.

We’re glad Dane Patterson was able to run 23 miles last month. He is trying another marathon in April, and we sincerely wish him the best of luck in finishing it. Above all else, we wish him the many years of health and happiness that dedicated runners have come to enjoy.


Running Innovations

These days, it seems like technology is taking over every aspect of our lives. Even the sport of running – the simplest activity imaginable – is susceptible to the avalanche of high-tech innovation, as Mike learned at the 2009 Running USA conference in San Diego last month.

That’s not to say that all of the applications are beneficial; in fact, many of them seemingly exist just to make an otherwise basic pursuit overwhelmingly complicated.

For example, you can now download something called iMapMyRun for your iPhone to help measure your distance, speed, and average pace with GPS tracking. Because as we all know, you really can’t have peace of mind on a run unless you’re carrying your iPhone. The product is marketed as “Your Redefined Running Partner,” so be sure to let your current partners know that their services are no longer necessary.

Many years ago, races started with someone yelling “GO!” and the first person to the finish line was the winner. Then we evolved to the more sophisticated method of giving every finisher a numbered popsicle stick. When we first strapped timing chips to our shoes, we felt like we’d entered the Space Age – but nowadays, race timing continues to evolve exponentially.

One company offers modular timing systems that are flexible and scalable. Another uses a disposable RFID tag placed on each runner’s shoe. Another has a J Chip attached to the race bib to time the athlete’s torso instead of his or her feet. We have no idea what any of this technical jargon means – but we’re eagerly awaiting the inevitable ZZ tag as all the letters of the alphabet are eventually exhausted.

Modern timing systems also allow runners to have their split times during a race e-mailed or texted to their relatives and friends, via desktop, laptop, cell phone, or other hand-held devices. This way anyone wanting to see you at the finish line can wait until the last possible moment to finish their latte before heading to the finish line to scream your name.

Besides being technical, many races are striving to be greener as well – which is the kind of technology we all appreciate. For instance, some race bibs are now recyclable, and others have self-adhesive to avoid the use of safety pins – an especially nice perk for small children doing youth races. You can even buy race bibs that have seeds in them, so that instead of recycling the bib after the race, you can plant it in your garden, water it, and a short time later you have flowers. Honestly, we’re not making this stuff up.

Technology is also changing the way races are promoted. Several speakers told race directors to create “virtual velocity” for their races by generating buzz about the event on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, blogs, running forums, and other on-line communities. One went as far as to say that, “Any race that doesn’t use virtual velocity is in the dark ages.”

Listen to these sales pitches for long enough, and it seems pretty amazing that we were ever able to run races and enjoy them without all these modern advances. While we appreciate any development that improves the experience for race committees or participants – as well as anything that helps the environment – we never want to lose sight of the basic qualities of running that we fell in love with in the first place.


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