Every Body Welcome

A frequently-played VISA spot during this year’s Olympic Games features world-class pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva; it describes how she “grew up dreaming of hearing the roar of the crowd as a gymnast … but she grew too tall.”
Apparently once Isinbayeva crested 5 feet, her chances of becoming an Olympic gymnast became rather slim.  Indeed, female all-around champion Gabby Douglas stands a mere 4’11” – and she’s actually tall in comparison to the 4’9” average height of the Chinese women’s team.
Other sports are exclusive on the opposite extreme.  Imagine being a swimmer trying to reach the wall ahead of 6’1” Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps’s 6’7” wingspan.  Basketball players, volleyball players, rowers, and countless other sports filter out hopeful participants through prohibitive size and strength requirements.
And then there’s distance running, which is pretty much open to anyone who wants to try it.
This may sound odd at first, as conventional wisdom usually holds that runners should be small and skinny, but a closer look at world class athletes tells a different story.  Just like recreational plodders, elite runners come in a wide variety of heights, and it’s unlikely that someone’s stature should ever disqualify him or her from competing.
Consider female marathoners.  In the 2000’s the sport was dominated by Kenyan Tegla Loroupe, who stands barely five feet tall and might weigh 90 pounds dripping wet.  However, Loroupe isn’t the world record holder; that honor goes to 5’8” Paula Radcliffe, an indomitable force who represented Great Britain at four Olympic Games.
The men’s marathon record is held by 5’5” Patrick Makau, but for many years it was the property of 6’ Paul Tergat.  The record books of most major marathons will show an even wider range: the shortest champion in the 116-year history of the Boston Marathon is 5’1” Yun Bok Soh of South Korea, who is more than a full foot shorter than the tallest winner, 6’3” Kenyan Robert Cheruiyot, who won the race four times in the last decade.
Last weekend’s men’s 10K gold and silver medals weren’t won by tiny African runners, but by 5’9” Mo Farah of England and 5’11” American Galen Rupp.  The US record holder prior to Rupp was 6’1” Chris Solinsky, whose best 5K time is slower than 6’3” Craig “Buster” Mottram of Australia.  And if Buster ever lined up against America’s best 1500m runners, he’d be two inches shorter than 6’5” Andrew Wheating.  Incidentally, one of Wheating’s 1500m teammates in London is 5’5” Leo Manzano.  Do you still think height makes a difference for speed?
Even over extreme distances, smaller isn’t necessarily better.  One of the brightest talents in ultrarunning is 5’7” Kilian Jornet, but his accomplishments pale in comparison to 6’3” Scott Jurek, who won the brutal Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run a record seven times.
Granted, many world-class distance runners are remarkably skinny: Buster Mottram carries only 160 pounds on his 6’3” frame, and Cheruiyot is even more slender at 150lbs.  Galen Rupp looks like he might snap in half if you hug him forcefully.  However, this is one of those chicken-and-egg scenarios that’s difficult to quantify.  Are they elite runners because they are naturally skinny, or are they skinny because of all the miles they’ve logged to become elite runners?
The answer isn’t that important; what’s more critical to realize is that there’s virtually no body type that’s unsuitable for running.  In other words, don’t worry about what you look like – just get out there and do it!

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