From the Wall Street Journal, 9/20/13, p. D10:
      By Kevin Helliker




Chevrolet News Photo/European Pressphoto Agency

A lack of competitiveness among younger runners is turning some races into parades.

Saying I finished in the top 15% of my age group in last month’s Chicago Triathlon is like bragging that I could outrun your grandpa. My age group was 50 to 54.

But against the entire sprint-distance field, I finished in the top 11%. That’s right: Team Geriatric outperformed the field.

I’d love to report that this reflects the age-defying effects of triathlon. But my hair is gray, my hearing is dull and my per-mile pace is slower than it used to be, even at shorter distances.

Rather, this old-timer triumph is attributable to something that fogies throughout the ages have lamented: kids these days.

They’re just not very fast. “There’s not as many super-competitive athletes today as when the baby boomers were in their 20s and 30s,” said Ryan Lamppa, spokesman for Running USA, an industry-funded research group. While noting the health benefits that endurance racing confers regardless of pace, Lamppa—a 54-year-old competitive runner—said, “Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it’s good enough just to finish.”

Now, a generational battle is raging in endurance athletics. Old-timers are suggesting that performance-related apathy among young amateur athletes helps explain why America hasn’t won an Olympic marathon medal since 2004.

Of the two Americans who won marathon medals that year, one—Deena Kastor, who is now 40—was the top finishing American woman at the marathon World Championships in Moscow last month. The other—38-year-old Meb Keflezighi—was the top American male finisher at the London Olympics marathon last year. Hunter Kemper, the 37-year-old winner of last month’s Chicago Triathlon, remains arguably America’s top triathlete as he aims for his fifth Olympics.

“Why isn’t any younger athlete knocking them down a notch?” said Lamppa.

Some observers see larger and scarier implications in the declining competitiveness of young endurance athletes. “This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be of concern to us all,” Toni Reavis, a veteran running commentator, wrote in a blog post this week entitled “Dumbing Down, Slowing Down.”

Median U.S. marathon finishes for men rose 44 minutes from 1980 through 2011, according to Running USA, and last year nearly 75% of road-race finishers were 44 or younger, with 25- to 34-year-olds representing the largest age group.

Last month, Competitor Group Inc. announced it would no longer pay appearance fees for professional runners to compete at its Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon and half-marathon series in the U.S. CGI still pays travel expenses and more for the elite.

But to some observers, that change contributed to a growing embrace of mediocrity.

“If you’re going to get just as much praise for doing a four-hour marathon as a three-hour, why bother killing yourself training?” asked Robert Johnson, a founder of, adding that, “It’s hard to do well in a marathon if your idea of a long session is watching season four of ‘The Wire.'”

But instead of fighting back, the young increasingly are thumbing their nose at the very concept of racing. Among some, it simply isn’t cool, an idea hilariously illustrated in a 2007 YouTube Video called the Hipster Olympics. In those Games, contestants do anything to avoid crossing the finish line—drink beer, lounge in the grass, surf the Web.

Yet something remotely akin to that is happening. Perhaps the fastest-growing endurance event in the country, the Color Run, doesn’t time participants or post results. “Less about your 10-minute mile and more about having the time of your life, The Color Run is a five-kilometer, un-timed race,” says its website.

Then there is Tough Mudder, a fast-growing series of obstacle-course challenges that proudly dispenses with an endurance-racing staple: the results page. “Since Tough Mudder is an event, not a race, we do not post the finish times on our site,” says the Tough Mudder website. Arguing that results pages detract from camaraderie, Tough Mudder adds that obsessing about finish times is “lame.”

That idea sounds downright un-American to Joe Desena, founder of the rival Spartan Race obstacle-course series. His competitors are timed and their results posted, with many aspiring to earn a slot in the Spartan World Championship this weekend. Likening to communism events that promote “hand-holding over competition,” Desena said, “How well is that everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality working in our schools?”

Desena also contends that eliminating timing chips and results pages is a sure way to increase profit—while shielding one’s customers’ names from competitors. For Spartan, the cost of tracking and posting performances is significant, he says. “If you can pull the wool over your customers’ eyes and convince them that communism is better, you can drop at least $40,000 to your bottom line every race,” he said.

Of course, there are countless super-elite young athletes. And only because the young have no need to prove they’re not old was I able to outrace so many of them last month. Still, apathetic competition offers little comfort to some aging athletes.

After finishing last month’s Virginia Beach half marathon in the top 2% of the 50-54 age group, Brendan Reilly was shocked to find he’d made the top 1% of the overall field—despite running 27 minutes slower than the personal best he’d set more than two decades earlier.

“I wasn’t thrilled,” said Reilly, a sports agent in Boulder, Colo., adding that “races are turning into parades.”


About horowitzrun

Jeff is a certified running, cycling, and triathlon coach, and is the author of "My First 100 Marathons" (Skyhorse Press 2008) and "Smart Marathon Training" (Velo Press 2011). An obviously addicted runner, Jeff has run at least one marathon in every state and on 6 continents, including marathons in South Africa, China, Bangkok, and Antarctica. Jeff is available for group, one-on-one, and virtual coaching. Options include: 1. Basic Training Plan. This includes a customized training schedule geared towards a goal race, with a detailed running schedule that would include all distances and target times for each workout, including speedwork, tempo, and endurance sessions. 2. Complete Fitness and Race Plan. This includes the plan listed above, plus the non-running workouts and drills that runners need for better overall fitness and performance. You would get strength & core workouts, as well as run-specific training drills and stretches. 3. Virtual Coaching. This includes all of the above, implemented on a week-by-week basis. We review each week's progress at week's end so that adjustments can be made. The program is tailored to suit you right up to race day. It involves more contact, on a weekly or even daily basis. 4. Full Coaching for athletes in the Washington DC area. All of the above, plus a weekly workout together including speedwork, drills, and strength training. 5. Individual track sessions. One-on-one track-based workouts. Contact Jeff for pricing.
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  1. Eric says:

    Hi Jeff – It’s interesting that this so called “embrace of mediocrity” comes on the heels of the Boston Marathon’s tightening of its qualification standards, due in part to the increase in the number of runners that are able to meet the prior standard.

    Rather than seeing a decline in the average, perhaps its better to look at it as a surge in numbers for two very different types of participants that should be treated as different groups. The competitive athletes are getting more talented, and the recreational participants are having a blast. If the race directors want, they can easily segregate the two by asking the simple question on the race application. Most people know who they are among the two…

    As a runner that has participated in races after peak-training and for casual reasons or to support charities, I’m particularly insulted by the apparent perspectives of Robert Johnson, Joe Desena and other competitive Die Hards that runners must adopt the same mindset as they do in order to be considered legitimate participants. To Desena’s observation that “convincing people that communism is better” is some sort of deception, I would counter that perhaps his idea of the purpose of a race is not the same as everyone’s and frankly holds no standing relative to the people that are happy to enroll in races that make them feel accepted. These runners are not looking for the same praise as the top finishers, they simply see the road in front of them as being large enough for everyone.

    The increase in weight and decrease in general activity of the average American is cause for much greater concern than the so-called loss of our collective competitive edge. I think the running snobs that wish to degrade the participation of the non-competitive runners need to get their priorities in order.

    • horowitzrun says:

      Thanks for your comment, Eric! I agree with you; even as the authors complain about the “laziness” of the current crop of runners, American elite runners have been more competitive now on the international scene than they had over the previous 2 decades. AS you said, the competition is there for those who want it, but now many people who would never have run before can get on the roads just for fun, and that’s a good thing.

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