Photo of Aspen Vista trail by taylorandayumi/Flickr
The other weekend I ran a trail race for the first time since moving to New Mexico earlier this year. It didn't go well.
I'm not in good shape, which I blame on adopting a puppy who likes to chew my hands, hates sleeping, and has these namby-pamby "growth plates" that won't close for another year and mean he'll "get arthritis" if I take him running. (I predict a return to glory once he can train with me next summer. So, watch out.) Making matters somewhat worse, the course I ran started at 10,000 feet and climbed 5.8 miles to 12,000 feet, an elevation I've exceeded only one other time in my life, then returned to the start.
On Wednesday, author Chris McDougall posted a critique of Lance Armstrong's running form on his blog. McDougall is famous for writing Born to Run, the 2009 bestseller about Mexico's Tarahumara Indians and barefoot running. It's hard to overstate how influential that book has become in the two years since it was published, and McDougall deserves a great deal of credit for bringing hugely important ideas about barefoot running to the sport's mainstream.
Last month, the International Association of Athletics Federations decided that women who run alongside men in road races cannot set world records. The IAAF now believes that male pacers give women an undue advantage, and have made the incredible decision to remove male-paced times from its record books. Officially, that disqualifies the standing world record, Paula Radcliffe's 2:15:25, which she set while running alongside two Kenyan men at the London Marathon in 2003, and elevates the world's third best time, 2:17:42, which Radcliffe ran in 2005 on her own. The IAAF has been concerned about male-paced female records for some time, and became especially concerned when Kenya's Mary Keitany broke the half-marathon world record while drafting off of a man earlier this year.
Women who run with men do gain some advantage. A male pacer is likely bigger than a female pacer and may block more wind. A man will also be able to run all or most of the race, and because he's not redlining, he can hit more consistent splits. (This is a point Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribunewent out of his way to avoid last week.) So by removing men from the pacing duties, the IAAF has made women's times, in a very, very narrow sense, more natural. But because the rule is inconsistent and retroactive, the IAAF's decision is bad.
Does the way you run determine how fast you are, or whether you get injured? Since 2009, and the publication of Chris McDougall's book Born to Run, that's been one of the most popular questions in distance running. Form is paramount in most sports—imagine a tennis player who ignored serving technique, or even a cross country skier who never learned V2—but for distance runners it's less clear whether it matters. And it just got even more unclear.
I followed last week's world track and field championships obsessively, something I have done since I was 14, and rarely to my benefit—there's always something more valuable I should be paying attention to, like work, or homework.
Over the weekend I came across an essay by Geoff Dyer, a writer and critic. Dyer is not a fan of track and field, at least as far as I know, but in the summer of 1991, living in Paris, he began watching the world championships on TV and found himself transfixed:
"...with the poor picture quality and the French commentary, I am often unsure of exactly what is happening (contrary extremes of passion—tears and laughter, rage and celebration—curiously resemble each other) and so, each morning, I buy an English newspaper to check what occurred the day before."
Dyer becomes compelled: by Jackie Joyner Kersee, Steve Cram, and Carl Lewis's win in the 100 meters, which came not long after Lewis's father had died. That is to say, Dyer came to view the championships as a fan, with a sense of drama and an investment in the athletes as people. That approximates how I followed the world championships last week, though without access to a live feed of the meet. I read race reports after the fact, or scrolled through twitter for play-by-play, gasping as I realized, lying in bed early Thursday morning, that Jenny Barringer Simpson had won the women's 1,500.
"[S]port," Dyer writes, "offers its own culture of parable, tragedy, and redemption—its own art...[It] affords the same potential for the expression of genius, passion, and vision that our culture often considers the preserve of opera, sculpture, painting."
I think the point isn't to equate sports with art, although that parallel may exist, but instead to equate sports with the wider human experience. That's a cool idea, and may also help explain why I remain fascinated by track meets.