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It's About Time for the Running World to Embrace Change

The IAAF’s decision to phase out the 5k isn’t necessarily bad, and the pro running landscape needs to evolve all around.

At this year’s Boston Marathon, the men’s professional field will have their own separate start for the first time, as the pro women have had since 2004. (Alex Trautwig/Getty)
Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty Marathon

The IAAF’s decision to phase out the 5k isn’t necessarily bad, and the pro running landscape needs to evolve all around.

It’s not just you; the world really is changing. We know it’s true when even professional running is trying to contemporize. Earlier this month, the IAAF surreptitiously announced that starting next year, it would be culling the 5,000-meters from its Diamond League series in an effort to create “a faster paced 90-minute television event.” At this year’s Boston Marathon, the men’s professional field will have their own separate start time—a first in the event’s 123-year history—in what seems to be a belated attempt at equity. (The pro women have had their own separate start since 2004.) 

“Change is never easy,” IAAF President Seb Coe said in the press release announcing the Diamond League’s new format. He’s got that right. It’s another way of saying that change often makes people nervous. That might be especially true for running, a sport whose long legacy and inherent simplicity can make any tinkering seem like an assault on something ancient and pure. But, in running as elsewhere, we shouldn’t cling to the idea that the old way is always the best way. 

Easier said than done. Last year, I wrote about the razing of Hayward Field, the University of Oregon’s historic track, which is currently being rebuilt into a tricked out super-stadium. Many longtime Hayward loyalists viewed the project as an act of desecration. When I spoke to a local preservationist named Scott Krause at the time, he compared Hayward’s East Grandstand to the Sistine Chapel. On the other end of the spectrum, retired professional runner Lauren Fleshman, who had contributed much Hayward magic in her day, cautioned that perhaps we shouldn’t “get too precious about a stadium,” particularly one whose history is primarily a “history of white distance-runner dudes.” 

Indeed. But can we apply the same thinking to the IAAF’s decision to drop the 5,000-meters—an event that’s largely dominated by non-white distance runners? In a recent Twitter thread, Fleshman suggested that we should be more open to new venues for the 5,000-meters, which has been rendered stale in recent years thanks to rabbited world record attempts, among other things. 

“You can love something and not be beholden to freeze it in time,” Fleshman’s thread concludes.

Others, of course, saw it differently. In an article published on fastrunning.com, author and columnist Adharanand Finn gave a spirited rebuttal to the notion that the 5,000 should be canceled, arguing that the problem wasn’t with the race itself, but with the inept way it was being presented. “No, endurance events aren’t inherently boring to watch,” Finn writes. “When the story of a race is told well, when the fans can connect with the competitors, long-distance running can be a compelling drama in many acts, with lots of unpredictable, gut-wrenching plot twists.” 

Finn also notes that cutting the 5,000 would be disproportionately detrimental to East African nations like Kenya and Ethiopia, two countries whose national athletics federations have been unsurprisingly outspoken critics of the IAAF’s changes. Right on cue, Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder from Kenya, took to Instagram last week to state how crucial the 5,000 was to his development as a runner. 

I hate to be the one to say it, but as gut-wrenchingly riveting as it may be for some, a twelve-and-a-half lap track race is a tough sell for many people—especially when most of the racing only happens over the final laps. Not that I entirely disagree with Finn. In his article, he rightly points out that distance running’s great asset is that it’s “basically the most popular participation sport in the world.” But the vast majority of participatory 5Ks aren’t run on a track. So why not move the world’s premier 5,000-meter (and 10,000-meter) events to the roads? Would it really be so tragic if Olympic and World Championship 5Ks became road races? The format would be familiar to the legions of hobbyjoggers around the globe. What’s more, Olympic or Diamond League 5K courses could be repurposed to subsequently host events for the masses. There was a time when the world’s premiere marathons were staged in an enclosed arena. We seem to have evolved away from that (more or less), so perhaps other distances could follow suit. And just look at how the running media world is flipping out over the course at this weekend’s Cross Country World Championships in Denmark. It’s hard to generate that kind of excitement when you’re confined to the oval.

Which isn’t to suggest that every innovation needs to be embraced. The Boston Athletic Association’s decision to start the professional men two minutes ahead of Wave 1—effectively creating an entirely separate race—doesn’t really benefit anyone. As far as I can tell, this move merely expands a logistical unfairness that so far has only plagued certain sub-elite women to also impact certain sub-elite men. (By giving the professional men their own separate starting time, prize money at Boston will for the first time only be available to those in the pro field, while in the past it was, in theory, open to everyone in Wave 1. This has already been the case for women since 2004.) The B.A.A. was right to expand the women’s elite field. They should expand it further. But they also should have left the men’s race alone. Maybe I’m more of a crusty reactionary than I thought. 

The old way isn’t always the best way. Except, of course, when it is. 

Filed To: Running / Athletes / Olympics / Gender