Should Road Races Separate the Pros from the Masses?
While the benefit to giving elite women their own race seems obvious, the question of giving male marathoners a separate start is more contentious
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In the past few weeks, I have written columns that touched on pre-race anxiety and post-race dejection. For balance, and to prevent this space from becoming a source of perpetual gloom, I’ll kick things off here by acknowledging the far more pleasant sensation of post-race euphoria. As far as I’m concerned, this is the real “runner’s high.” Chances are you know the feeling: It usually sets in a couple hours after you’ve had one of those races where it all comes together. You are exhausted but too wired and elated to sleep. In the coming weeks and months you will recalibrate your expectations, but for a short while there’s a sense of utter contentment. For me, the purest instance came in the wake of the 2016 Berlin Marathon. After a few discouraging efforts, I’d had a breakthrough of sorts and savored the experience with a late-night, outdoor dinner of currywurst and pilsner. I’ve had better races since, but I still think of that moment as the emotional peak of my running “career,” such as it is.
There was another, more vicarious, reason for my elation. The winner of the men’s race that day was none other than Kenenisa Bekele, distance running’s unofficial GOAT. In the biggest win of his still nascent marathoning career, Bekele had outdueled Wilson Kipsang to break the tape in 2:03:03—a mere six seconds off the world record at the time. I’d been a Bekele fan since watching him dominate the distance events on the track at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and was weirdly tickled by the fact that my own insignificant triumph and Bekele’s had, in a sense, overlapped. This, of course, is one of the great assets of road racing as a sport: all-time legends and anonymous amateurs take part in the same event.
Here, however, things are changing. Earlier this month, for the first time in its 50-year history, the New York City Marathon had a separate start time for the men’s elite field, whose race commenced five minutes before the masses in Wave 1. In doing so, the five-borough race appeared to be taking a cue from the Boston Marathon, which began having a separate start for its pro men in 2019, in part to mirror the fact that the elite women had had a separate start in Hopkinton since 2004. (At the New York City Marathon, there has been a separate professional women’s race since 2002.)
When the Boston Athletic Association announced the decision in 2019, it spurred one of those micro-controversies that sometimes roil the running world as the planet somehow maintains its indifferent orbit around the sun. The crux of the issue was that, in previous years, all the men in Wave 1 were in the same race as the top male professionals and hence also eligible to win prize money. The women in the first wave, meanwhile, didn’t have the same luxury. When the BAA made a move to even things out, some guys expressed their agitation on Twitter. In response, Women’s Running published an op-ed with the headline “Equality at the Boston Marathon is Long Overdue,” which argued that these guys need to get over it.
I’ll confess here that I was among those who were critical of the BAA’s decision, though out of a combination of cowardice and laziness I didn’t enter the fray. Since I wasn’t quite delusional enough to be upset about the fact that I now suddenly had no chance of finishing in the top 15 and taking home the big bucks, my objection had more to do with a sentimental attachment to the spectacle of the mass start and the idea of being in the same race, at least nominally, as the giants of the sport. More fundamentally, I’ve always felt that the type of equality worth pursuing is one that achieves its end by improving circumstances for the disadvantaged, rather than making things worse for the privileged without an obvious beneficiary. Years ago, when the BAA and the New York Road Runners made their respective decisions to give the elite women their own races, the move had the clear objective to give the pro women’s race the spotlight it deserved. But does implementing a separate start for the men actually benefit anyone?
David Monti is among those who believes it does. The long-time editor and publisher of Race Results Weekly was NYRR’s professional athletes consultant for nearly two decades and was involved with the elite athlete recruitment for 132 events during that time. In a statement, Monti told me that he supported NYRR’s decision to have a separate elite start for men as it “ensures that the race’s top athletes, who earn a living from running, won’t be interfered with by other athletes—especially at fluid stations where accidents can occur—and won’t be competing against anyone who is not in the World Athletics drug testing pool, a key deterrent to doping.”
In response to a query, the BAA partially echoed this sentiment, noting that having separate pro starts was a way to “better showcase and provide an unimpeded race experience for top entrants in the Boston Marathon.” Meanwhile, NYRR provided a statement noting that, in “an unprecedented year,” separate starts were implemented to adhere to health and safety guidelines and that this modification “also created consistency” among professional athlete fields.
While it isn’t too common, there have been instances of professional runners being “impeded” by amateur runners in a mass start, most famously perhaps when Geoffrey Kamworor tripped at the start of the 2016 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships and had to weave his way through the masses to get up to the lead pack. (Anecdotally, I have a cousin who, while not a professional runner, was good enough to get an elite bib for the 2019 Boston Marathon. At the last minute, he decided to relegate himself to run in Wave 1 and was promptly tripped up at the start and suffered a knee injury that forced him to drop out halfway through the race. In short, this stuff does happen.)
Nonetheless, creating an entirely separate elite race means that some runners will inevitably be left out, and not just aggrieved sub-elites, but potentially also world class-level athletes. In 2019, NYRR had the slightly embarrassing situation where a runner outside of its predesignated pro fields cracked the podium in its two biggest events; third place in the marathon went to an unheralded 26-year-old Ethiopian from a local club called the West Side Runners named Girma Bekele Gebre, while the winner of the NYC Half was Gebre’s countryman and teammate Belay Tilahun, who was sporting bib number 1163. It made for a great story, and would not have been possible in this year’s marathon.
Which, of course, might be the point. You’d have to be very credulous to believe that the unexpected triumphs of runners like Gebre and Tilahun weren’t at all a factor when NYRR decided to sever its elite men’s start from Wave 1. Unsurprisingly, the president of the West Side Runners, a gregarious octogenarian named Bill Staab, is “vehemently against separating the elite men from the other runners at the start,” as he put it to me in an email.
Among other things, Staab pointed out that not all runners who get the nod to be included in elite fields are subjected to rigorous out-of-competition testing and that this was hence a poor justification for holding a separate pro race for the men. This year, as in years past, the New York City Marathon rounded out its professional field by giving elite bibs to top local amateur runners, and the BAA likewise gives out bibs to OTQ-level guys who are unlikely to have drug testers knocking on their door year-round.
What’s more, given the complexity and expense of out-of-competition testing, the World Athletics Testing Pool is relatively small. Three out of the top five finishers in the men’s race at this year’s New York City Marathon are not on the current list of regularly tested international elites. As an “Elite Platinum Label Race,” the NYC Marathon is technically required, per World Athletics guidelines, to organize and fund systematic pre-competition testing for all top athletes in its elite field, but these elite fields are often only finalized a few months before an event, at best.
Still, the impossibility of having an airtight anti-doping program is not an argument for having no anti-doping program at all. There’s no question that having a separate start gives event organizers more control over who is competing for podium spots and prize money, even if not every athlete is getting drug tested on a monthly basis. Perhaps the strongest argument for doing things this way is simply that organizers have a prerogative to keep their pro event exclusive. As Monti put it to me: “Remember, the pro race at a major marathon is an invitational event, no different than an invitational golf or tennis tournament.”
In other words, nobody has an inherent right to participate in the same race as the best runners in the world—not the über-talented semi-pro, nor the mid-packer who wants a piece of glory. Personally, I hope that the New York City Marathon goes back to starting the professional men with the plodding nobodies in Wave 1 next year. But if they don’t, I’ll always have Berlin.