From the “Everything can be blamed on a woman” files: Oprah Winfrey is single-handedly responsible for ruining the marathon.
The piece is an extended, and dishonest, whine about how they let just anybody run marathons nowadays, instead of special, dedicated men who did it for the thrill of competition and the frisson of self-denial — oh, and Americans aren’t winning marathons like they used to, which is Oprah’s fault.
The American runners of that era were propelled by a “double wave” of self-abnegating philosophies, theorizes Tom Derderian, who trained with Rodgers and Salazar at the Greater Boston Track Club. They were “heirs both to the warrior mentality of their World War II fathers and the new consciousness of the 60s and 70s,” he told author John Brant for the book “Duel in the Sun,” an account of the 1982 Boston Marathon, considered the last great American distance race.
And did I mention the generous helping of fat-shaming?
I had to give up marathoning just as everyone else was getting into it. Not just the rest of the running world. Everyone. The mid-1990s gave us two new long-distance heroes. The first was Oprah Winfrey. If Frank Shorter inspired the first running boom, Oprah inspired the second, by running the Marine Corps Marathon. And it was a much bigger boom. This was not a spindly 24-year-old Yalie gliding through Old World Munich. This was a middle-aged woman hauling her flab around the District of Columbia. If Oprah could run a marathon, shame on anyone who couldn’t. . . .
Once the supreme test for hardened runners, the marathon became a gateway into the sport. Soon, gravel paths were crowded with 5-mile-an-hour joggers out to check “26.2 miles” off their life lists. Team in Training, which raises money for leukemia research, promised to turn loafers into marathoners in 20 weeks. I met a lawyer who started running because, “They say if you can run a marathon, you can do anything!” The marathon was no longer a competition. It was a self-improvement exercise. . . .
Like Oprah, Bingham deserves praise for luring insecure, overweight novices off their couches and into running shoes.
God forbid those flabby, overweight loafers everybody’s always after to exercise might just do so, and do it in public. I mean, don’t they know that *real* runners are trying to get past their fat asses on those gravel paths in public parks?
In the last 15 years, the Chicago Marathon field has increased tenfold, to 45,000. But with this change in the running culture, the average finishing time for men has dropped from 3:32 to 4:15 — not far from the Oprah Line, or my own performance.
Note that he’s conflating a few things in the piece: the lack of American men winning marathons and the average time of American men running marathons. Yeah, if you get a bigger field, with more first-time runners, you’re going to get slower average times, for a couple of reasons: one, more first-time runners means more slower runners, which will bring down the average; and two, in a gigantic field, it’s very hard to run at any sort of pace until the field starts breaking up; it could take you half an hour just to reach the starting line. If you’re in the back of the pack, you’re not going to be setting any world records. However, that’s why they start the elite runners up front — and those elite runners continue to set world records, course records and personal records even as the average finish times of the overall field get slower. That more American men aren’t at the top of the heap of elite runners has a lot less to do with the democratization of the marathon in America and a lot more to do with the quality of international runners, particularly the Africans.
By the way, did you happen to notice that there’s a sizable gap between 1982, when the “last great American distance race” happened, and the mid-90s, when Oprah supposedly ruined marathoning by making it accessible to middle-aged flabsters? Yeah, I thought you would. In a case of burying the lede, McClelland acknowledges that maybe Oprah and the Penguin Brigade aren’t actually primarily responsible for the decline in American (men’s) marathon dominance that began long before they got involved:
You can’t just blame the Penguin Brigade for messing up the curve. The last year an American-born man won a major marathon? 1983. (We have produced one first-class female marathoner — Deena Kastor has won in Chicago and London — although we’re still waiting for another Joan Benoit Samuelson, gold medalist at the first Olympic women’s marathon, in 1984.) The running bum — that post-collegiate dropout who works in a shoe store so he can train 100 miles a week — has almost disappeared. Despite the fact that marathon fields are the size of Sauron’s host, more guys broke two and a half hours in the 1980s.
It could just be that the running bum has moved onto other sports, or has figured out that if just anybody can run a marathon, why not up the ante and get into triathalons, particularly the Ironman, which has not just a marathon, but challenging swimming and biking components? Or it could be that, what with the professionalization of the sport, those running bums have sponsors. Plus, it ain’t as easy to live on a shop clerk’s salary anymore, what with the cost of proper equipment, travel and race fees.
Oh, and McClellan shows his ignorance in another way: his assumption that last month’s Chicago Marathon was stopped because of novice runners:
Last month’s Chicago Marathon had to be shut down mid-race, because undertrained five- and six-hour marathoners couldn’t handle that much time in the 85-degree heat.
Actually, that kind of heat is a danger to *any* runner, no matter how well-trained, as Frank Shorter discussed in this piece (and since McClelland mentioned the 1984 Olympic Women’s marathon, he can’t possibly have forgotten Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, who staggered into Olympic Stadium, dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion, and literally fell across the finish line. I’m still a little traumatized by that). The issue with Chicago was not that novice runners couldn’t handle the heat because they were untrained; it was that they were still on the course after the temperature began to climb. The elite runners finished well before it became 85 degrees.
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