Sunday, May 11, 2008

running on empty

This rant has been taking shape for a couple of weeks, so I'll just get it out.

A little over a year ago, I started running seriously (at least more seriously and consistently than the on again/off again that had been going on for a few years). Once I got into the groove so to speak, I've really learned to enjoy going out for my runs. It gets me outside, keeps me active, burns some calories and is a portion of the day that is 100% "me time."

One of the things that got me to really enjoy running was music. It's no secret that music can affect mood greatly - be it aggressive, good time buoyancy, melancholy or sexy. When I started running with music, I was surprised at how much of a motivator it was, in two ways. First, the right music on a run can really push me through, just as the right music for a night in with the lady can enhance that experience (Prince anyone?). Secondly, running is a time where I can really just immerse myself in the music. Yes, I have music on pretty much all the time (minus when I'm reading). But rarely am I able to just focus on and absorb the nuances of what I'm listening to. This is the same reason that driving 12 hours from Iowa to Pittsburgh doesn't bother me, and why I love walking to campus from my apartment.

A year ago, I ran my first 5k. To that point, I'd only run something like 2/2.5 miles, and I was concerned that I wouldn't finish. But with some help from The Ramones second album, I surprised myself. Last fall, I was persuaded to do a 10k at a time when the most I'd run was probably 3.5-4 miles. Similar anxiety about having to "walk it out" for the last part of the race. With Common coaching me through it, I ran the whole thing. And just this afternoon I ran the majority of an 8.5 mile session in the cold and pouring fucking rain, which would have been totally unbearable were it not for 2Pac.

Of course these examples aren't totally attributable to the music. It's also practice, adrenaline, determination, etc. But I find music to be a necessary companion for running. Occasionally my batteries will die, and those runs are significantly less enjoyable.

Fast forward to now. Some of you know that I've been training for a 20k in a few weeks, with perhaps lofty ambitions of running a marathon in October. With the 20k fast approaching, I'm completely psyched. It's the first big event of the summer that I'm really looking forward to.

A few weeks ago whilst perusing the race's website, this sentence caught my eye and sank my heart: No early starts, bikes, baby joggers, dogs, roller blades, walkers, headphones or electronic listening devices are allowed.

I freaked out. I emailed one of the event coordinators to clarify. I was told that this is a stipulation of the insurance company that is handling the race. I then found that the (perhaps pipe dream) marathon in October has the same policy. With a quick Google search, I found that this is becoming a fairly common policy nationwide, and one sanctioned by US Track and Field.

There are two main arguments alleging to justify this policy. One is the issue of runner safety. The concern here is that runners listening to music will be less conscious of vehicles and other runners. However, most of these races are run on roads closed to traffic for the event. Beyond that, participants should be cautious of their co-runners anyway - looking before changing direction, stopping etc. I don't think that runners are trying to block out other sounds such as directions, and other runners. If music is used responsibly (i.e. loud enough for the runner to hear, but soft enough to hear outside sounds), I don't buy the safety argument. Furthermore, if a runner injures him or herself because they were listening to music, that's their problem, and race organizers should be absolved.

The second argument is that music provides a competitive advantage, and is thus unfair to runners who may not be using music. I don't buy this at all. Yes, music is motivational. And yes, as a friend pointed out, there is tempo setting software that can maintain the same tempo throughout a playlist, helping the runner to maintain a particular pace. So yes, music can be beneficial to the runner. Absolutely. But is it a competitive advantage? I'm generally not this snooty, but my reaction is that if you feel it's a competitive advantage, then go buy a fucking music device. You can get a 1 gig mp3 player for under $20. If you can afford the registration fee for the race, you can probably afford a small mp3 player (or borrow one).

A brief perusal of message boards and blogs shows that this is a pretty contentious issue amongst runners. It also seems that it's a difficult (if not impossible) policy to regulate, particularly in larger races. There are also some races that have taken an "mp3-friendly" stance, such as The Portland Marathon. For the record, I agree with their statement on the issue 100%.

This is likely something that will be debated for the foreseeable future. I don't know how much effect these things have (recall I am very much a newbie in the running game), but one would think that the number of runners opposed to such a policy would be able to have some sway by making statements to US Track & Field. I would hypothesize that the majority of runners oppose this rule (to varying degrees, I'm sure). Someone made the comment on the message board that to some extent, the proliferation of iPods, Zunes, etc. has at the very least correlated with a rise in exercise activity nationwide. There are no reliable studies on this to my knowledge, but it at least sounds logical.

Lastly, here's a great New York Times article outlining the controversy.

That is all. End rant. If you made it this far, you're a champ.


sean broom said...

"Furthermore, if a runner injures him or herself because they were listening to music, that's their problem, and race organizers should be absolved."

This, while obviously true in spirit and ideal is very difficult to enforce in our lawsuit-happy times.


Gonzo said...

Sean - this is a good point and may in fact be part of the rationale behind the policy. But I would think that by registering for a race, you're basically signing an agreement to the rules of that particular race. Plus, race organizers essentially have to take out insurance policies for the event that I assume would protect them in such a situation.

Thanks for commenting, and for stopping by!