To all the 'slower' runners out there: Your marathon times matter, too

John Baird

Runner Jen A. Miller disputes the idea that slower marathoners' times don't matter.

When I ran the Portland Marathon earlier this month, I expected a few things: a hard workout, a medal and a burger and a beer sometime shortly after crossing the finish line.

I didn't expect more talk about what makes a real runner and whose times really matter.

My best marathon time is 4:18:30, a bit faster than the typical female American marathon finisher. I'm proud of this. I haven't been graced with a lithe body or the leg muscle fiber composition that could fling me fast through 26.2 miles. And it takes a lot of long, lonely miles out on the road -- and hill repeats and track workouts and eating right and sleeping enough -- to get me there.

Still, I have friends who can bang out a sub-four-hour marathon without seriously training, and I've interviewed pros who can run a marathon in close to half my time. I know fast people, but I do the best with what I've got -- and that's OK by me.

On Oct. 9, I ran the Portland Marathon, my seventh full, and I did it as a training run for the New York City Marathon. But I was in a group of participants that most likely ended up running an extra half mile.

Event director Les Smith said he still isn't sure what happened and that they're still investigating. But so far he thinks that some runners were sent the wrong way after there was a longer-than-usual time gap between group starts in order to allow for a train to pass. He thinks that a volunteer may have thought all the runners had gone by and left his or her post.

At first I didn't notice the extra half mile (I didn't race with a GPS watch), and then shrugged when I found out. Hey -- things happen. But then, according to an interview with Oregon Live, Smith said, "We think that the people who were involved with that are not normally Boston qualifiers. The only thing that would happen is it would impact their personal best."

Then he added, "It's not a big deal."

But any four-hour-plus marathon runner would agree that it is a big deal, and Smith wholeheartedly agreed when I called him Monday to talk about what happened. He says he was misquoted there and by local TV station KPTV and feels sick about the fall out, both that runners were sent the wrong way, and that runners -- and me -- would think he didn't care about our achievements.

"I've run over 50 marathons," he said. "The reason I became the race director is because I'm back of the pack. I've always been."

Courtesy Jen Miller

Jen Miller at the finish line of the Portland Marathon.

As the sport of running has expanded and grown, letting in runners who may not have even attempted a 5K before, marathon times have slowed. In 1980, when U.S. marathons had 143,000 finishers, the median marathon finish time was 4:03:39 for women and 3:32:17 for men, according to Running USA. In 2015, those numbers shifted to 509,000 finishers with median times of 4:45:30 for women and 4:20:13 for men.

Much of that participation growth has come from women. In 1980, only 10 percent of U.S. marathon finishers were women. In 2015, women made up 44 percent.

This is great and a welcome change -- the more people who can find and thrive in the sport, the better. But there are still holdouts (mostly older and faster runners) who wring their hands at this inclusion. They think we're ruining the sport. We're called weekend warriors, hobby joggers, a waste of race resources -- that we take spots of "real" runners who train hard enough to care.

But we care. This isn't a hobby for us. I dedicate a significant amount of time and energy into being the best possible runner I can be with the body God gave me. Even though I finished Portland a half hour over my fastest marathon time, it was a still a victory because I was able to fly across the country, run a race in a new-to-me city -- in the rain, by myself -- and still run well.

Just because the result is not within spitting range of a Boston Marathon qualifying time doesn't mean that my effort or anyone else's is any less important -- nor should it be any less important to people who put on races.

That's why Smith is so apoplectic that people think he feels otherwise. "That's ridiculous," he said when I asked him if he really believes our times didn't matter, pointing out that a reason the half and full marathons have a walking option is because he wants everyone to feel invited.

That's good. I'm relieved. I'm used to bearing the slings and arrows about my times from less charitable runners, but the idea that someone who puts on a marathon would feel this way too stung. The sport has come so far since the 1980s, when the field was rail thin and mostly male. I don't want to be pushed back.

Jen A. Miller is author of Running: A Love Story.

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