“Sluggish Newbies” Make the Marathon Better

This is an expanded version of my reply to an article on the Slate “Fray” forum, ““Running With Slowpokes: How Sluggish Newbies Ruined the Marathon,” by Gabriel Sherman.

Sherman doesn’t like it that as many as 430,000 people ran a marathon last year – and most of them ran slowly. “I’m an avid runner with six marathons under my New Balance trainers,” he says. “But this growing army of giddy marathon rookies is so irksome that I’m about ready to retire my racing shoes and pick up bridge.”

After counting the ways marathoning has lost its original “purity,” he issues a challenge: “We feel good about creating the appearance of accomplishment, yet aren’t willing to sacrifice for true gains. It’s clear now that anyone can finish a marathon. Maybe it’s time we raise our standards to see who can run one.”

Being a runner of the Medicare-entitled variety, I feel qualified to comment. I started running in 1968, and I worked at Runner’s World from 1972-76, just as the “jogging boom” was getting started.

I surely do agree with Sherman: those were wonderful days. (Though he doesn’t explicitly say that he was there.) Being a runner, back then, meant that you were unique. There weren’t many fit people around, and you felt like a member of the exclusive fraternity of athletes. It was easy to compare yourself to the torporous hordes of average citizens, easy to feel special, and all too easy to feel better.

Sherman seems unable to find any good in the marathon boom. Am I wrong in suspecting that, like most critics of slow running, what he’s really lamenting is the perceived loss of his own specialness?

Sherman doesn’t seem to know what actually delivers the joy of running: not being special, but stretching our own edges. As we become fit, we find our awareness expanding. We can think more clearly, we feel more cheerful and upbeat, and we can run up stairs, carry the groceries, and play with the kids with effortless ease.

Running isn’t about going fast or slow. It’s about increasing health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy. We reap those rewards by using the five basic tools of a runner: body, heart, will, mind, and soul. Those are the instruments by which we become more healthy, loving, strong, wise, and aware.

Sherman disses slow runners and their search for joy. Though he doesn’t seem to be aware of it, what he’s actually saying is that joy is for the few, the select, the chosen – the special. But the longing for joy is universal. Albert Einstein, ever a wise observer of human nature, believed that the relentless longing to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering, is what drives all human thought, feeling, and action. Elitists like Sherman stand smack in front of that thunderous universal urge and shout, “Stop. Go back! You can’t come in here where happiness is.” Good luck to them.

Yes, it was wonderful to be a runner in 1969. It was sweet to be out running and come upon another runner and greet them with a wave and a smile. But nowadays, people can nudge their edges even if they live in Alabama, Idaho, and Nevada. And, how is that a bad thing? The marathon isn’t for the few. It’s an excuse to expand and find joy.

Sherman writes: “As a result of their crash course in distance running, a preponderance of marathoners suffer repetitive-use injuries like stress fractures, tendonitis, and shin splints. It would certainly be healthier for inexperienced joggers to run fewer miles at a faster pace.”

Do I hear 430,000 happy marathoners laughing?


Here are two excellent articles responding to the Sherman article, by former Runner’s World editor Joe Henderson. It’s not possible to link directly to the article (the site uses frames), so you’ll need to click the “Archived” link and scroll down the list to “‘Slowpokes’ Speak” and “Speaking of Slowpokes” (28 Oct and 4 Nov, 2006).