Should road racing separate the pros from the masses?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about pre-race anxiety and post-race discouragement. For balance, and to prevent this space from becoming a source of perpetual gloom, I start here by recognizing the much more pleasant feeling 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 happens a few hours after taking part in one of those all-out races. You’re exhausted but too wired and happy to sleep. Over the coming weeks and months, you will be recalibrating your expectations, but for a short while, there is a feeling of complete contentment. For me, the purest example came in the wake of the 2016 Berlin Marathon. After some discouraging efforts, I had made a kind of breakthrough and savored the experience with an al fresco dinner late in the day. night of currywurst and pilsner. I have had better races since, but I still consider this moment to be the emotional peak of my “career” as a runner, as it is.
There was another, more indirect reason for my elation. The winner of the men’s race that day was none other than Kenenisa Bekele, the unofficial GOAT of the long-distance race. In the biggest win of his still fledgling marathon career, Bekele beat Wilson Kipsang to break the board in 2:03:03, just six seconds off the world record at the time. I had been a Bekele fan ever since watching him dominate the track distance events at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and I was strangely tickled by the fact that my own insignificant triumph and Bekele’s had ended, in a sense, overlapped. This is of course one of the great assets of road racing as a sport: legends of all times and anonymous amateurs participate in the same event.
Here, however, things change. Earlier this month, for the first time in its 50-year history, the New York City Marathon had a separate start time for the elite men’s peloton, whose race started five minutes before the masses of Wave 1 In doing so, the five- Borough run seemed to take its cue from the Boston Marathon, which began having a separate start for its pro men in 2019, in part to reflect the fact that the elite women had had a separate start at 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 sparked one of those micro-controversies that sometimes rock the running world as the planet somehow maintains its indifferent orbit around the sun. The crux of the matter was that in previous years all of the wave 1 men were in the same race as the top male pros and therefore were also eligible to win cash prizes. The women of the first wave, on the other hand, did not have the same luxury. When the BAA decided to balance things out, some guys expressed their fuss on Twitter. In response, Women’s running ran an op-ed with the headline “Boston Marathon Tie Is Long Overdue,” which said these guys need to get over it.
I must confess here that I was among those who criticized the BAA’s decision, although through a combination of cowardice and laziness I did not enter the fray. Since I wasn’t delusional enough to be upset that I now suddenly had no chance to finish in the top 15 and win the big sum, my objection was more a sentimental attachment to the spectacle of the mass start and the idea of being in the same race, at least nominally, as the sports giants. More fundamentally, I have always believed that the type of equality that deserves to be pursued is one that achieves its goal by improving the situation of the disadvantaged, rather than worsening the situation of the privileged with no obvious beneficiary. Years ago, when the BAA and the New York Road Runners made their respective decisions to give elite women their own races, that decision was clearly intended to give professional female racing the attention it deserves. deserved. But is implementing a separate start for men really benefiting anyone?
David Monti is among those who believe him. The long-time editor and publisher of Weekly race results has been a consultant to NYRR professional athletes for nearly two decades and has been involved in recruiting elite athletes for 132 events during that time. In a statement, Monti told me that he supports NYRR’s decision to have a separate elite start for the men because it “ensures that the best athletes in the race, who make a living by running, won’t be embarrassed. by other athletes, especially at the fluid level. stations where accidents can happen – and will not compete with someone outside of World Athletics’ doping testing group, a key doping deterrent. “
In response to a question, the BAA partially echoed this sentiment, noting that having separate professional starts was a way to “better present and provide an unhindered running experience for the best participants in the Boston Marathon.” Meanwhile, NYRR provided a statement noting that in “an unprecedented year” separate departures were implemented to meet health and safety guidelines and that this change “also created consistency” between professional athlete fields.
While not overly common, there have been cases of professional runners ‘hobbled’ by amateur runners during a mass start, perhaps most famous when Geoffrey Kamworor stumbled at the start of the World Championships. IAAF Half Marathon 2016 and had to weave its way through the masses to join the lead pack. (For the record, I have a cousin who, although 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 quickly tripped at the start and suffered a knee injury that forced him to give up halfway. In short, that sort of thing happens.)
Nonetheless, creating an entirely separate elite race means that some runners will inevitably be left out, and not just the aggrieved sub-elites, but potentially world-class athletes as well. In 2019, NYRR had the slightly embarrassing situation where a runner outside of their pre-nominated pro fields clinched the podium at their two biggest events; third place in the marathon went to an unannounced 26-year-old Ethiopian from a local club called the West Side Runners named Girma Bekele Gebre, while the winner from NYC Half was Gebre’s compatriot and teammate Belay Tilahun, who wore bib 1163. It made a great story and would not have been possible in this year’s marathon.
Which, of course, could be the point. One would have to be very gullible to believe that the unexpected triumphs of runners like Gebre and Tilahun weren’t at all a factor when NYRR decided to end the start of its elite Wave 1 men. Unsurprisingly, the President of the West Side Runners, a gregarious octogenarian named Bill Staab, is “vehemently against separating elite men from other runners at the start,” as he told me in an email.
Among other things, Staab pointed out that not all runners who get the green light to be included in elite fields go through rigorous out-of-competition testing and therefore this was a poor justification for holding a separate professional race. for men. This year, as in previous years, the New York Marathon has supplemented its professional field by giving out elite bibs to top local amateur runners, and the BAA is also distributing bibs to OTQ level guys who are unlikely to have. drug testers knocking on their doors all year round.
In addition, given the complexity and cost of out-of-competition testing, World Athletics testing pool is relatively small. Three of the top five in this year’s men’s New York Marathon are not on the current list of regularly tested international elites. As an “Elite Platinum Label race”, the New York Marathon is technically required, according to World Athletics guidelines, to organize and fund systematic pre-competition testing for all top athletes in its elite field, but those elite fields are often not finalized until a few months before an event, at best.
Yet the inability to have a sealed anti-doping program is not an argument for not having an anti-doping program at all. There is no doubt that having a separate start gives event organizers more control over who competes for podium spots and cash prizes, although not all athletes are screened for. drugs every month. Perhaps the strongest argument for doing it this way is simply that the organizers have the prerogative to keep their professional event exclusive. As Monti told me, “Remember that the professional race of a large marathon is an invitational event, no different than an invitational golf or tennis tournament. “
In other words, no one has the inherent right to compete in the same race as the best runners in the world, neither the gifted semi-pro, nor the mid-packer who wants a piece of glory. Personally, I hope the New York Marathon will start again starting professional men with the hard-working nobodies in Wave 1 next year. But if they don’t, I’ll still have Berlin.