Running’s Great Divide

One of the biggest barriers for taking casual joggers into competitive running is the “it’s just so hard out” factor. Joining a running club, training at the track, or entering an athletics event—they’re all oozing intimidation for 95% of the running population. 

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This point was brilliantly highlighted last night at the Auckland 5000m champs. Here are the results (all of them, I didn’t miss any categories out):

Senior Men
Aaron Pulford Whangamata 14.20.19
Jono Jackson ACA 14.41.64
Alex Parlane Pakuranga 14.47.15
Tony Payne Wesley 14.48.84
Michael Banks ACA 14.51.91
Josh Maisey ACA 14.54.48
Stephen Lett Takapuna 14.59.03
William Harris Wesley 15.01.06
John Schreduer North Harbour 15.05.06
Jonny McKee Pakuranga 15.07.90
Wayne Guest Whangamata 15.24.63
Tim Stewart Hamilton 15.38.52
Senior Women
Camille Buscomb Hamilton 15.38.74
Junior Men
Harry Linford North Harbour 15.37.12
Asher Meltzer ACA 16.48.16

Now these are some great times (particularly Camille’s 15:38—which is just shy of a Commonwealth Games qualifier) and the racing in the SM category was solid. But here’s why turning up to race an event like this is intimidating, firstly for the gals:

  • You’d be put in the guy’s race as there aren’t enough ladies to justify multiple races.
  • This would mean (unless you’re Kim Smith or the van Dalen twins) being lapped by everyone  else in the race (except maybe for one JM, but you’d still need to be a sub-18 5k runner to avoid that).
  • The cruel consolation of being lapped multiple times is that you’re still guaranteed a placing in the Auckland champs.
  • Junior girls would be guaranteed the title (yes, this is intimidating because of the next point).
  • The person who won also came last.

You’d have a lot more company if you’re a guy, but here’s why it’s still intimidating for the lads:

  • The slowest Aucklander (eligible for the title) was 15:07. When you consider that most local weekly 5k races are won around 17 minutes, even the top social runners would be lapped and come last overall.
  • 15:38 is last place. Fifteen thirty eight! In one sense this is encouraging (shows competitive racing at the top end). But how does someone make the jump from 17:xx social 5k races to low-15 regional competitive? One more time … LAST was 15:38!
  • Only two junior men. Not as bad as the girls but pretty scary nonetheless (could be a case of clashing with zone school champs, but the JM grade includes all the university aged runners as well). Not a good sign for the future.

I’m not criticizing the meet or those athletes who didn’t take part because of other race commitments or injury (I put myself in this boat), but I’m just highlighting the fact that the running community finds itself straddled across two islands and the gulf between them is becoming ever wider.

There’s the elite “island” and the much larger everyday runner “island” (or maybe “continent” would be a better word). The elite island is getting faster and more competitive (which is a great thing as we’re seeing gradually improving results nationally and internationally) while the everyday runner island is typically getting slower (on average), more inclusive, and focused more on completing than competing.

This diverse spectrum of abilities is great for the future of the sport but the problem is that it’s not a continuous spectrum. As the above results clearly show, there’s a huge chasm between the best everyday runners and the slowest of the elites. So how can someone make progress along that spectrum and still have someone to keep them company during the lonely years (because it will be years, not months) of running 17:xx or 16:xx or even 15-high before being able to mix it with the elites?

The top everyday male runner could take the plunge and aim to eventually catch up to these guys OR they could just stick to winning their Albany 10k or Run Auckland Series (with their prize packs and trophies), all the while leaving the elites to do their thing in this distant galaxy of local athletics where regional champions will be lucky to even get a little medal (let alone the ribbon that connects to the medal).

Rant over for the day, now for some ideas to help fix the situation:

  • Hold B-grade regional champs (e.g. for guys who haven’t broken 16mins or girls 18mins in the last three years).
  • Clubs could offer prizes of free memberships and coaching to the winners or place getters of social running events (like Run Auckland or Albany Lakes series).
  • Social race organisers could offer free entry (or heavily discounted) for elite level runners. But, of course, except for the small extra media exposure this would give the race, this would do nothing for the race except make all the other runners feel slower.
  • Athletics organisations taking a few leaves out of the social running events marketing manual (easy-to-read website, listing on race calendars, social media presence).
  • Squads designed for your everyday runners that use the same training principles as the elites (hence, why we started TempoFit).
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5 responses to “Running’s Great Divide

  1. I totally agree. It’s too bad that the divide between even the slowest elites and casual runners is so big. Running is just an awesome sport, but it can be hard for some people to challenge themselves with races when there is such a big divide and creates so much intimidation. Great post!

    • Thanks for the comments Laurel. Yep, stepping onto the track for the first time especially is one of the most daunting things you can do in running. I’m always looking for ways of making this easier for runners. 🙂

  2. Great post. Yep, the large corporate events are taking the place running clubs used to fill. It’s great for participation, as you mention, but does nothing for advancing the sport. Pay $80, finish, buy the t-shirt, win a spot prize, sign up to the affiliated gym. Meanwhile Jo and Jane plodder get the buzz from completing these feel-good events but never get any faster. Running clubs need to adapt and appeal to the new generation runner.

    • Thanks Matt. And yep totally agree. I think parkrun is doing a lot to bridge the gap, but I do think the whole club system needs a re-think to help re-connect the two separate worlds of running.

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