The London marathon has announced changes to their 2020 event designed to provide a better experience to those at the back of the pack. These include allowing slower runners to start ahead of the mass start to increase the cut-off to 8hrs 35mins, a group of fifty tailwalkers to provide a cheersquad at the back of the pack, a bus with a DJ playing music and a commitment to keeping aid stations, timing mats and photographers in place until the tailwalkers have passed. This is a big commitment by the London marathon to improve the inclusiveness of their event; and will hopefully put an end to the disappointing experiences of an estimated 1000 runners of the 2019 event, who ran at least part of the time with the event being packed up around them.
So isn’t everyone happy?
Well no. It seems there is a view being loudly expressed on social media that allowing people to finish in 7/8/9 hours cheapens the experience for the “real” runners of the marathon. As best as I can understand, the feeling is that completing a marathon is a significant life achievement, requiring commitment and dedication. If people “are allowed” to take as long as 8hrs 35mins to complete it, the significance and value of completing a marathon is diminished, and with it the achievements of the 4hr marathoner. Further, goes this line of thinking, a marathon is a race, and if you are taking 7/8/9 hrs you are “obviously” not racing.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
First, I would think that everyone would agree that completing a marathon is a significant life achievement, requiring commitment and dedication. But why is speed an indicator of commitment and dedication? Why is a faster person “obviously” more committed? Is the genius who can answer a math question instantaneously more committed than the struggler who works out the same answer more slowly?
Second – diminishing value. We are back to that old hobby horse the win-lose paradigm that goes like this: for the back of pack to gain something, the mid pack must have lost something (not the front, as I strongly doubt Mr Kipchoge is that fussed about someone at the back receiving a finishers medal.) This win-lose paradigm appears almost a conditioned response in our society when privilege is threatened. But it is time to think a bit deeper than how we are conditioned. Has anyone actually greeted a 4hr marathoner on a Monday morning with anything but congratulations? Don’t make it about you when it is not.
Third. A marathon is a race. Yes it is; if you are in the elite event. For everyone else it is an experience. Don’t believe me? Do you know anyone mid-pack who can tell you their placing out of the 44,000 finishers of the London marathon? If it is a race for the non-elites it is a race against themselves, their own personal race to be the best that they can be. And that is equally true whether you finish in 3hrs or in 8hrs.
Would it be going too far to suggest that the social media “concern” is no more than thinly veiled fatphobia? Yet another articulation of the view that fat people – who should be getting their lazy bodies off the couch and exercising – are also not supposed to be doing that exercise in public view? That they don’t deserve to be rewarded for completing the exact same distance as everyone else, because their bodies took longer to get there? If you think this is nonsense, take a closer look at some of the comments – where it is acknowledged that “of course” it would be ok to finish in a slow time with a disability, or when recovering from illness, but those obese people who think it is ok to do the event slowly…..well.
Finally. Let us remember that those at the back of the pack, these people being trolled mercilessly either by name or by association, are people. Real people, with feelings and emotions. Who did not give anyone permission to attack them for being slow, for putting their slow, and perhaps fat bodies in public view; for daring to aim high by taking on a marathon. These people are strong, and brave and committed and I am so glad that the London marathon is going to make their 2020 experience special.