As the total number of marathon finishers increases, and the average marathon finishing times get slower and slower, the debate about how slower marathoners are ruining what it means to be a “marathoner” has raged on. To some extent, I understand the viewpoint of those who state that those in the 5 hour range or slower are “dirtying” what it means to be a true marathoner, even if I do not fully agree with it. For example, if you say you play baseball and are a baseball player, the understanding is usually that you play in the big leagues and are, at the very least, one of a select few hundreds of people in America that are good enough to play that position. If not, and you just play beer league softball, well, then someone knows what that means too.
However, if one were to scoff at the 5 hour marathon finisher the same way we would the guy with the gut and 40 ounce aluminum bat swinging for the fences, they would risk being ostracized for their unenlightened opinions about what it takes to be a true marathoner. I mean, I truly do get it. For people who define themselves by a time and a distance, not necessarily everyone should be allowed to call themselves a marathoner. But then we get to the obvious question: where is the line we draw? 4 hours? 3:30? Maybe sub-3? Heck, soon we may have a world record under 2 hours. Can people only 2:30 and under be real marathoners? They would still be over a minute per mile off the world record. Isn’t that slow and therefore demeaning what the other real marathoners are doing? Obviously, there is not a time goal that fits all criteria for this line of thinking. As such, there has to be a better way to decide what makes a real marathoner, or real runners for that manner.
A few years back, I was at the Boilermaker 15k in Utica NY. I had the chance to partake in a great conversation with Kevin Hanson of the Hansons-Brooks Distance project. This creation of Kevin and his brother Keith is an Olympic development squad that most recently put Desiree Davila finish second in the Boston Marathon. Obviously Kevin, who surrounds himself with only the speediest of the speedy, must be disgusted by the plodders out there sullying this wonderful sport, right? Not even close.
Kevin and I came upon just about the same conclusion and feel that we were able to easily define what the difference is between a runner and a jogger. In our opinion, this difference is having a goal. Not obtaining a goal, not having a fast goal, but plain and simply having a goal. If you are going out to run for a reason and a purpose, with a goal in mind (whether it be to get fit, to get faster, to improve your mental health, etc.) you are, without a doubt, a runner. Sure, hopefully it is a realistic goal or one that is not somewhere on along the lines of “I want to decrease my marathon time by one second” but a goal nonetheless.
Everything else falls into too much of a gray category. What is fast? What is slow? In the end it matters not. It only truly makes a difference if there is reason why you are putting on your shoes.
Then, regardless of your time, you have just as much in common with the elites as anyone else.