The gateway drug, if you will, is about how far you can go (being able to finish 1 mile, 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon). I vividly remember the first time I ran 10 miles in a row. I was really nervous, there was some chafing involved, it was over far too quickly…
But just like trying to get high, eventually being able to say you finished a certain distance is no longer enough; you want to get faster. The next level up is hitting time goals, especially nice, round ones. 20 minutes for a 5K, 1:30 for a half marathon, qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, that steep improvement curve everyone goes through for a few years eventually tapers off. You start to find yourself frequently stuck between round numbers, not improving very quickly, and searching for where that next big hit will come from. For many, this is when they turn to placement in races. However, unlike a distance or a time, placement becomes as much about your competition as it is about yourself.
This past January, 85 men and 150 women participated in the US Olympic Marathon trials. They have a level of talent and dedication that most of us will never come close to. No matter how hard I train, I will never come close to running a 2:22 marathon. However, we (I’m using plural to pretend like lots of other people also share my viewpoint) are also people who don't believe in failing at anything else in life. So now, how can we achieve greatness despite inherent genetic shortcomings?
Race directors have managed to solve this problem through the introduction of divisions. Apparently, if you sub-divide a race enough, everyone can take home some hardware. 10 year age groups became five year age groups. One award per division expanded to three to five. Awards for old people (Masters)! Large people (Clydesdales)! Masochists (Boston 2 Big Sur)! I have definitely picked races based on the chance to win some hardware, and I’m sure (hoping?) I’m not alone.
Chuck Engle recently broke the world record by winning his 145th marathon. His PR is 2:31:01, which would have put him 105th place in the 2011 Boston Marathon. He could have kept training, peaking for a couple marathons per year, and reaching high 2:20’s (most likely never qualifying for the Olympic Trials), but he made a choice - he would cherry pick small ones and run them repeatedly. Many angry people came on internet message boards derided him for a cheap record, but in reality, who are we to judge? Outside of the "real" runners who do this for a living, we're just all playing AAA, or AA, or tee-ball anyways.
And just like in the narcotics world, people have begun mixing all three drugs for maximum effect. 26.2 miles turned into 50K, 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles. Not enough? How about obstacle courses, mind puzzles, Saharan sand storms, and icy mountain peaks. No matter what happens, people are always looking to push that boundary a little further, to where they are the first (and last) ones standing.
But to all that, I’ll quote Teddy Roosevelt and say “bully for you!” Who cares if your win came in out of a field of 100 or that you placed in the 33-33.5 age group. Our country is overweight enough these days. If winning a medal will get you that high you need to keep running, then I am all for it.