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I run therefore I am!

‘The End of the Race (Running Away From The Race)’ by Dan Travis, 2012. 20pp

Reviewed by Jean Smith | 10 October 2012

As an active teenager growing up in the Midlands, I loved field hockey, even though my school team lost most games in the early 1970s. Cross-country running was another story altogether. I was hopeless and dreaded the humiliation of being the last one to walk (not run) across the finish line.There was no camaraderie for the lone runner (me) and even my best friend would run ahead and wait for me in the changing room. For many years afterwards I avoided this form of exercise and was in awe of people who did it without a burly physical education teacher forcing them out of the door. But many years later I decided to face my failure with regard to running and joined a running club. Our coach gave us important training tips but we still had to do the running part ourselves! Imagine my sense of pride when I finished my first 5 km race in New York’s Central Park. It took me an hour, but, as our coach stressed over the post-run breakfast of bacon and eggs – it’s all about completing the course. It was all about me!

All of which made me slightly nervous about reading Dan Travis’s book, End of the Race. However, I was to be pleasantly surprised by this well-researched script, which forms part of a collection entitled Running Away From the Race, with each work examining an aspect of the recent explosion of participation in running and the simultaneous and equally dramatic decline in performance of elite UK distance athletes. In this first essay, Travis analyses why the exponential increase in the number of people who describe themselves as runners over the past twenty years has not coincided with an improvement in Britain’s Olympic running fortunes. He does this through an examination of the rapid decline in the number of what he refers to as the ‘elite competitive runner’ and the explosive rise in the ‘amateur non-competitive runner’.

Travis describes the phenomenal increase in the number of people entering races such as the London Marathon over the past twenty years: from 6,700 to 40,000 participants and from 20,000 to 125,000 applications. The elite runners, those who start and finish first, are running for the thrill of victory, and to avoid the disappointment of being out-run. However, the vast majority of runners are amateurs who are not aiming to win. For them, as with me in the 5 km run, even the term ‘race’ is a misnomer. Their motivation is simply to complete the course, better their own timing and very often to raise money for charity. Although these amateur runners may be better trained than the pre-1980s joggers, many participants make no attempt to even pick up the pace – walking the entire course, often in costume. This is a far cry from the Olympic motto: ‘faster, higher, stronger’. Travis argues that this culture of non-competitive running is responsible for Britain’s failure to produce professional athletes capable of reaching the Gold Medal running standard.

Travis gives a useful comparison between the elite and the amateur runner. He argues: ‘It is the presence of competition itself that acts as a permanent barrier between the two types of runner’. For non-competitive runners, their standard is their own performance, and they are concerned only with themselves not other runners. For the amateur, comparison with other runners is actively discouraged as having a negative impact on one’s self confidence. Although they may run in groups, the activity is a solo exercise. For the elite competitive runner, it is the opposite. Travis writes, ‘The elite run to win races, beat other runners and are competitive. Their training is about gaining an edge on their rivals and winning, not simply beating their own times.’ This is reflected in their training which will be much more intensive and they themselves will be much more self-driven. Their training is about beating their own record but as a means to an end of beating other runners. For this reason competitive runners have other runners on their mind all of the time and will always be better and out-run the amateur runner. Travis tells us there are no examples of amateur runners after the age of 25 breaking into the elite.

At a time when more people are running, the decline in the number of competitive runners needs to be explained. Avoiding oversimplification, Travis puts forward key factors: the fall in the number of amateur athletics meetings as a result of the rapid fall in teachers volunteering to run them and the consequent fall in the number of competitors; the migration of young athletes into football and novelty sports such as roller hockey, basketball and skateboarding; the exodus of funding from running to sports expected to give Gold Medal success such as cycling, particularly after the rise and domination of running by African athletes. Arguable the key factor he identifies is the replacement of the ethos of competition in school sports with what Travis refers to as ‘therapeutic considerations’ as the dominant organizing principle. As a result, the focus of school sports (the farm system for professional athletic success) is on playing for fun for fear of shattering a young player’s self esteem through the experience of failure. Not only is this misconceived with regard to a child’s self confidence it also means school athletes will never be under the pressure they need to improve their performance.

You may wonder, ‘Does it matter?’ At an individual level, if you are running because you (or your doctor) thinks it’s good for you (my cholesterol level went down 8%) or to manage the aggravations of everyday life, then probably not. But if we want to produce world-class athletes who will serve as an inspiration to young people and the world through their drive to be the best-of-the best, or even just to encourage schoolchildren to be the best they can be, we need a different attitude to competition. Although my experience as a teenage runner was not pleasant, it did not shatter my self-esteem or scar me for life. And in retrospect the experience of failure in my earlier years probably made my 5 km victory that much more sweet. That’s why I’ll keep on running.

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Jean Smith runs non-competitively (and very slowly) along New York’s East River.

The End of the Race by Dan Travis can be purchased from Amazon UK. Details of the full series can be found here