I am super late to the party in commenting on Competitor’s interview with Steve Jones, where he said:
“I don’t believe that starting and finishing a marathon makes you a marathoner. I don’t believe that. If you’re racing it to go as fast as you can, that’s completely different than being part of an event and just wanting to get from point A to point B.”
This got quite a bit of negative attention, because while he tries to phrase everything he says pretty delicately, it still gives across the message that if you don’t run fast, if you’re not in it to win, you’re not a real marathoner.
From what I can tell, Jones’ biggest issue is that he feels running marathons growing in popularity has hurt the competitiveness of the sport. He says:
I really believe, if you go back to my era, you had well-established marathons in the UK and you’d get 200 runners. But they were all runners who were running hard and running fast times. Now you’re lucky to get that many in a half marathon. The rest of the people just want to be part of the event. I think it’s great in many ways, but the competitive sport hasn’t grown.
I guess I kind of see what he’s saying, and I don’t think he is dissing slower runners who try their hardest but still only pull out 4+-hour marathons (although, according to Deadspin, a quote that was cut from the interview was Jones saying that’s not “running.”) But frankly, if the worst part of slower runners like me doing a marathon means it adds nothing to the competition, well, I can live with that. I can sleep at night. I am a very competitive person, but I am not naturally talented or fast at running, so the competition for me will always be with myself. I think it goes without saying that many people who complete marathons are doing something they never thought they could do. And/or they raise money for charity. Or they are in the middle of a weight loss journey and wanted to run a marathon to have something that would motivate them to run and train for it. Etcetera. A lot of noble and important things that have nothing to do with the “sport.”
So basically, I don’t think what he said was that insulting, but if the worst thing about marathons becoming “events” that draw all types of people is that it doesn’t add to the competition or the sport, then frankly…
Someone saying you are not really running or you are not a marathoner if you don’t run the race in a certain amount of time or with a particular set of goals doesn’t make that statement true. And it doesn’t take away from what you get out of the race yourself. I can see where people who don’t train for the race or don’t respect the distance and are just participating in an event – maybe it’s true they don’t get as much out of the experience as someone who relentlessly trained and breaks 3 hours. But that same person who broke 3 hours may just be getting the same amount of accomplishment as the person who trained relentlessly and is happy with a sub-5 time.
I actually think this was the more controversial statement in his interview:
Yes, it’s still running 26.2 miles and they’re running 2:03-2:04-2:05, which is significantly faster than I used to run, but you don’t see that competitive element anymore. It’s almost like a gang race, almost like they’re ganging up on everyone in the race to get the right outcome. As long as a Kenyan or an Ethiopian wins, they don’t really care about anybody else. It would be nice to be a little more selective—who you accept entry from or invite to your races—to have the right mix of core international racing element.