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Gotta Run: Racing today, how it’s changed

There are no local races this week as we begin the summer slow-down. The Shiloh Mission 5K in Faith comes next on Saturday, July 2.

Of note this past week is an outstanding performance by Kelly Lowman at the Downhill at Dawn Half Marathon. She ran 1:28:35 for the fastest female time locally in recent years.

I saw an article from one of my old running friends from South Carolina the other day, and found it very thought provoking. Cedric Jaggers said change is a part of life, and with that come changes in running and racing. Some readers might be surprised at what changes have evolved.

There was the running boom in the late 1970s and it was happening when I got my own start. Currently, we have 5-10 races a weekend within an hour’s drive on most weekends. Back in the late ’70s, there might have been 50-60 good races a year in the whole state for the whole year. Some of the young runners today wouldn’t understand not being able to decide until Saturday morning if you want to do a race, simply because there just about always is one close by. Not so in the ’70s and early ’80s. I spent hours pouring over the Running Journal (still the best running publication on the market) and planned my racing weeks ahead. Some races even had caps on how many runners could enter, and often there were very early registration cutoffs. Hard to believe, huh?

Lots of weekends had just one to two races in the whole state and sometimes those races were hours away. I could hardly stand to miss a racing weekend and thought it was so special to find a weekend where I could do two on Saturday, even with a big drive in between. Second best was a Saturday morning race somewhere and then another on Sunday, but I didn’t really like this because it killed my every Sunday 20-plus-mile run. Yes, every Sunday! We always stayed marathon ready, but it was easier to do with weekly running mileage of 70-80 miles. Every single week!

Another change is that the big races have gotten bigger. It is interesting to me that the large quantity of weekly races has not hurt the big races at all. Here are just a just a few examples from my own past. Two of my favorite races were the New York City Marathon and the Cooper River Bridge Run 10K. Today, the NYC Marathon is approaching 50,000 runners, and my first time in 1980 had about 20,000. The Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston actually had 1,200 runners the first time I ran it, well behind the current limit of 44,000 walkers and runners.

The change that surprises me the least comes next. The slowdown in average finishing times and a lot of overall winning times is remarkable. The times that it took to win races of almost every distance back in the ’70s, through the ’80s and into the ’90s was much faster than what it takes to win the same distance now. One amazing stat to me concerns Cooper River. Jaggers posted the statistic that during the 1991 race, 90 percent of all finishers had a time of 60 minutes or less for the 10K (6.2 miles) distance. The 2015 race had only 7.8 percent of the total entries finishing in less than 60 minutes. Bottom line — the race participation grew dramatically, but the quality of the runners fell even more dramatically. Another stat along the same line talks about the fastest runners. Finishers who beat the time of 40 minutes totaled 393 in 1989 and then fell to 207 in 2015, though the race grew by more than 30,000 runners during that time.

In what many consider the best known race in America, the Boston Marathon has relaxed its qualifying standards several times. Male runners under age 40 in the 1980s had to complete a certified marathon in 2 hours and 50 minutes to get in. Today’s standards allow a qualifying time of 3 hours and 10 minutes.

Still another change is that women are racing a lot, now actually fielding a higher percentage than men in most races. Nearly every race in our area has more women than men, although the men are still the higher percentage from 50 and up, but even that gap is closing. Regardless of the race distance, women’s participation is growing.

I have been fortunate to be involved in running and racing from the old days till now. One race stands out in my mind. There was a 10-mile race held in Salisbury as part of Winter Flight for a couple of years. One of those years, I ran one of my best races ever. A 58:46 10-mile time got me only 16th overall. That is a faster pace than it takes to win most local 3.1 mile races locally.

Here is my take. Definitely we have more races now and more runners, although a higher percentage of casual runners than ever before. Nothing wrong with having more runners, but the field is not crowded at the top. I do miss the time of extremely competitive local races, but we did get a taste of this with last week’s Bare Bones 5K. The three leaders were all together at the 3 mile mark before the third-place guy blew past the others for the win. I hope to see more of this, it does my heart good.

 

David Freeze is a nationally certified running coach and president of the Salisbury Rowan Runners. Contact him at david.freeze@ctc.net. Learn more at www.Ulearn2run.com

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