Take Your Damn Headphones Off

Lauren Fleshman is unequivocally one of my favorite women. Not just favorite runner, but favorite women. She’s feisty, talented, unapologetic and creative about improving the sport of running. When she was injured last year, she modified workouts such that she was barely running more than 100 meters at a time and still made the finals at the Trials. Now she’s baking a baby (whom she affectionately calls Lima Bean) and writing a hilarious column for Running Times. Her recent post on ethics is spot on and I hope it gets the traction it deserves as a sensible and simple beginning of a discussion that has waited too long to happen. It seems like we’re hearing about more positive doping tests after every major track race and even at the level I run at, questionable behavior occurs.

It’s also something that I think of every year at this time as VCM rolls around. Try as RunVermont might (and they do try, just see Joe’s post on bandits), no one seems to follow the rules very well. For example, a woman who finished in the top 10 last year was wearing headphones. Not allowed. Other things that are not allowed? Taking aid from your coach or a friend somewhere other than a designated aid station or having someone run or bike alongside you for any period of time longer than a few strides. And where are all these rules contained? The USATF Competition Rules Book.

Technically speaking, these rules apply to any person competing in a USATF event, of which the Vermont City Marathon is one. However, in 2008 the USATF changed the headphones rule to state that headphones were allowed “however, those competing in Championships for awards, medals, or prize money may not use such devices.”  This logic has been (and wisely for the most part) extended to the other rules. If you aren’t a top finisher, the RD isn’t going to pull you off the course or DQ you for an infraction. (Note: GMAA does not allow headphones in any GMAA sponsored races for safety reasons for ANY competitor, first or last. Good on you, GMAA). So why wasn’t the finisher DQd? Because none of us filed a protest with the Race Director. Too small a town, too small a difference. As with deciding to file a protest at a cross country or nordic ski race, you pick your battles. Flagrant body contact or course cutting? Yes. Headphones, grr, but no. Interestingly, the top two female finishers were disqualified for taking aid and wearing headphones at a marathon a couple of years ago.

What’s the issue? The issue is that a race is supposed to be a head to head event, where each runner is individually responsible for their performance. Sure, we have tons of people who get us to the starting line and spectators who cheer us on, but once the gun goes off, we are supposed to be on our own. Headphones, friends pacing certain miles and aid outside stages confers an advantage to the offending athlete. (Of course, the other major issue with headphones is a safety issue, but not really in line with this post). I have training partners who break these rules and much like the pick-your-battles intricacies of filing a protest, I mostly find their grievances annoying. I wonder though, where the line is between condoning rule breaks like these and rule breaks surrounding banned or questionable substances. As Fleshman points out, there are substances in use right now that are not yet banned, but definitely fail the hairy eyeball test. Is it the same for me to know that a friend got her BQ by having a friend pace her much of the way as it would be to turn the other way if she used a questionable substance?

Seth, Will and I discussed this at length when Lance Armstrong finally copped to his steroid use with the caveat that it was part of the culture on his team. All of us are part of the Lance generation and it was hard to hear that someone we look up to might have cheated his way to his accolades. I have no doubt that Lance is an incredible athlete and I also buy that doping wasn’t unique to him. We ended up talking about team culture and about how when you are a new member on a team, you tend to just accept what the veterans do. Like a freshman on a cross country team, if the older girls diligently stretch and do core, you will too. If they don’t eat fat because “lighter is better,” you won’t either. And if someone uses a substance or your coach encourages a supplement that may someday be banned, it’s likely that your moral compass isn’t quite as strong as you think.

All of these issues from headphones to banned substances put us uncomfortably in the gray area. No one wants to be the town crier but stay quiet too long and cheating becomes so deeply entrenched in a culture that it’s not recognized. As a team, the Olde Bones work hard to follow the rules. We are all individually responsible for knowing the courses we compete on and the rules that bind us. We actively discuss race plans and voice concerns about possible infractions. None of us even use protein supplements; as hard as it gets is homemade Gatorade. On race day, as much as I might want Will, Seth, Kath, or Myke to run with me for a minute and keep me calm, I won’t ask and they won’t offer. We got here together, but we’re in this alone.

Have you ever witnessed cheating at a race? Did you say anything? What do you think about Lauren’s guidelines for ethical sport?

And for the record, if you want to wear headphones and you aren’t competing for prizes or a top finisher, go for it. Just keep one earbud out and only do that on closed race courses. We don’t need anymore ghost running shoes or crashes at aid stations.

6 thoughts on “Take Your Damn Headphones Off

  1. Ryan

    Very interesting post. The only time I can think of where I witnessed blatant cheating (course cutting) during a race was at the VCM last year. Somewhere just past mile 12 I heard some people around me talking about cutting through the woods. It was at this point that I was realizing what had been a great day for 10+ miles was going south rapidly and I was in store for a long second half so I didn’t pay much attention. Shortly thereafter, around the entrance to the park (mile 13ish) I could see several people with race bibs coming through the woods and rejoining the field of runners. Looking at the map it seems they went straight instead of following the road on the right turn. They avoided a smallish hill and cut maybe a few hundred meters off the course. It left my mind fairly quickly as I had my own struggles to deal with, but I have thought about it a lot since. I thought about emailing the race director and suggesting that area as a good location for a secret timing mat, but I never did, not really sure why I never did.

    I think for the typical runner that isn’t competing for prizes or wins, things like pacing with someone or taking aid outside of the official stations should be judged on the same sliding scale as the headphone issue – it isn’t a big deal if you are not taking a prize away from someone who followed the rules to a t. I am running a marathon on Sunday where, according to the course info, there are a couple of 2.5 to 3 mile gaps between aid stations, I am not going to be winning any awards and I won’t feel the slightest twinge of guilt taking water from an unofficial neighborhood water station during those long gaps. I think on a scale of gray your example of having a friend pace another friend to a BQ time would be off-white where as taking a questionable substance is significantly darker (charcoal gray?). For the middle and back of the pack runners pacing and helping pull friends and strangers along is a big part of the fun social aspect of racing. I guess you could argue that the pull you get from a friend pacing you to a BQ time could block someone who ran a BQ time alone out of Boston during the registration process, since 25,000ish people still get in, I could live with that ethical transgression.

    Reply
  2. runnerunderpressure

    Ryan:
    Thanks for an absolutely awesome and thoughtful reply. It always amazes me that people would risk an all out DQ for 100 yards less in a marathon. I like your extension of the gray metaphor as well. In talking with Will about this post last night, what we came to about having a friend pace you is that the biggest advantage is that it negates one of the hardest parts of the marathon, the mental aspect. One classic mistake is going out too fast, which a pacing friend can help. Similarly, those horrible mental miles where you want to stop? A friend can get you through those too. A BQ time is something to be proud of, but in my opinion, should be earned alone.

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    1. Ryan

      Thanks. I am running the Cox Sports Marathon in Providence, RI. Tapering appears to be working since I have a 15 second attention span, no patience, and am generally listless. I cannot wait until Sunday.

      I see your point about a BQ time being something you should earn on your own. I am sure if I was flirting with a 3:10 marathon I’d feel the same way you do.

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      1. Ryan

        So this weekend confirmed the obvious, that running a marathon is really (insert expletive here) hard. I knocked 20 minutes off of my previous time but fell short of my sub 4hr goal – final time of 4:12. Kept on pace for 20+ miles, but things went bad around 21. I think the worst part is an hour or so after finishing you start feeling better and begin wondering was I really that tired or feeling that bad at mile X, I think maybe I could/should have pushed harder…
        As someone who doesn’t run a lot of marathons a year, how do you keep from dwelling on the negative could have/should have scenarios in the space between a somewhat disappointing race and your next marathon?

        Reply
        1. runnerunderpressure

          Ryan:
          First, congratulations on an ENORMOUS PR. 20 minutes is almost a minute per mile! I know you’re frustrated at not reaching your goal, but take some time to bask in the fact that you made big improvements. Try to focus on all the things that went well throughout your training. Since you had a 20 minute PR, you must have made some really positive improvements. One of the other things I’ve done is find other races or events to focus on that aren’t the marathon. It can be tempting to register immediately so you can avenge yourself, but the best thing you can do right now is take a mental and physical break.

          Congrats again!

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