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I'm no fan of Oprah, but...

Comments (18)
By Peter Hadzipetros

Glad my name's not Edward McClelland. The poor guy's in for three hours and 30 minutes of taunts if he follows through on his promise of running a marathon next spring.

He's done more to anger and unite the running community — if such a thing exists — with five little words: How Oprah ruined the marathon. That's the title of his article that ran on Salon.com last Friday, just before the New York City Marathon.

"America's competitive spirit," he said, "has been wrecked by feel-good amateurs like Oprah whose only goal is to stagger across the finish line."

The letter writers took great exception to his hypothesis, as did blogger after blogger after blogger.

McClelland told CBC News Sunday that what he was really lamenting was that "celebrity joggers" like Oprah Winfrey were diverting attention from the champions of the sport and that she has become more of a role model for marathoners than the champions are.

Frankly the marathon can use any well-known role models. One-tenth of one per cent of North Americans will run a marathon. As a sport, it's not on most people's radar screens. The vast majority of spectators at Canadian marathons are friends, family or people who have already finished the race.

I'm no fan of Oprah, but you've got to admire somebody who takes the incredible step of committing to training for a marathon. Motivating yourself to make positive changes to improve your health and fitness is the tough part. If she inspired millions to take up the sport, well thank you Oprah.

Those millions of people have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for charities. Maybe some of that money will find its way to helping out somebody who will one day become one of those elite marathoners.

When Lance Armstrong ran the New York City Marathon in 2006, he said it was the hardest thing he had ever done. Didn't train properly. This year, he shaved 12 minutes off his time and finished the race looking a lot healthier than he did last year. Did the training.

McClelland points out that the average finishing time for a marathon is 45 minutes slower than it was just 25 years ago, when the sport was dominated by people who did little else but run.

But look at the other end: This year at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, John Kelai of Kenya ran the fastest-ever marathon on Canadian soil. The same day, Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie lowered the world record for the distance to 2:04:26.

A week later in Chicago — despite record heat — there was a photo finish as Patrick Ivuti edged Jaouad Gharib in a time of 2:11:11. That finished sparked a debate about whether they should replace the traditional tape at the finish line with the kind of cameras they use for the 100-metre dash.

Like running buddy Steve Sampson told me as we drove out to our long run last Sunday, "never thought we'd have to work on our finish-line lean during training."

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Comments (18)

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Although I agree with Edward's McClleland belief that Oprah's involvement in The New York Marathon took the spotlight from many deserving, hardworking, elite runners, I don't agree with patronizing beginners. Just because you have been in a sport longer does make you have any superior authority, only knowledge. Furthermore, although the average finishing time has increased throughout the years this is only because of the increasing amount of novice runners. However doesn't not impair the time elite runners. And a serious runner should only be worried about their time not the marathons as a whole. And as for people running to lose weight or quit smoking or to have a healthier lifestyles or even prove something to themselves this is a blessing rather than a curse. This is a motivational movement on the most obese, and commercial continent in the world that has occurred due the sport of marathon running and its participants (including Oprah). although I am not a fan of Oprah or her brainwashing techniques she has managed to inspire people who would not normally move a muscle to aspire to something more.

Posted December 28, 2008 01:41 AM

Ted McClelland

Chicago

Thanks for the research, Peter. Not even I realized times were decaying that severely. And those people were running without Gu, Garmins, heart-rate monitors or technical shirts! A lot of people took me to task for faulty logic, saying that the slower average time was entirely due to more citizen-runners. Another interesting stat: the 90th percentile in the NYC Marathon was around 3:26. That used to be average. It just goes to show that running is mostly about willpower and hard work, which is why I love the sport. This ain't golf or yachting. Expensive equipment won't improve your performance. You can more or less buy a finsher's medal, but you can't buy a 3-hour marathon. In defense of American marathoning, I should point out that all our fastest runners competed the day before, in the Olympic Trials. But, being 40 years old myself, I am inspired by that runner's time!

Posted November 20, 2007 06:17 PM

Peter Stokes

While I instictively agreed with his main observation, I thought it would be fairly easy to debunk one of Mr. McClelland's postulates, that all marathoners are getting slower. Sure, the extra 30,000 at the back of the pack in New York are slow, but the serious athletes at the front must be faster than ever, as Peter H. implies.

So I compared 1980's New York results (averages for each group) to 2007's and guess what:

1980 2007
Top 999 2:43:40 2:52:22
Top 500 2:35:56 2:45:20
Top 100 2:21:51 2:31:26
Top 20 2:14:25 2:17:00
Top 10 2:12:35 2:12:25

It's true: 2007's field isn't even close until you look at the top 10, which in the 1980 race was all Americans, but in 2007 was all foreigners.

I don't know if he's the star Mr. McClelland was looking for, but Canadians can take some heart in this year's New York results, where 40-year-old Canadian Bruce Deacon set a slightly better example for competitive finishes at #19 in 2:24:20 than Sam Hill, the fastest American, 11 years his junior and five minutes behind!

But it is also true that I (not a runner) wouldn't know any of these very fit fellows from Adam. Unlike Bill Rodgers, who recently nearly stepped on me while I was waiting, seated, for my wife to come by in a local 10k. He didn't look to be racing very hard. I do give a slightly sad cheer for the first unknown local to go by when I'm out to watch that other little footrace they have every April here in Boston, but most folks are looking for their friends, the Hoyts, the celebrity entrants, and the Elvises.

Since Mr. McClelland also doubts the reach of the CBC, when I lived in Chicago 8 years ago, CBC Sunday Morning and Ian Brown still ran on WBEZ, and I think we had Much and Newsworld on cable too, so you can never be too sure that the CBC hasn't found a way into homes in Rockford or Green Bay! Good luck!

Posted November 19, 2007 04:17 PM

Jim

Timmins

Ted,
Ok since we're being civil, and before it gets to a group hug...let me say this: My biggest problem with the original article is that you target one person as the lightning-rod for all that is wrong with marathons just like Oprah and her ilk target a marathon as the panacea to make their lives or causes valid. In the end, their popularity, and causes take away from those who make running an artform. I agree 100% that she regrets her decision at least as much as you do.
I'll even go one further - she was lucky to escape with pain that eventually subsided. I have a friend that rode a cocky attitude, ample athletic aptitude and zero training into a triathalon, and ended up with a hospital stay, and permanent liver damage.
My point is...not enough people run to enjoy it. Don't quantify it - i.e. I can only be a runner after x miles, x times a week, at x pace, and x distance, burning off x calories. Qualify it - I run, therefore I am a runner. Learn that somedays you cant and shouldn't do what you want, and others you'll hate that its over already and you're home again. There is an inborn nobility in running and you are absolutely right that not enough people that run experience that. But for all that do - here's to us and those like us.

Posted November 9, 2007 06:40 PM

Ted McClelland

Chicago

Dues:

Thanks for the suggestion. As I told someone else, an article about this article would be more interesting than the article itself was! Taught me a lot about the media, and the difference between what people say they want in journalism, and what actually gets ratings. Interestingly, I am writing an article for Runner's World: a "celebrity runner" interview with Charlie Trotter, a well-known chef here in Chicago.

I doubt I'll start a blog. I'm working on other things -- an article on water crises in the U.S., which I'm sure will be much more highly praised, and much less read. But one good thing came out of this: the article did start a debate. on many board, about what it means to be a marathoner.

Feel free to e-mail me at tedsgarage@yahoo.com. I'll be in Toronto in March, on a book tour, and could use some tips on where to run. I love Toronto, but I've always found it a tough city to run in. I like grass, and you don't seem to have any big parks.

Posted November 9, 2007 06:14 PM

Dues Paying Runner

Toronto

Thanks for sharing your additional copy here with us. I think you should consider starting up a blog (today) if only to provide yourself with a forum to have a dialogue with readers. I couldn't find an email address or web presence for you otherwise I'd email you directly with this suggestion. I don't know about anybody else but I'd love to see your reflection and response to all this as a feature in Runner's World. I suspect you'll have to duke it out with Bingham and Burfoot first ...

Posted November 9, 2007 04:23 PM

Ted McClelland

Chicago

Dues Paying:

Thanks. As I said, this is the first time in my career I've ever wished for a "do over" on an article. I didn't express myself well, and, worse, I expressed myself offensively. Unfortunately, this article has drawn more attention than anything I've ever written, far more than work of which I'm far prouder.

I've actually gone back and re-written it. While that version will never see the light of day, I'll share this passage:

Once the supreme test for hardened runners, the marathon suddenly became a gateway into the sport. Soon, gravel paths were crowded with runners who … weren’t necessarily into running. They wanted to lose weight, or quit smoking, or notch a triumph to certify their image as overachievers, and they latched onto the marathon as the vehicle for those aspirations. I met a lawyer who started running because "They say if you can run a marathon, you can do anything!"

Others were raising money for charity. Team In Training, which funds leukemia research, promised to turn loafers into marathoners in 20 weeks. The cause was admirable, but these newbies were being rushed into the marathon. It was a recipe for injury and disillusionment with what should be a life-long pursuit, not a one-off “I Conquered Everest” stunt. (As it seems to have been for Oprah, who has never run another marathon.) They were egged on by the running industry, which saw the race as a cash cow -- a vehicle to sell inflated entry fees, shoes, training programs, books, and water bottles -- and promoted it as the be-all and end-all of the running experience.

That pretty much sums up my feelings. I'm enjoying my marathon training, and I'll never for the life of me understand why anyone would want to attempt such a grueling race in less than top condition.

Posted November 9, 2007 03:42 PM

Michelle

canada

Wow...maybe some people should focus on their own goals and motives rather than thinking too much or judging too harshly what other people are doing? Why does it even bother you?

Posted November 9, 2007 02:17 PM

Dues Paying Runner

Toronto

Edward McClelland - I commend you for joining the fray. I must confess, after reading your article I thought you were a first-class [insert expletive here]. And I'm still put off by much of what you said. But then I saw this comment you made: "For reasons that sometimes have nothing to do with the love of running."

And I think I know what you mean.

I've only been running for three years but it's become a part of my life and identity. It's not something I do, it's who I am. I may be slow but I'm serious about my goals and the sport. I've also paid my dues through each level of training to get to the marathon distance.

Running a marathon was never a goal for me UNTIL I started running - solidly and passionately. This is why I, like you, have an issue with people setting up the marathon as a life goal (without having even *tried* running). It's sort of like saying you want to attend the Cordon Bleu without a love or experience of cooking or food - what's that sort of motivation about but empty status seeking (and let's call it for what it is).

To me, the problem you describe is not located in the lack of competitive spirit but a sense of entitlement.

Case in point. Last year I had a woman in my marathon training who had jumped into the marathon after only a year of running. She is obese and arrogant. I had run with her once and decided - never again. I disliked her for the following reasons: she cut corners (cheated) and she had a sense of entitlement about all things. You name it. For her, running a marathon was a status symbol. An accessory. Not something earned. And she was HIGHLY competitive!!! Unsurprisingly she got injured pretty fast. I saw her recently taking a 'learn to run' clinic - I hope it teachers her some respect for the sport, the distance and the idea of dues paying.

Posted November 9, 2007 12:35 PM

Kurt Pelletier

Prince-George

Eesh... so a person has to give their phone number, home address, and full name to call out inane social commentary? Frankly, the CBC was generous giving the author his five minutes... If they made space for everyone who thought the article was unsportsmanlike (and more than a little misogynistic), News Sunday would be running into the work week.

So what exactly is the bigger problem--more people (in the most overweight country in the world) actually exercising, or other people--celebrities or not--for the problems of the world?

If McClelland's article is the embodiment of "America's competitive spirit," I'm happy to see that it and its testosterone-addled rhetoric are on the ebb there. One would hope to see it replaced with a spirit of civility and respect instead.

Posted November 9, 2007 06:06 AM

Deb Johnson

I started out doing the "Learn to Run" program at the Running Room. Then progressed thru the 10 km clinic, and then the 1/2 marathon clinic, and ran/walked the 1/2 marathon. Just because I'm not a great runner doesn't mean I don't have the right to enjoy it with other people. If it inspires people to see Oprah talk about it, great. It makes more friends out there, on the trails, jogging and/or running because they enjoy it.

Can't quite believe what I've just read, honestly. Still shaking my head.

Posted November 8, 2007 10:02 PM

Edward McClelland

Chicago

The other thing I've learned from this, Jim, is that people are emboldened to sling personal insults when they can hide behind a blog or a screen name. I put my name above my words, whether you like those words or not. Even after I was pilloried on the Internet, I went on television, where people could see my face. Although I had regrets about what I had written, I knew it would have been cowardly to do otherwise. Until you are brave to reveal your identity, you have no right to attack another man's character. Maybe we have not just lost the spirit of competition in this age, but the spirit of courage as well.

Posted November 8, 2007 02:44 PM

Jim

Timmins

Wow, Ted...could you be more jaded?
For the record; it's C.B.C. which stands for: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (They broadcast some marathons).
I've been running since the 70's. I run because I love to, so I don't need an elitist has-been to validate my sport; nor would I look down my nose at the newbies who can't keep up to a 50 year-old.
You described yourself as a "decent recreational runner" when you tried your first marathon. Good thing - lest the "middle-aged woman hauling her flab around the District of Columbia" might have come closer than 13 minutes to your finishing time.
And by the way; Pheidippides called, and he's ticked off how you consider 1971 to be the birth of the sport. He mentioned that us neophytes have ruined the sport in the last 2500 years by wearing shoes, clothes and stuff, and not dying at the finish line.
As for the next greatest Canadian distance runner? Well he might just be a gangly 14 year-old, who saw the sport on TV because it has become "mainstreamed". Well either that, or we'll just scour third-world nations like Eritrea.

Posted November 8, 2007 01:57 PM

Edward McClelland

Chicago

Believe me, Peter, I know the taste of crow. If I could have a do-over on this article, I'd take it. (Maybe I'll get one after run a marathon.) I was trying to deplore a) the way the marathon has been sold as the be-all and end-all of the running experience, which rushes unprepared newcomers into the event, for reasons that sometimes have nothing to do with the love of running. (I've been running for 25 years, and only now feel I'm ready for the marathon, after learning my chops on distances from the 800 to the half-marathon). And b) as you noted, the way celebrity marathoners have stolen the spotlight from elites. It's too bad that more people know about Katie Holmes' New York City Marathon than Martin Lel's. However, I could have expressed myself more constructively. They say the marathon will humble you. So will writing about the marathon.

Ted

Posted November 8, 2007 01:53 PM

Michelle

canada

Hey...some of us aren't old enough to remember the first running boom. Times change man. Get with the program.

There's more to be gained from running than a good finishing time. Anyone who's ran any event knows that.

There's nothing wrong with being an 'amateur jogger'...some of us have lives outside of running (go figure) and don't have the ability/desire to be 'elite'.

Posted November 8, 2007 10:14 AM

Peter Hadzipetros

Toronto

My apologies, Edward. I have corrected the spelling of your last name. Crow tastes terrible.

Posted November 8, 2007 07:38 AM

Edward McClelland

Hey, I'm glad my name's not Edward McLelland, too. It's Edward McClelland. Dude, if you're gonna trash me, spell my name right. I would never misspell CBC.

What's been interesting is that the most outraged responses have been from people newer to the sport. People who were part of the first Running Boom seem to get where I'm coming from. Maybe it's easier to understand if you were involved in running before it became so commercialized.

I doubt I will be taunted. I plan to run in Rockford, Ill., or Green Bay, Wis. Nobody there gets "CBC: News Sunday," so they won't recognize me. This is why I'm not running the Mississauga Marathon.

Who is today's leading Canadian marathoner? I would honestly like to know. The last star I remember was Peter Maher, who ran in the '87 World Championships.

Ted

Posted November 7, 2007 11:10 PM

Jim

Timmins

Where you come up with these articles, reports and such? Cynics R' Us? Of the great list of things you (Mr McLelland) can trash Oprah about, I hate to say it; but her running a marathon - even only once - isn't on the list. I dont know if Mr McLellend knows it, but Oprah has a fan or two - and the combined ire of millions of middle aged women might make him think twice. Sure I'm impressed when one of those sinewy thoroughbreds finish circa 2 hours; but I have nothing but admiration for people that labour for more than twice that time to accomplish the same distance. Do they marginalize the sport? Sure they do - right into mainstream. Bring on the running clubs, better shopping/products, bigger prizes, more facilities (trails, lanes, tracks, etc.), and media coverage of people improving their overall health and raising $$$ at the same time. Think about it this way - what other sport can you do, where at one point you (albeit time=0:00) can be shoulder-to-shoulder with the elite. In the end there may be just winner, but there are no losers.

Posted November 7, 2007 12:11 PM

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