I have been running for 40 years.
I went out for cross-country in the seventh-grade, started running 10k’s in 1985, and did my first marathon 15 years ago.
Most Saturdays I am at some race, of some distance, paying my money, running my race and taking a t-shirt home.
I have been running for 40 years.
And I’ve stunk the whole time. I am a terrible runner. Slower than molasses in January. I have been in the last quarter of finishers of almost every race I’ve ever run. I got into running, in fact, because I was a bad athlete, because I was too small and uncoordinated to make the football team.
But I like it. It keeps me in passable shape. It helps me control
my demons. I enjoy the spirit I feel from other runners.
So, yes, I’ve been running a long time. But, no, I’m no expert. The average high school runner is more skilled and insightful than am I.
Which gets me to my point.
I don’t like cause races. Oh, I don’t mind when charities put on races to raise money. But I’m not comfortable with the increasing tendency for races to be positioned as crusades. Races are about running, they are not about causes.
Again, if the Cancer Society or the Arthritis Society or the neighborhood church want to sponsor a race – and, thankfully, they do – I am happy that they make money from it. I am happy that part of my entry fee ends up in their charitable pocket.
But I don’t run to help them.
And I’m uncomfortable pretending otherwise.
A race is a race. It is about running and trying and achieving.
Putting on an act, as a runner, that it’s about something else, that it’s about something nobler, is insincere and false.
At least as I see things.
Each year, for example, the Arthritis Society wonderfully sponsors the Rochester Marathon. I know some of the folks from the society who help organize it. But after these years of running the race, I don’t know that I’m empathetic toward or supportive of the fight against arthritis.
The race elicits in me a mild complaint that the course spends too many miles along the Erie Canal. On arthritis, however, I draw a blank.
Likewise, when St. Thomas Church sponsors its 5k, I will think about the jaunt through Washington Grove, not the ministries or charities bolstered by my entry fee.
It’s like fire departments that put on chicken barbecues. People like the fire department, sure, but they stop and buy because they like chicken.
And so I sign up for races because I like racing, usually without knowing or caring what the group sponsoring it is or what they are going to do with the money. My entry fee bought me a chance to run with a bunch of people; that’s all I care about.
A guy took me to task for saying that the other day. He implied that I had a cold heart, and that I should better support the charities that sponsor races.
I figure I do, I pay my entry fee. I tell my friends about the race, possibly bringing more runners.
I am grateful – intensely grateful – for race organizers of every stripe, but I don’t run for them, I run for me.
What got me thinking about this was a race the other week where I passed someone whose shirt announced that he was running to fight cancer, or some such thing.
And that struck me as ridiculous.
You’re not running to fight cancer. Running doesn’t fight cancer. Beyond your own decreased risk of cancer, a consequence of being fit, you could run around the world and a thousand people could join you and it wouldn’t do a thing to reduce a single tumor.
It’s not the running that fights cancer, or remembers a lost child or funds a program or builds a park, it’s the money. If you want to fight cancer, you don’t have to run at all, you just have to write a check. In fact, running as a means of raising money is effective but inefficient. Better if every entrant just made a donation and saved the charity the overhead and effort of putting on a race.
I may just see things differently than most.
I know that people run to prove things to themselves, or maybe to – in their way – honor a loved one or an issue. I know that love for someone or something can be a motivator to take up running, or maybe even improve your running by striving for a faster time or a longer distance. Many first-time marathoners have had a loved one or strong emotion that motivated them to train and run such a long race.
I think those things are good.
But on Saturday morning lining up to race, we’re not a bunch of Mother Theresas. We are people with a hobby sport – like bowling or golf – and we want to find out how well we will do. We’re not saving the world, we’re exercising.
And I wish people would stop pretending otherwise.