Time, Why You Punish Me?

Photo: Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images

Scott Fauble wrote a post about super shoes last week and I found myself agreeing with many parts of it. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve written more than I’ve cared to about super shoes/spikes in recent weeks/months/years but it would also be irresponsible not to since they’ve fundamentally changed the sport from the professional ranks on down since 2016 (and continue to do so to this day). Not to mention that on the industry side of things, super shoe technology is one of the biggest and most consequential innovations in running footwear—a multi-billion dollar industry—in several decades and let’s not forget that the industry supports the sport (which is not the case in most other professional sports). Finally, if the super shoe/spike technology were ubiquitous and widely available to all—which, contrary to popular belief, it is not yet—we wouldn’t (still) be talking so much about it.

That said, and to Scott’s ending point, I agree that we—athletes, coaches, media, and fans alike—should “focus on the competition more than the times.” There is nothing more exciting than watching two runners battle one another to the finish line. But focusing on how fast people are running rather than the competition itself has been one of the sport’s biggest roadblocks, no pun intended. Scott, to no fault of his own, is a good example: more people know him as the guy who ran 2:09 at Boston than the guy who finished seventh at Boston and New York. Same with Eliud Kipchoge, who is more widely known for his world record and sub-2 marathon than he is his three Olympic medals, including gold in the marathon. Outside of individual athletes’ accomplishments, look at cross-country, which I enjoyed watching to no end yesterday, as an even better example: time (and even distance) are inconsequential, it’s all about competition, has excitement and drama up the wazoo, but at the professional level athletes largely avoid it today because there are few opportunities and little to no incentive—many/most pros would rather chase fast times on the track and/or roads because there’s more money and media coverage in it (and this is a job for them, after all). Heck, the world championships aren’t even an annual event anymore. Ironically, cross country is the one discipline where time doesn’t matter and what you have on your feet doesn’t make a difference unless you stupidly choose to wear flats on a muddy course.

So what’s the solution here? I don’t know for sure because top-to-bottom—and for better or worse—track and road racing, in particular the marathon, revolve around times: you can’t make the high school league meet without a fast enough time, you can’t qualify for the Olympic Trials without a time, they won’t let you into the Olympic Games if you don’t have the time, you can’t qualify for the Boston Marathon without a time. Heck, the one thing every runner I know is after, even if they’ll never have dreams of qualifying for anything or beating anyone, is a personal best, which is, yes, a time. It’s an impossible thing to separate from the sport. You can’t not talk about it. That’s just a fact. And over the past five or so years the advancement of footwear technology has fundamentally shifted what’s possible in terms of times, whether you’re a professional who does this for a living or an amateur just trying to go faster than you did a year ago. That’s also a fact. 

Look: I love competition and I believe it does more for performance enhancement than just about anything you can buy and/or put on/into your body and I would love nothing more than to talk more about it. My college coach, Karen Boen, always told us if we focused on competing that the times would take care of themselves. I really believe there’s a lot of truth to that statement. I too am tired of talking about who was wearing what on their feet when they popped off such and such a time but that’s where we’re at right now in our sport’s history. Eventually, however, the playing field will level itself out and the super shoe chatter will die down because they’ll just be called shoes—and we’ll find something else to get riled up about, let’s be honest—but maybe, just maybe, despite it all we can get back to focusing on what’s always made our sport so great in the first place.