Thanks Oprah, You Made The Marathon Awesome

The other day I came across an old article that I somehow had never read.  In short, “How Oprah Ruined The Marathon” discusses the birth of the marathon boom thanks to Frank Shorter and then, according to author Edward McLellan, a second boom that brought about the demise of the original marathon concept thanks to Oprah.  Forty years ago the New York Marathon had no sponsors and less than 250 participants.  There were no Garmins on wrists, no Spibelts or fuel belts, and no one was carrying packets of Gu to get them through the race.  According to McLellan, most of these marathons consisted of very serious runners who dedicated their lives to finishing with impressive times.

I remember when Oprah trained for the Marine Corps Marathon.  I wasn’t a “runner” at the time but I used to watch her show.  I recall being amazed to see a woman who had so openly struggled with her weight all of her life tackle such a huge goal.  McLellan claims that Oprah inspired thousands and lowered the bar for everyone with her marathon finish.  Let me be the first to say that Oprah’s 4:29 marathon is actually relatively impressive.  I have coached hundreds of athletes over the years and of the several hundred who have finished a marathon, there is a big percentage who would give anything to have a 4:29 or less  finish.  As their coach, I can also tell you that those people who ran 5-6 hour marathons worked incredibly hard and dedicated months (if not years) to finish that race.

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There are very few runners (and yes they are all runners regardless of their 3 hour or 6 hour finish) that I have trained who did not put forth a full effort.  I have watched them lose dozens of pounds and struggle through injuries and mental obstacles.  I’ve seen the tears when they have to sit out with stress fractures or IT Band Syndrome.  I’ve listened to stories of inspiration for their reasons to get out there.  Some run to become healthy, some run to honor a loved one, others run to prove they can.  But they all pushed themselves harder than they ever had.

Many of those first time marathoners became lifelong runners.  Several were so inspired by that first race that they rededicated themselves to the distance and shaved half an hour or even an hour off of their first time.  Take that low bar!

These people aren’t the reason Americans aren’t winning marathons. The top trainers and coaches in this country can’t figure out why we aren’t winning races.  But it certainly isn’t the fault of that 5:30 marathoner who finishes hours after Ryan Hall comes across that line.

Sure there are thousands more people running these races than there used to be. But that can only help the situation. When Chicago has a field of 45,000 participants that is a lot of registration fees.  Races can in return have those incredible amenities and offer prizes to attract elite fields.  There can be a fully stocked course (and great beer at the finish).  AND it can inspire a new wave of young runners who line up along the course or watch from their televisions in small towns far from the actual race.

Plus, these races often offer guaranteed entries to faster runners.  They also offer corrals based on paces.  Ryan Hall isn’t taking off at the start next to someone running a 6 hour marathon.  Because of these larger fields, races have become well oiled machines.  Runners are packed together based on paces and leave in waves to ensure everyone gets a fair chance.
And those charities like Team In Training?  Those offer opportunities that go beyond just the race.  Charities programs offer the training assistance that new runners need.  They offer a lifeline for friends and family members dealing with illnesses and other issues.  They give reason for inspiration, which is often necessary for pushing through 26.2 grueling miles.  Beyond that, they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for incredible causes.  I find it beyond amazing that running can offer such a grand experience while touching the lives of so many people.  Not many other sports can provide such an opportunity.
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As I have coached so many marathoners I have heard countless stories off how training has changed their lives.  Dealing better with depression.  Coming off of blood pressure medicine.  Being a happier and nicer husband and father.  Losing weight to be able to start a family.  Those are just the beginning of the countless stories I have personally heard from people I have worked with.
Most people I train couldn’t tell you who the Penguin is (unless we are discussing comics).  However, the great majority of them know about Meb, Ryan, Deena, and Shalane.  But honestly, who cares?  The marathon is an incredible journey.  For some it is a dream to make an Olympic team, or to qualify for Boston.  For others the marathon is a bucket list goal or a lifelong dream.  Whatever it is, I love that running allows everyone the same opportunity on their own terms.
I am so proud of Oprah and her accomplishment, just as I am of anyone who tackles the marathon and follows through.  Thanks Oprah for showing so many of us what a great experience it can be!
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31 thoughts on “Thanks Oprah, You Made The Marathon Awesome

  1. I am not a big fan of Oprah, mostly because she has unleashed some questionable information on the world that have hurt more than helped via the like of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, but I can’t help but agree with this post. The running “boom” now is much different than those in the 70’s and the 80’s. It is much more philanthropy based this time, with most people running for a cause (i.e. Team in Training). That can never be a bad thing.

  2. I never read that article before, but I found it so disgustingly ignorant. The author sounds so full of himself and doesn’t understand the concept of people wanting to achieve something extraordinary that they never thought they could before. Like you, I don’t think the bar was lowered at all. I just think it gave people more inspiration in life. Most of us need to have goals to work towards in life and the marathon has become a goal that anybody can achieve if they work hard at it. Time is a personal factor, but it certainly doesn’t define an individual’s success. I wonder if this author ever smiles as he crosses the finish line… For me, I think that’s the biggest sign of success 😀

    • That is an excellent question and a brilliant thought. Smiling as you cross the finish line is a great measure of success (although I often make myself sick by the end!). I agree with you on all of this. And also did you notice that he mentions his first marathon time was less than impressive? One thing I have learned about the marathon is that you can train like crazy but you never know what will happen out there. And another thing I learned about running and runners is that we all have our own capabilities and that is what is so special about this sport. There is room for everyone.

      • Yes! In my world, 4:16 is a great time and it’s so condescending that he says it was horrible. The one thing I hate is when runners seem to want to compare their times to others or define a certain marathon time as a “good” standard. At the end of the day, everyone who finishes is still a marathoner and can add the title to their resume if they so choose to 🙂
        Running (and racing!) should definitely be for everyone who wants to participate!

  3. I love that Oprah took something that was previously so distant and almost mythical and demonstrated that us regular folk can achieve the seemingly impossible as well. She did the marathon when step aerobics and phen phen were all the rage–she could have gone about it a totally different way. But she inspired women all over to say, you know what? I can change my life, whether that be a marathon or something else.

    YOU GO OPRAH

  4. Oprah FTW! I read that article the other day and completely disagreed with all of it. Oprah was a driving force in bringing the marathon to the masses and I love her for it!

  5. I just read this article for the first time this morning! I was appalled by it! I am always so excited when I get to a race to see how many different people there are with bib numbers pinned to their shirts. Elite runners, first-timers, seasoned athletes, people of all shapes and sizes. That is the type of sport that I think running should be. The fastest starting corrals will always be for the elite, and the amount of people lined up behind them will never take away from, or slow down, the fastest runners out there. This dude, in my opinion, is just an idiot.

    • I think that is a pretty good description of the author. And I am so with you. I absolutely love the feeling of the start of a race when you are standing there with so many other like minded people. I love that we can all come together; fast, slow, big, little….it doesn’t matter. And you are right, the people in the slower corrals will never take away from those speedy runners. They will just help make the faster runners look even faster 😉

  6. I have never really cared one way or the other about Oprah (but who can deny her influence?!?) … but I saw that article posted on Twitter this morning (a 2007 article no less) and read it sitting in a meeting and was annoyed a bit. I have no issue with the author having an opinion, but what you said nails it for me …

    “These people aren’t the reason Americans aren’t winning marathons. ”

    EXACTLY. His argument is the worst kind of straw man argument and assigns causality in place of mere correlation. Ugh.

    • I completely agree. I think that argument was the one that really set me off when I was reading this. I don’t understand how you can go from being annoyed by the masses of slower runners, to correlating that to the issue with American runners not being on the same level with the rest. There are certainly much bigger issues going on there.

  7. I never saw McLellans article before but I’ve read several like this. The whole attitude that distance running should only be open to “elite” or “serious” runners is outright jerky (for lack of a better word lol). and not sure at all how it would impact the competetive marathon field. That’s like saying kids casually shooting hoops at a park after school is lowering the bar and making NBA players worse! I agree 100% with the points you make and love all the positivity that came along with the running boom, especially seeing people motivated to be healthier! 🙂

    • I too love seeing newer runners and people making an effort to be healthier. That is why I have dedicated my job to this. The elitist attitude in running is unfortunate because most people who are “true” runners are very welcoming of all levels.

  8. Hmm… I can see where the guy is coming from in his article but… I think that if Oprah (and whoever else) gets people to get up from a couch to be active and start feeling good about themselves… They are inspirational and I applaued them!

    In every sport there are “sport snobs”. I used to feel bad for not running fast, not having the right gear when I encountered them, but now I just laugh 🙂

    And I’m also doing ny first marathon this year… :))) Yay!

  9. your point is well made: anyone who trains for, and finishes, a marathon, deserves to be recognized and congratulated for putting in the incredible time and effort and will power and physical & mental endurance necessary to tackle this beast! to differentiate between “real runners” and “people who run” is to diminish someone’s personal accomplishment, and i don’t ascribe to that, either. we are all out to better ourselves and enjoy personal goals. it’s an amazing feat.

  10. I just found your blog thanks to Helly on the Run and am so glad. I really love your response to that ridiculous 2007 article in Salon. I read a similar one in the New York Times from I think around the same time, or maybe a couple of years later. I was surprised to see that the author has had to deal with injury and setbacks himself, and that he’s never run the full marathon distance. Perhaps he is just at a place where he cannot appreciate the hardwork that goes into full marathon training because he’s never done it. As a slow runner myself the amount of time that I had to dedicate to run my first full marathon last year was double what some of my faster friends did, but you know what? Just like Oprah I ‘hauled my flab’ across the finish line as the article author so eloquently put it.

    The article author mentioned his annoyance with marathon runners who only go the distance one time to check it off a bucket list. I don’t see anything wrong with someone being “one and done” with the marathon, that’s their personal preference. I’m sure there are plenty of things the author did one time in his life and never did again. Who cares? BUT for many of us who are slow runners, it’s NOT a one and done thing, rather it’s an “okay, now I set a baseline from which I can improve” thing!

    When I ran my first half marathon in Nov. 2013 I finished in 16 minute pace and just recently finished a half at 13:30 pace. When I run my second full marathon this fall I hope that I destroy my old time, but either way I’ll be proud … and I won’t have affected anyone else with my time! I certainly don’t think Ryan Hall is going to call me up and ask me to please sit the next one out! 🙂

    • And I can only hope the president doesn’t call me and ask me to sit the next one out because it’s treason! I mean, he might agree with the author and think I’m dragging down the nation! Yikes!

    • Love this! All of it. Congrats to you for all of your hard work and awesome improvements. No doubt Ryan Hall would be happy to see you out there working hard and getting stronger. It’s a great sport and with plenty of room for all!

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