My friend Mark is running the Vermont City Marathon on Memorial Day weekend as his first marathon. He’s been training hard, and like many people listens to music on his MP3 player to pass the time on his long training runs.
The other day he asked me, in my role as his running guru, whether it would be appropriate to wear his iPod during the race. My immediate answer was “No”, and there was no question in my mind that that was the right answer. I didn’t give that answer because I’m some kind of snobby running purist (as much as I appreciate the ascetic qualities of the sport). And I didn’t give that answer because of the supposed safety issues that are causing many events to ban the use of headphones.
The way I see it, while there are many reasons to run, there are only two reasons sign up for a race. Neither reason is enhanced by the use of an iPod.
The first reason is to race. To run as fast as you can, and to beat other people who are running as fast as they can. To maximize your potential in a race, you need to focus on what you’re doing at all times. An iPod is a distraction that you don’t need. Anyhow, while I’m racing is one of the few times when I am truly living in the moment, totally absorbed in what I’m doing. I’m not worrying about work or money or relationships, and I’m not looking for distractions from the pain of the effort. I’m watching that pain closely to ensure I’m absorbing as much as possible without redlining before I reach the finish. I wouldn’t even hear the music.
The other reason to sign up for a race is to enjoy being a member of the running community. As I’ve gotten older (and slower) this reason has become more important. In the course (ha!) of a long race, if you run at a pace that is strong and consistent, but still allows you to talk, you can meet lots of interesting people. You’ll all have at least one thing in common to talk about, and as you converse you’re likely to find others. If you don’t, the natural flow of the race will separate you, and you can move on to another person.
If this is your plan, it’s best to start slow, then ease into your race pace. That way, you will often be the better runner in the conversation, an advantage when you’re trying to run and talk. Not everyone will want to talk, especially those who are running as fast as they can while you’re lounging along. But you can still interact with some of those people, by serving as a distraction or a pacer or an advisor.
Obviously, a MP3 player would interfere with this side of racing. But if you’re looking for distractions while you run, becoming engaged in conversation is much more effective than passively listening to music. While you won’t be running as fast as you possibly could, subjectively the miles will fly by.
So Mark, leave the iPod at home and immerse yourself in the race experience. You’ll never have another first marathon, and you won’t want to miss any of the cheers you’ll hear as you cross the finish line.