Thursday, April 12, 2007

It’s Hard to be a Minimalist in a High-Tech World

Runner/Essayist Jess Koski sent DtB these thoughts about marathons and headphones -- a hot topic since Grandma's Marathon announced it will enforce the USATF rule forbidding headphones in competition ...

“My name is Jess K. (unclear reference lost on younger generation?) and I wore an iPod in the Twin Cities Marathon.”

Sure, I’d love to claim I was “doing research for this article,” but the truth is I’d scored an iPod Nano from another oldster who couldn’t figure the blasted thing out. I thought that maybe some rock and roll might pull me along to an effortless, “in the zone,” experience like the runs I’d recently had on my treadmill (which I now realize must be on a downhill grade.)

Nowadays it seems you can strap anything to your body. So, I set out from the Metrodome looking and feeling like an ultra-runner: belt, gels, music, the pill-cocktail carried in baggies pinned to my shorts.

What was I thinking? What happened to the minimalist marathoner I once was? The guy who used to peel the stripes off of his flats to save weight? Scissor his number to the smallest possible size? Don too-small shorts that rivaled his wife’s bun-huggers (though much less attractive on a man if you know what I mean.)?

Instead of monitoring my pace, cutting tangents, and listening my body, I was searching for buttons on the iPod, tightening my belt against bouncing paraphernalia, feeling conspicuous and a bit stupid.

To make a long, miserable race short, I struggled through the race with all my stuff (except the still-full gel bottle that fell out of my belt at 8 miles.) Some of the songs on my iPod weren’t exactly uplifting (Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”) while others did actually help toward the end. Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive and Well” helped me up the hill at 21 miles and Dylan Thomas’ droning recitation of “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” (“..old age should burn and rave at close of day/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”) filled my entire being at 25 miles…just in time to save me from being caught and passed for the last paying spot in the age-group.

This year Grandma’s has announced that there will be no headphones allowed on the course per USATF regulations. I think this is a good thing. There are the obvious safety issues, but there’s another thing that bothers me about these devices. They put up a barrier between the runner and the outside world. I recall with shame how I had to pull off the headphones to ask Dan Morse to repeat himself as he yelled out some encouragement to me near the end of the race.

A runner in headphones is sending a message to people on the course, many who have made the effort to stand outside for hours in less-than ideal weather to encourage strangers to do their best. The message is ‘I don’t care what you’re saying.’ Marathoning ranks low as a spectator sport, but when the competitors are nothing more than unresponsive zombies it’s a wonder anyone turns out to egg us on. Wearing headphones also prevents the kinds of little conversations runners have with one another during the race; the advice, encouragement, the complaining, inevitable excuses, the camaraderie.

I know a woman who has decided not to run the Bjorklund Half-Marathon because she was upset by this prohibition. She says she “can’t run without her headphones.” I want to tell her about running “unencumbered.” I want to tell her about the simple purity of the Navajo kids we knew in Arizona who were sent out of the hogan at dawn to run as hard as they could into the rising sun. Shoes and pants and a roll in the snow at the end of the run. I want to tell her about hearing the first Robin’s song of the Spring, the first “peepers” in that pond at the end of the Laine Road. I want to tell her how damn good it feels to hear your name called out near the finish line of a race in a faraway city.

Of course this is easy for me to say; the smugness of the recovering iPod addict….

Jess Koski writes the "218: Running Along the Northern Border" column for Minnesota Running & Track.


Chad said...

I'd just like to go on the record and say I really enjoy Jess's writings. I really liked his piece on Randy Wiinanen a couple of issues ago.

miller said...

Damn straight Chad. We're lucky to have him.

Jess said...

Thanks for the comments Chad and Pete.
As a writer it's great to know you're not performing your monologue for an empty theater!

Lynn said...

Ahhh, another purist runner who has no clue speaks about something they know nothing about. If a person is used to running while listening to music, so be it, leave them alone. Also, this nonsense about not hearing people around them. I have run many marathons and have listened to music and always hear everyone around me as well. I acknowledge cheering bystanders, high-five some of them even while I pass by. I was also very unimpressed that Grandma's didn't allow music devices for a few years and I stopped entering. They have since changed this policy and I see that they certainly do not fill that marathon as fast as they used to. I think they turned off many people with that policy and have lost them for good.

As I said, purist runners from a track background do not and will never, understand what exercising with music means to those people who have always done this. Is it not better to have people exerising while listening to music than not have them exercising at all? If you don't like to listen to music while you run that's fine, but don't force your opinions on others. I wonder if Grandma's will even fill this year?