Competing or completing: does it matter?

I just read an article in a running magazine and one line in it made me feel momentarily sad and frustrated. Then I checked myself. Then I thought I’d write about it anyway.

The article was a race report. It was for a half marathon and the writer finished in just under 2hrs 15min. Now I want to state for the record that I really think that it is great that he gave it a go (many, many people will never attempt to complete a half marathon or indeed any sort of sporting challenge at all). And I’m not suggesting for a minute that he is not a worthy recipient of a finishers medal and a pint in the pub afterwards, but the line that got me was “At mile 11, I hit the wall”.

I just don’t think that a young, able-bodied man running at slower than 10 minutes per mile, should ‘hit the wall’ at 11 miles. What I mean by that, is that I think that any young, able-bodied man should be able to train in such a way that 11 miles at almost 11 mins/mile, should feel very manageable. The person who finishes a half marathon in two and a quarter hours is moving at around 5.5 miles per hour. To put that in context, walking pace is usually considered to be 3.5 miles per hour while elite marathoners run at around 13 mph in a marathon.

So before anyone thinks that I am having a go at the person who wrote the race review, I am not. I am criticising a society where people are so unfit and so sedentary that running at 5.5 miles per hour results in encounters with the ‘wall’ and a collapse after the finish line. And we think this is an acceptable performance to warrant column inches in a specialist running magazine. I know that not everyone – me included – can run a sub-60 minute half marathon, but surely there is a lower limit that every human being, with a bit of training and the odd lifestyle choice, should be able to attain?

As I hope you can tell, I am wrestling with this issue.

On the one hand I desperately want people to get involved in running and I really do empathise: I finished my first half marathon in 1 hour 57 minutes.

But on the other hand, I know that the reason I finished my first half in almost two hours is that I had wrecked my body with cigarettes, alcohol, bad food and absolutely no exercise at all. For years, That is something that I am really ashamed of and I do not think for a minute that people should follow my example: I perhaps lack a certain balance in my approach to running.

But I am left with the feeling that as a society, we need to raise our expectations. I think that exercise needs to become the norm. That people need to believe that they should be able to run fast and for a good amount of time as a matter of course and whilst I am not suggesting I know where the limit should be, I would love to try to find out what should be acceptable for a fit, able-bodied person to be able to achieve. Anyone have any ideas?