Yesterday (January 18, 2015) I ran in the Carlsbad half-marathon. It was my first half-marathon since late 2010, and while it’s not exactly accurate to say that getting up at the crack of dawn to wait in the cold and then run 13.1 miles is fun, I was looking forward to it. I have never regretted doing a race, whether a triathlon or a running race, and I have enjoyed those experiences as well, even as my body complains and my brain asks why the hell I am paying good money for the dubious “pleasure” of participating in endurance events. Well, here’s why I do it: I like challenging myself. I appreciate knowing that, at 43 years old, I can run long distances at a reasonable pace and not be completely wrecked at the end. I like getting up with the sun and knowing I’ll soon be outside, with like-minded people, experiencing the same challenge. I don’t wear headphones when I race because I want to hear the sound that thousands of footfalls make when the starting gun goes off – it sounds like a steady rain. I also want to hear the snippets of conversation, the cheers of the spectators and the encouragement of the volunteers, and my own labored breathing.
Every person’s experience of the race is unique, and I understand why well over half of the people I saw were wearing headphones as they ran. I always listen to music when I am doing fitness or training runs, because, let’s face it: running is monotonous. The music helps. I make the exception for races because I am energized and entertained by what I hear along the course. So, this rant is not aimed at those who wear headphones during a race. It is, however, aimed at the people who did not actually experience the race; instead, they screened it. This would be the people who had their phones held above their heads, the record button pressed, taking video as they ran across the starting line. This would be the people slinging their arms around their friends, already walking before finishing the first mile, blocking the serious runners behind them, attempting to take a group selfie. This would be the people who were posting pictures to social media or sending texts as they weaved about the course, oblivious to the runners around them. This would be the “runners” stopping for several minutes to pose for photos or take selfies in front of the ocean as the race route passed out of downtown Carlsbad and went along the beach.
I try not to begrudge these people their right to document their experience as they see fit, but the fact is that I do begrudge it, and I do judge it. I won’t argue that it’s right for me to do so; it’s a purely subjective reaction. But I have to be honest and admit that it bugs the shit out of me. I don’t think people who do this sort of thing are experiencing the race so much as they are experiencing their desire to document and share it (and in fact, there is research to show that our obsessive use of camera phones is changing the way our experiences and memories are shaped). I’m sure the same thing happened in the last half-marathon I ran in 2010, but I don’t remember seeing so much of it. And to be clear, I have no problem with pre- or post-race photos or social media updates. But during the race? What this also tells me is that these people aren’t in it to race a half-marathon; they’re in it so they can say they’ve participated in a half-marathon. To me, these are substantively different things. I’ll grant you that I am not racing in the sense that I expect to beat anybody in particular across the finish line; but I am racing in the sense that I have a goal, which is to run to the best of my ability and complete the race with the best time I can accomplish.
I’m sure this must sound incredibly snobbish and arrogant. It probably is. I am working on detaching myself from this reaction because, unless one of these screen-runners gets in my way or runs into me, their actions have no direct impact on me. They can do what they want and they can experience the race any way they choose… but if anything the greatest sense I have is one of sadness that technology has brought us to this: using the screen as a filter for genuine experience. Maybe some memories are better developed in the mind and not on the screen. Maybe some accomplishments should be achieved with our eyes focused on the world in front of us, in full. Maybe the real challenge in not just completing, but racing in an endurance event needs to be found in fully committing to it and not doing it just as a lark to be shared via text or tweet or Instagram mid-race.
I realized even before I crossed the finish line yesterday that I have missed it and I will race again. I know I will see the screen-runners at the next event, too. It will probably bother me less because I’ll be prepared for it, and also because I know it’s not for me to judge how other people choose to experience the race. I know that my reaction to the screens is visceral and emotional rather than rational… but I still wish people would just put down their phones and run.