Ward Nicholson

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Invasion of the hobby joggers, Part 1

This past fall I got my feet wet running a few local road races again after many years away. In the process, I had to deal for the first time with the incursion of so-called hobby joggers that has affected the road-racing scene nationwide since the time I last competed. Here is my report.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

It is one of my first 5K races in almost 25 years, and I am now not much more than a quarter of a mile past the one-mile mark on a beautiful course that runs along the largest river in our state. It is an absolutely perfect fall morning for a race: 57 degrees, crisp air, a cheerful sun, and little to no wind or humidity. Cool enough to not overheat, but not so cool that my muscles might tighten up competing in the brief split-side shorts and T-shirt I am wearing.

At 59 years old, I am still feeling my way back from the long absence from racing. This current race effort is purposely more intense than my first couple of testing-the-waters forays the previous month, and I am beginning to feel and remember what a real competitive attempt is like again.

Flirting with the limit of my current fitness, I am pushing hard but consciously holding back a bit to avoid going over the edge so I don’t crash and burn. And also because I’m still not quite sure where that edge really is, or exactly what it feels like — or used to feel like — after such a long time away.

I don’t want to risk running on the “red line” just yet. I’m getting closer to that day, but it can wait till next spring. After the two earlier fall races run well shy of my capability, this one is a time trial to wrap things up for the season and assess my true fitness level so I can determine a few key paces to target in training this winter. So while I’m enjoying grappling with the challenge, I don’t want to spoil things by potentially overreaching and nosing over into a painfully drawn-out tailspin for the latter half of the race.

A first encounter with the species

Not far ahead of me is a younger, tallish, somewhat overweight (at least for a runner), probably early-thirty-something man who is laboring heavily. It is a level of fatigue he should not be experiencing until the very last half-mile of the race, had he been pacing himself properly. He appeared in my sights a couple of hundred yards back, and I have slowly been closing in on him. But now, crossing over a bridge spanning the river on the route, with every stride the gap is visibly diminishing.

I am somewhat surprised to see a water station just on the other side of the bridge. What the…? A water station in a 5K race in cool weather like this? And so soon? I inwardly chuckle: Wow. This is not a marathon, folks, or even a half-marathon. Not even a 10K. But I remember there was also such a water station in one of the previous “get my feet wet” races even earlier on, at the one-mile point.

Who really needs water this early in a 5K, or even at all in this kind of fall-weather 5K? No runner who knows what they are doing. Nor would race directors catering to those who know waste limited resources on stations with water for them. But go figure…

A volunteer holds out white styrofoam cups of water for us. Rather than taking the water from her hand and drinking from it while continuing to run, according to protocol, the man ahead all of a sudden without warning lurches to a complete stop to grab and guzzle the water down his gullet right on the path. Fortunately he does not block my way in having done so. But his oblivious antics annoy me.

Just in case he should decide to make another stupid move that might force me to engage in abrupt sidestepping to try and avoid a collision — potentially resulting in injury regardless of the outcome — I take the opportunity to accelerate slightly and buzz right on by to be done with him. This seems to either startle or peeve him, and he drops the water to take off after me. But he doesn’t last long, and disappears quickly behind. I know this because even though I don’t turn around to check, I can hear the sound of his clomping footsteps steadily receding behind me.

Perhaps his behavior was prompted by embarrassment at having been passed by someone 25 years older, I don’t know. But what he really should be embarrassed about is to even be out on the racecourse in the first place in his condition, with his obvious lack of knowledge.

He knows no better, however. He is one of the many varieties of people clogging up races these days that more serious runners often refer to as “hobby joggers.”

Delving between the earbuds: hobby jogger motivation and behavior

So what is a hobby jogger, exactly? It’s a controversial label because it often implies disparagement. Not everyone agrees on the specifics (it tends to be more of a “you know it when you see it” type of thing), and there is much debate on the topic. But here are the primary characteristics as I define the term. Not every one of them need apply, but these are the most typical. For me, a hobby jogger is someone who:

  • Runs sporadically or without a dedicated routine.
  • Doesn’t approach running with a competitive mindset or goal, even if the approach is strictly self-competitive. (I.e., doesn’t approach it as a sport, thus the “hobby” label.)
  • Only runs slowly, doesn’t do any form of speedwork or at least faster-tempo running (keeping in mind these are relative terms, geared to each individual).
  • May not pursue or enjoy running for its own sake, so other things like playing music through headphones or earbuds are used to distract themselves from the effort, from internal sensations, breathing, muscular responsiveness, fatigue, etc. — things that to someone who truly enjoys it are interesting and provide important feedback.
  • A tendency toward being overweight, at least by the standards of more serious runners, although this isn’t necessarily the case. The more serious or competitive you are, the less likely any excess weight is going to be hanging around, because of how much it negatively impacts performance, as well as the kinesthetic enjoyment of the running action.
  • May run only for health reasons, or mainly just because their doctor or someone else convinced them they needed to start doing some type of aerobics. This isn’t to say competitive runners don’t also welcome the health benefits, but it isn’t usually the primary motivation.
  • May not be able to sustain the discipline of a running program on their own, and needs group motivation and support as a prod to continue.
  • May buy specialized or high-end running gear and apparel aimed at the competitive runner without actually being one themselves, to look the part or be fashionable.
  • Enters races not to race, but simply to finish, or as a social-media event or as a fundraiser to be a do-gooder. They may walk the whole way and not run at all. The competitive result against self or others isn’t on their radar screen, just the fact they participated, as documented by selfies, Facebook posts, tweets, etc.

Hobby jogging versus running: not necessarily what you think

I’ll circle back and look at some of the changes that the burgeoning of hobby jogging has had on races and in participation statistics later. Except for the last two points above about wanting to look the part without actually being what one purports to represent, though — and clogging up road races as a result — it’s not a bad thing to be a hobby jogger, in and of itself. I wish there were more people who ran, particularly for health reasons.

But the above does provide the context for why most runners who compete seriously aren’t happy about the large influx of hobby joggers gumming up the road-racing scene. Or who may clutter up the few running tracks available where competitive athletes typically go to perform their interval-work sessions, only to be interfered with by walker-joggers who block the inside lanes and could easily put in their time elsewhere instead.

And notice that I’ve said nothing about specific paces or performance levels as criteria for determining what constitutes a hobby jogger, except for those who treat races as walkfests or jogfests instead of running to compete. There is a strong tendency among the younger competitive set in high school and college to disparage as a hobby jogger anyone who can’t run at least a certain pace for a given distance. But these guys have not yet experienced the inevitable slowdown that will beset them once they hit middle age, and have no clue on this point.

There can also be tremendous differences in performance, and performance potential, due to talent. One’s genetic endowment has a very large influence in determining competitive outcomes. So performance level is very relative. What makes the difference in determining what constitutes a hobby jogger — in my book — has little to do with how fast or slow one is. Attitude, behavior, and knowledgeable participation in the sport are everything.

An observational guide to spotting the hobby jogger in the field

W
ith the above as context, then, here are the things often cited as typical hobby jogger earmarks:

  • Wearing headphones or earbuds while running.
  • Wearing a mobile phone on one’s arm to time and log one’s running rather than a more functional and less obtrusive running watch.
  • Running while talking on the phone.
  • Wearing the race T-shirt that came in the race packet in the very same race.
  • Getting in the way of others on a running or bike path or sidewalk. This can be either running three or four or five abreast on a path, or running alone while being oblivious to others, not realizing that if you’re running slower you should be cognizant of and courteous to those who need to get around you.
  • In general, being oblivious to those around you when running, and not behaving awarely or courteously.
  • Someone jogging along the roadside anywhere with awful form, obviously suffering and not enjoying what they are doing.
  • Any idiot running in the road on a busy, main thoroughfare with heavy traffic whizzing by, regardless of whether they are running facing traffic or not. Without a lick of sense, obviously never learning. (Residential streets or less-traveled avenues make a lot more sense when it comes to safety.)
  • Someone leisurely moving along at barely more than a walk in a stylish $200 or $300 outfit in super-spiffy running shoes with no evidence of a scuff anywhere on them.
  • Wearing a hydration/fuel belt in a 5K.
  • Not knowing how to pace oneself, i.e., huffing and puffing and getting red in the face early on in a race.
  • Taking water at any aid station in a 5K on a cool day, let alone early in the race, especially stopping to do so.
  • Someone 25 or 30 or 40 or more pounds overweight in a race, especially someone trundling along chatting it up with everyone around them.
  • Collecting or displaying participation/finisher medals.

Larger-scale effects of the hobby jogger revolution on the running market

For good measure, here are some of the wider consequences of hobby jogging:

  • Races that have become carnivals or parades, instead of competitions, for the majority of participants.
  • Races that are huge stampedes, or if smaller are clogged up with little room to stretch out and run without interference. (A finisher every second or even more frequent, rather than, say, every 3 to 5 to 10 seconds.)
  • Race entry fees double what they would be otherwise.
  • Clinics to train people to finish races as short as 5K.
  • The commercial running industry creating all sorts of superfluous products we don’t really need because hobby joggers have the money to buy them, and will.
  • Running gear and apparel priced two to three times what they would be if sold just to the general public or strictly competitive runners rather than the hobby jogger market:
    • $150 running shoes that would sell to the general public for $65 to $85.
    • $10-per-pair wicking socks when cheap polyester/cotton would do.
    • $60 to $80 Lycra running tights that would go for $25 to $30 if marketed as opaque ladies’ pantyhose.
    • It’s hard to find traditional split-side racing shorts that haven’t been crowded out by compression shorts or knee-length basketball-type togs that look silly on very slender competitive distance runners.
    • GPS running watch models that cost $500 instead of $250, or $250 instead of $125.
    • $25 for 20-oz. squeezable, ergonomically contoured water bottles with hand-straps that would go for $10 if sold in a department store as everyday plastic bottles for the home.

So, what’s the problem with all of this? So what? It’s not that I have anything against hobby joggers per se. As I have said, I would love to see a lot more people running.

The real issues for me are that: (a) The influx of hobby joggers into races has skewed and, for me, spoiled, what the races themselves used to be — with so many people now treating them as participation-fests instead of actual competitions. And: (b) Hobby jogging and the related flood of people who have a lot more money to spend (one might even say throw away) than people like me do has created absurd inflation in the cost of running shoes and other gear that serious runners need to buy.

How hobby joggers have overrun road races and distorted what they are about

Too many bloated races, not enough smaller ones

Earlier in the season, it had been bewildering trying to select a 5K race or two for a couple of friends and myself to enter after years off the local road-racing scene. In contrast to the couple of races or so per month available in the metro area during the peak spring and fall seasons when I had last raced in the mid-1990s — sometimes perhaps one a week — now it seemed there were usually two almost every week, and occasionally even three. And not only that, the number of entrants had skyrocketed to where some of the events were as much stampedes or parades as they were races.

I knew from following the letsrun.com discussion forums that hobby joggers had progressively changed the road-racing scene over the last couple of decades. But I hadn’t really thought too much about it, because in the years since I had last competed, though still competitive with myself in training, I ran because I loved doing so for its own sake, as well as for fitness, but without the intent to enter races. Heck, before getting back into competition, I might even have been considered by some to be a hobby jogger myself since I wasn’t concerned about racing, even though I was still self-competitive. The hobby jogger controversy just didn’t affect me.

But now I was confronted with the evidence firsthand, and I did not like it. I really do not like large crowds — at all. Where were the smaller races and how could I find them? When I had last raced, almost all events in the metro area of about half a million were on the small side and probably did not feature more than about 150 to 200 runners. The lone exception was a large corporate-sponsored race that was a centerpiece for the yearly city celebration-fest. At that time it might have drawn several hundred to a thousand runners and less-serious joggers who made the pilgrimage from all over the state to run it.

More serious runners looked forward to facing the higher-caliber regional competition, or rubbing elbows with some of the near-elite-level athletes who came in from well outside the region, including a few semi-elite Kenyans who might show up. Perhaps the less-serious runners wanted to partake of the spectacle and festive atmosphere, or renew ties with far-flung acquaintances they might not have seen since last year’s edition of the race, but they were not what we would today call hobby joggers.

Other than this single race, the other, smaller races at the time were frequented mostly by serious runners in the immediate area and closely surrounding counties. You had the opportunity to get to know a decent proportion of the runners casually, or at least knew of them by reputation and could identify and cheer them on by name. You could take pleasure in observing and admiring their grit or ability or running form. All of which was possible because the races were more intimate affairs thoroughly populated by such committed runners.

Domination of racing by faceless national charities

Another change was that most of the races seemed to be sponsored by charities now. Back when I had raced before, the primary charity race was the Komen Race for the Cure, but there weren’t too many others. Now, there were few races that remained purely local in character and were not a charity fundraiser for some national organization. Of course, these causes were presumably noble — if not impossibly quixotic in some cases, to my way of thinking, devoted to finding medical cures for what were in reality diseases of diet and lifestyle — but nonetheless faceless charity causes I felt little connection with. Just about everything had seemingly been monetized for purposes outside the road-running community itself.

Was I being too cynical to suspect that maybe road-racing was being exploited by national nonprofits who just wanted to sink their blood-sucking fangs into all those plumpish hobby joggers, harvesting them for cash? Or that many of the latter might be dilettantes who often seemed to be making a social-media bandwagon out of our sport that they could jump onto while promoting themselves via selfies, Facebook, and Twitter? I didn’t know, but I wasn’t sure I liked how the one-two punch of both combined had knocked things for such a loop.

Competition scattered and diluted by an overcrowded racing calendar

The proliferation of races had also fragmented and scattered the competitive echelon of runners. Previously you would frequently see, and even experience yourself, exciting head-to-heads and close finishes among serious, similarly talented runners at levels all up and down the competitive spectrum, each pushing the other to get the best performances out of themselves.

In contrast, nowadays it appeared from my perusals of recent race results that in up to perhaps half or two-thirds of them (just a guess), one of two scenarios often prevailed: Either one or two or three talented, isolated guys or gals would completely outclass everyone else in their respective races, finishing in good times a full minute or two ahead in a 5K — light years ahead in running terms — with no other notable local runners in attendance following in their wake. Or, alternatively, other events might be won by some mediocre nobody in what would be considered a slow, unimpressive time given their relatively young age, unless on occasion that same time might qualify as competitive on the master’s level by, say, an accomplished fifty-something outdistancing an otherwise almost-all-hobby-jogger field.

The latter in fact happened in the second tentative race back that I ran. A talented 57-year-old guy — whom I had competed against as a high-schooler — and his barely adolescent 13-year-old daughter both easily outran everyone else from one end of the age continuum all the way to the other. Yes, it was a small race of 90 participants, but still… you rarely ever saw that kind of disparity among the competition no matter how small the race when I had competed 25 years before.

“Spectation nation”: everything is mostly about appearances now

And yes, it was great that more people were out there ambulating at least in some form. After all, the nation as a whole is woefully unfit and exceedingly unhealthy. But couldn’t the hobby joggers instead stage their very own selfie-opportunity participation-fests rather than crashing what were previously competitions for more serious runners? Or, if they were going to enter these races, couldn’t they learn and abide by the traditions that had already evolved within the running community itself, for good reasons? In other words, demonstrate some respect? Apparently not.

To all appearances, for many of them the whole point was seemingly to look as if they were a real runner without actually being one. And the way you do that is apparently to just fake it by participating in some actual races, but ones that have now been so diluted that all who complete the race get meaningless finisher medals to hang up in their rooms, or put up on a plaque in their offices, to claim the mantle just by showing up and not dropping out. Contrast this with anyone who runs for its own sake, or for the competition, who typically throws out such “participation” medals as soon as they return home.

Do you want to look the part, or do you want to actually be the part? Are you running because you actually enjoy it, or just because you want something else it’s supposed to get you? Are you just piggy-backing on some trend, or doing it because of motivation from within? Are you thinking for yourself, or simply following the crowd?

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

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