Monday, August 11, 2014

Then and Now

I haven't written in this blog in over 1.5 years, probably because I didn't have much to say. Anyway, the 25th anniversary of my very first race is coming up next month. It was the Rancho Penasquitos Towne Center 5K, which was one of the most boring courses that I have run on. How scenic and exciting can the streets of suburban San Diego be? Not very, unless you are a big fan of strip malls. My time in that race was 30 minutes and 17 seconds, which is a pace of 9:47/mile or just over 6 minutes/km. I remember being proud of myself because I broke a 10:00/mile pace. Believe it or not, I still have the cotton t-shirt from that race. Twenty-five years later I can run 5 km much faster than that first race time. As I was running yesterday, I started thinking about how races have changed in the past 25 years.

Applications. The late, great Dr. George Sheehan used to say that the difference between a jogger and a runner is a signature on a race application. He died before online registration was invented. The old procedure for applying for a race seems so archaic now.  First we runners had to get a paper application, usually at a sports store. In San Diego there was a "runners' bathroom" where runners could get booklets with a race calendar and application forms. Then we brought the application home, filled it out, enclosed a check for the registration fee, and mailed it. After anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, we received our confirmation and race number. Now registration is online with instant confirmation. It is rare (at least in Germany) to get your race number in the mail.

Race Shirts. Back in the '80s and '90s, most race shirts were cotton or a cotton blend. Yes, people used to run in 100% cotton shirts. Now when races have shirts, they are nice technical shirts that can be worn for running or other exercise. It is still considered uncool to wear a race t-shirt in the race, except for the German City Run series, where it is required. At least the City Run shirts are made of technical fabric and not cotton. The last cotton race shirt I got was from the 2006 Hohenfels Box Run 10K.  I still have some of my race t-shirts from the 1990s and early 2000s.

Race Bibs and Computers. When I first started racing, a volunteer on the side had the job of sitting by the finish line and recording the times with a pencil and paper as the runners finished. Sometimes there was someone to record the times for the men and a different person wrote down the women's times. Back in those days race bibs had a detachable part at the bottom with the runner's number and division that was removed at the finish. A race volunteer would collect the torn-off bib tab and put it in order, usually threaded on a piece of string. The tabs were then given to other race volunteers, who used pencil and paper to figure out the finish order of each division. It often took a long time to get results. Award ceremonies were often over an hour after the race ended because it took time to figure out who won in the different age categories. Now finish line data is entered onto a computer and results are instantaneous in smaller races and take a few minutes in larger ones. Runners can also go online to get their results and (at least in Germany) download their finishers' certificates.

Timing Chips. Racing in the days before timing chips was interesting. When a runner talked about a race time, it usually went like this, "My official time for the half-marathon was 2 hours and 7 minutes, but it took me 15 minutes to get to the start. Therefore, my real time was 1 hour and 52 minutes." Placement in a race (both overall and in age group) went by the official time, regardless of how long it took to get to the starting line. With chip timing, the real time from start to finish is used no matter how long it took to get to the starting line. We runners now have an accurate measurement of our time in a race. There are no more "official" and "real" times.

Block Starts. When I first started racing, there were no block starts. Faster runners were supposed to start at the front and slower ones to the rear. In theory that system was supposed to work. But in reality everyone, both fast and slow, wanted to get as close to the front as possible so that their official and real times were close. Block starts emerged at the same time as the timing chips. Runners are put into a block based on their predicted finishing time. Because the runners are using a timing chip, it doesn't matter if they start in Block III instead of Block I. Block starts are also nice because they reduce some of the crowding in the early kilometers of a race. Back when I started racing, it was often hard to get into my race pace because it was so crowded during the first few kilometers. Now I can get into my race pace much faster because of block starts.

Recreational Runners. When I started racing, it was in San Diego. Every level of runner, from elite to the more "relaxed," competed in races of all distances. I tended to finish in the top half of the overall field and among the women. When I came to Germany, the attitude was, "serious runners only need apply." While I was a fairly decent recreational runner in the States, in Germany I finished toward the back of the pack both overall and in my age group. Over the years more casual runners have started entering races in Germany. While I still finish toward the back of the pack overall, I am now in the top one-third of my age group and in the top half of the women. I really enjoy the City Run series because they are more of a "people's run" and not just for the speedy. There are also more fun runs, like the Color Run, in Germany. Even as recently as 15 years ago, nobody would have thought of doing fun runs in Germany.

Pace Groups. Back when I started racing, there were no pace groups. You figured out your pace per mile or kilometer on your own and adjusted your pace depending on when you hit the mile or kilometer markers. Now if your goal for a half-marathon is two hours, you find the people who are leading the two-hour pace group and run with them. They have done all of the pacing work for you.

Women. When I raced in the States, there always seemed to be a fairly even number of men and women in races of all distances between 5 km and a half-marathon.  But when I came to Germany in 1992, racers were overwhelmingly male. When I ran the Munich Marathon in 1993, there seemed to be 10 men for every woman in the race. In fact, the prevailing attitude at that time was that women shouldn't run because it was bad for them. I was told that I would damage my knees and hips, have my organs fall out, or become infertile from running. My knees and hips are fine, I assume that all of my organs are still inside my body, and I got pregnant. When I ran the Munich Marathon in 2012, the ratio of men to women was about 4.5 to 1. In shorter races, there are still more men than women, but the ratio is getting closer to 2 or 3 to 1. Another thing was that when I first came to Germany, there were often separate races for men and women. For example, there would be 5K and 10K races in some of the towns near where I used to live. The 5K was for women and the 10K for men. Even though I had run half-marathons and marathons, I was restricted to running in the 5K because women obviously were not capable of running 10 kilometers. Later some of the races allowed men to run the 5K and women the 10K, but the times did not count. But at least that was a start. Now women in Germany can run any distance they choose, even marathons and ultra runs.

Some Things Never Change. What has not changed in the past 25 years...People still race to challenge themselves. It doesn't matter if they are fast or slow. There is still the thrill of finishing your first 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon. Post-race refreshments are still the same, usually drinks, fruit, Power Bar pieces, candy, or pretzels. It is still considered dorky to wear that day's race t-shirt in a race. The clothing and shoes may have changed over the years, but racing will always be about giving your best effort whether the conditions are perfect or less than ideal. All runners who enter a race deserve respect for what they are doing.