Are Runners High?

Over the past 16 years, I have completed over 40 marathons worldwide: Boston, St. Louis, Stockholm, Chicago, Dublin and L.A. to name a few. I keep coming back to the 26.2 mile event as I am infected by the positive spirit of the day and the special fellowship between athletes. But lately, I’ve noticed in the field a growing population of chronic complainers that often spoil it for others and even give runners a bad name.

Typically, the mania starts at the expo. I’ve seen marathoners push and tackle each other whenever “free stuff” becomes available. You’d swear these people had never seen a T-shirt before in their lives. Then the litany of woe begins: “The pasta dinner is too pricey! What, no beer garden? Are you kidding me?! Last year’s long-sleeve was much better than this. Can you believe this hotel? The rooms are really crappy this year.” And on it goes.

I’ve stuffed bags as a volunteer before races and let me tell you, it takes hours. These people are up at the crack of dawn to help in preparation for your big day. I have to chuckle at the guy griping for people to get out of his way because the registration line is too long. And I’m thinking Um, hello? Did you not know from the website that over 37,000 people run the NYC Marathon?

The grumbling continues the morning of the race. Instead of being happy to see the sunrise, someone mumbles that the bus ride to the start is too bumpy. “This cold wet weather is horrible. Ugh! We need more porta-pottys- people!” Before the gun goes off, someone inevitable yells at the race director: “Enough with the National Anthem, let’s get this race started already!”

Then we begin the race and throughout the day there are intermittent shouts of “Where are the mile markers!? Man, this point to point course route is a complete drag! There aren’t enough Gatorade stops! This race is too congested, it’s messing up my pace!”

At one of my past marathons, I witnessed one male runner approach a local Boy Scout troupe handing out fuel gel. As one of the scouts obligingly handed him a vanilla, the runner yelled back at him: “CHOCOLATE!!! I said chocolate, not vanilla!” The poor kid was startled, and nearly traumatized by this thundering idiot. A few miles up the road, I saw another runner almost shove an older woman who had mistakenly wandered onto the course. “Excuse me!” he barked. “We are RUNNING here!”

And it’s not just the men. Last weekend in New Jersey, I saw a mother pass her husband and two children who stood waiting for her in the hot sun. Judging by the look of their handmade signs, these little kids (and dutiful hubby) had been up since early dawn for a chance to cheer mom along. And what was her response? It was a po-faced grimace and a grunt “Never again!” as she plodded unhappily past without even stopping. I wanted to trip this woman up.

What is going on here?

Well, it could be many things. But my guess is that with some runners, the high they experience in the form of endorphins pulsing through the body sometimes brings about a feeling of invincibility. But instead of this manifesting in a positive mood, it too often becomes an ego trip. My race, my time, me, me, me. Their sense of power and importance elevated, runners sometimes become silly and begin to act in ways that are cocky, self-indulgent and generally obnoxious.

At the finish line, the talk turns to performance and times. Instead of noticing the glorious celebration and basking in the warm glow of achievement, many runners are left groaning about the chaotic fuel station or the change in weather. What is a race director to do about humidity? Many athletes complain about the cheap medal given to them at the end of the race. Who cares? The experience was priceless, wasn’t it?

Here’s the thing: I’ve paid my dues for hundreds of distance events, but you’ll never hear me complain about any of it. Sure, some races could be better organized, but everyone is out there trying to make it a great day for the runners. And that’s good enough for me.

If you’re suffering or otherwise in pain, remember the following:

Running is a gift. Think of all of the individuals who would love to be able to run, but can’t. Those people would give anything to be in your shoes. Even when I am mentally pushing to finish a race, I will often look down with gratitude for my legs, knees and arms. Cherish this opportunity to be physical.

Relax. Unless you have a number one or two on your bib, I’m guessing you’re probably not Kenyan and a small interruption on your time will not cause you to forfeit a major prize. If you didn’t line up at the front, you’ll need to deal with the masses, like the rest of us. So lean back, keep pace and let others enjoy the joy of the event with you.

Save it. If you don’t have a smile, a kind wave or words of encouragement, keep your obsessive angst to yourself. It’s not just your day so don’t behave like an ass. Think of the people who supported you in making this event happen and lighten up. Manners still matter.