Our changing sport, and how Running can cut Health Care Costs, by Larry Eder


Our sport of athletics, which includes track & field, race walking, cross country and road racing in the world's oldest sport. It is also, our most primal. Remember, when you were a child, what did you do? You ran across the school yard, threw rocks to see how far you could throw, and jump, to see who could jump farthest across the big puddle of mud.

Running is, again quite basic, like walking. One of the things that drew many to the sport of road racing was the simplicity: race from point a to point b. Alas, our sport has grown.

While I first raced in 1972, as a freshman in high school, running cross country, I never ran a road race until 1976. My first race was a 10k, and the democracy of running was what appealed to me. About 50 of us went out about five minutes, ten seconds for the first mile and there was a few guys who ran that pace the whole way. I, on the other hand, learnt about pacing the hard way, averaging just over 5:50 a mile for my first 10k. Some runners were faster than others-simple, honest, refreshingly uncomplicated in a society that is more and more complicated.

By the late seventies, and early 1980s, I was racing thirty times a year, and the races were growing in leaps an bounds. Most of the races I ran were very competitive, and while there were runners of various paces, fast, moderate and slow, there were no walkers. I trained with my friends before work and on Sundays, we did long runs together, weekend after weekend, or we raced.

In 1986, I ran the San Francisco Marathon with a guy who had spent four years in a Viet Cong prison camp. He wanted to break four hours for the marathon. I had raced seventeen marathon by then, and a good marathon was in the 2:50s for me, but pacing this guy, over four hours, as he told me about his time in Vietnam, and raising his children. The time went by pretty quick, as we clocked nine minute mile after nine minute mile. We got him under four hours, and we finished about midway in the field. It was fun, but it was different running in a race where I did not focus on my time.

I ran a few races in the nineties, with my son Adam, in the baby jogger. A hilly 10k, and pushing a baby jogger with one's four year old, was a lot of fun. As I would go up the hills, Adam would look back and give me his hand, trying to help me up the hill, like he would do when we ran in the hills of Quicksilver Park.

For the past twenty-five years, I have visited two dozen races and track meets each year, and noted the changes, with some happiness. I liked that road races included walkers, and that fast runners ran fast and walkers got the time to exercise and find the joy that serious runners find in road races.

Running has become a big business, with hundreds of businesses supporting running events, thousands of road races, with hotels, restaurants gaining benefits from runners and their families.

Our sport continues to change. The running cause teams I look at with concern. I appreciate and salute the ability of people who have never run before to train, and run a marathon. But some of the cause groups do only that-after that first marathon, what do people do? Running causes have become such a large part of the sport that they make or break many of the major races in this country. The partial blinders the sport has put on itself, due to the economic benefits of cause groups should concern all of us. Yes, some cause groups are fine and do it well, but let's not pretend-they are not about running, they use running as their platform to raise money for their cause.

That is my beef with the Race for the Cure. These events draw 20-30,000 walkers and runners to communities, using the benefits and relationships of the running community, yet contributing nothing back to the sport. Yes, they do give money to Cancer research, but the Race for the Cure events expects the local communities to provide them with services. Race for the Cures no longer advertise in most running publications or websites: they want the promotion for free, yet do not seem to realize that, like all media, there is a cost to the work publications have done to help support the running community.

I prefer the calm, inspiring ways of Jeff Galloway. Jeff gets people of all ages to move first, train for a race, and build up, thoughtfully to the half marathon or marathon. With Galloway, running was and is the point-and so is good health. Galloway, the pied piper of running, is about getting people of all ages active and keeping them active!

In 2002, I walked the Columbus Marathon with John The Penguin Bingham. It was a life changing experience. I had lost 100 pounds walking in 2001 and 2002, John spent the eight long hours on the road walking with me. I was amazed that I was not the absolute last person. I met a women who had been last at the Flying Pig and another event. I also was amazed how everyone we walked with knew who John was-his column was read by many runners and walkers who did not care about their times, but about their continued movement. I walked half marathons in Columbus in 2004 and 2005. While runners continue to train hard and race for times, there is another part of the running community who care about finishing a few races a year, and really do not worry about how fast they run. The sport has matured, in that there is a place for both positions.

I walked Disney half marathon in 2006 and was fascinated that walking the half in four hours, and there were four thousand folks still on their way. On my weekends at Disney, I would stand at the finish and speak to runners and walkers, trying to find out what motivated them, why they race and how they juggle their running with their regular life.

In 2009, running is a big business. Running footwear is a seven billion business, noting here that 80 percent of people who wear running shoes do not run. Research groups tell us that 30 million people run at least once a week, seven to ten million run 100 days a year, and three million run 150 or more days a year and a bit under two million run five days a week or more ( 500,000 of them are prep runners). Seven million race finishers in 2008, does not count the prep area of the sport and those
young athletes who race 20-30 times a year ( 9 times in cross country, 22 times in
track & field).

Our sport is in a panic. Yet, specialty running shoe sales, a $1 billion plus a year business, is growing! Several of the top running footwear companies admit to a
nice profit for 2008, and 2009 is looking good for many. Running stores, well managed, will do well during these tough economic times. The companies that continue their support of the sport, will gain more visibility, and with the current crop of American elite distance runners, road running in the US is getting more publicity.
Watch how Boston is written about, with the likes of Kara Goucher and Ryan Hall running in Boston this year.

But, I am proposing something much different. Some people see the glass half full, I see it as half empty.

If this country is truly worried about childhood obesity and public health costs, and the country wants to truly cut health costs, then, my modest proposal will be embraced: I believe that aerobic exercise should be a class from kindergarten to senior year in high school. One hour a day, perhaps in two thirty minute sessions, where students walk or run, up to them, with their teachers, five days a week. Footwear companies could offer a good well priced pair of running and walking shoes,
in support of the new PE initiatives.

In fact, a contest for the fittest schools at prep, junior high, and grade schools, where the kids run a mile in the fall and in spring, and the schools with best average get a bonus ( a three day weekend!) would be perfect way to bring postal running back. Postal races were held in the sixties and seventies to see who was the toughest cross country team or track team.

Silly? Naive? Not all all. As current USATF Board of Director, Steve Miller once said to me, " Any city you fly into you see high school and junior highs with tracks, you can find a track anywhere in this country." He was right.

Don't believe that is that simple? Then consider this. Dr. Ernst Van Aaken, the German coach who first helped women race under 2:40 in the marathon, studied the German and Japanese public and heart disease from 1945-1955. As fat was added back into both countries diets, heart disease went through the roof. He also studied the Taharumha Indians, from Mexico, had people of all ages running different distances during the day. Van Aaken coached Harold Norpoth, the 5,000 meter Olympic bronze medalist, and had him training several times a day. His findings suggested that the total aerobic effort was key, not if one did it in one run or one walk. He also found, in his research, that aerobic exercise could help people of all ages, along with good nutrition.

Running is a big business. There are 20,000 plus races in this country alone each year, and thousands of businesses make money from our sport. We have talked about first, second and third running booms, but if we can get aerobic exercise back into grade schools and high schools, we will see a running boom that will never stop!

Races and clubs adopting local schools, helping develop an aerobic hour a day, would do more to cut national health costs than anything else we could do grass roots wise. This is a no brainer for the new administration, who is looking to be honest with the American public about some of the tough changes we have to make to refocus our society.

Running is still a simple activity. Walking is also a simple activity. Using both to help develop an inexpensive, but effective way to get school children to exercise, would be a nice way to cut our outrageous health costs.

For more on our sport, click http://www.runningnetwork.com

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