All Runners Deserve Meaningful Competition!

In Chapter Five (“Being a Woman and Other Disabilities”) of The Playing Fields of Eton (2009), author Mika LaVaque-Manty highlights obstacles that athletes with disabilities have had to overcome. On a broad scope, these athletes, such as women and paralympians, have fought for one goal: to achieve equal opportunity to meaningful competition. An interpretation that LaVaque-Manty introduces is to “eliminate the effects of the luck of birth and other factors that don’t depend on a person’s individual efforts.” Thus, the athlete who applied himself or herself most diligently to practice would end up being a winner.

For women and athletes with disabilities, “meaningful competition” may simply mean more media coverage (PHOTO via YanHua Li).

One example of a push towards meaningful competition is the creation of weight categories in endurance sports. In some organized running races, for example, heavier runners get to compete in “Clydesdale” divisions. M.C. Lee, who is a business writer and marathoner, explains the meaning behind the Clydesdale, which is a weight category for men. Runners in this category must weigh above a certain amount. According to Susan Paul, who is a writer for “Runner’s World,” the cutoff is usually between 200 and 220 pounds. The Athena category exists for women with a cutoff of between 145 and 160 pounds. Clydesdale and Athena runners race with all other runners, but they compete within the same category to provide them with fair competition.

Originally, I was unsure about the concept of Clydesdale/Athena divisions. As of now, I have ran three marathons (2013 Detroit Marathon, 2014 Martian Marathon in Dearborn, 2014 Chicago Marathon), which are 26.2-mile footraces. As I have ran slower times than people who have clearly weighed more than me, it doesn’t seem like weight can be the sole determiner of one’s racing performance. If somebody works harder and works smarter than me, they should be able to defeat me at a marathon, even though I am very light.

But after some research, I’ve realized that hard work and dedication may not necessarily be good enough for all large runners. Tara Parker-Pope, who is a columnist for the New York Times, illustrates the history behind Clydesdale divisions. In the 1980s, a Baltimore-area accountant analyzed 20,000 runners in 10K (6.2 miles) races and marathons. The analysis showed that once men reach about 170 pounds, their performance declines relative to athletes of about the same age with a slighter build. Compared with his peers, a 210-pound man who runs a 10K in 51 minutes is performing as well as a 150-pound man who runs a 10K in 38 minutes. The research has persuaded races, like the Marine Corps Marathon and the Portland Marathon, to create awards based on weight divisions.

According to Tara Parker-Pope, columnist for the New York Times, the Marine Corps Marathon offers three weight divisions for men starting at 185 pounds, 200 pounds, and 224 pounds. For women, two weight categories start at 155 pounds and 170 pounds (PHOTO via Wikipedia).

The research has also persuaded me to be in favor of Clydesdale divisions. I return to Susan Paul, whose statement sums up the aforementioned research: “If you took two runners, identical in all physiological aspects except their weights, odds are that the lighter runner would finish with a faster time than the heavier runner.” Despite the fact that they may be equal or even better runners than lighter people, heavier runners will probably rank lower than runners who weigh less than them. To correct for this discrepancy, race directors should propose weight categories, including Clydesdale divisions. That way, all runners can compete with similarly-built athletes.

As LaVaque-Manty illustrates, a counterargument against the introduction of Clydesdale divisions is that a person’s weight is up to himself or herself to control and that we can make competition meaningful for ourselves simply by losing weight. However, this may not be so easy to accomplish, due to genetics. In a study conducted by UCLA researchers, more than 100 genetic strains of mice were given a normal diet for eight weeks, followed by a high-fat, high-sugar diet for another eight weeks. Even though the mice were consuming the same diets, their weight gain varied. The high-fat diet caused no change in body-fat percentage for some mice, while others’ body fat percentages increased by 600 percent.

UCLA researchers demonstrate that body-fat responses to food are strongly inherited (PHOTO via MyDiet Clinic).

According to the researchers, those differences were largely attributed to genetics. Scientists have identified and compared 11 genetic regions associated with obesity and fat gain in the mice, and many of these regions overlap with genes linked to obesity in humans. To me, this counts as “effects of the luck of birth and other factors that don’t depend on a person’s individual efforts (referring back to LaVaque-Manty’s quote shown in my first paragraph).” We must combat such effects by allowing Clydesdale divisions.

“But we already let them participate,” one may argue. “What’s the point of creating another category?” To answer that question, I take you back to my first marathon (2013 Detroit Marathon). My finishing time was 3:03:44 (7 minutes per mile). I also won my age division (16-19) and qualified for the Boston Marathon. Even though I didn’t finish in 1st Place overall, it was still extremely rewarding for me to say I had won something. Furthermore, the reason I had qualified for Boston was because I had exceeded the qualifying standards, which vary with runners of different genders and age groups.

Boston Marathon 2014 Qualifying Times
Boston Marathon qualifying times are based on age and gender, but not weight (PHOTO via Raymond Britt) (original source: Boston Athletic Association).

Why not let heavier runners, some of whom put in more time and effort than lighter runners, feel the same sense of accomplishment that many lighter runners and I get to enjoy? Introducing Clydesdale divisions and even Clydesdale qualifying standards would allow heavy runners to see their hard work pay off through meaningful competition. They would have chances of winning their division and gaining admission into quality races. At the end of the day, more and more people may be motivated to run, which would eventually grow the running community!


One thought on “All Runners Deserve Meaningful Competition!

  1. This is a highly informative and well-researched blog post. Great job! I understand the benefits that creating Clydesdale and Athena divisions create, but I think there is the possibility of heavier weight people performing well or better under otherwise similar circumstances. A bonus to equal categories for awards in competition is that heavier people can display determination in training and overcoming obstacles, as many athletes do. I think these divisions are acceptable, but should be careful that other problems do not arise that could lead to advocacy for categories such as divisions for those from third world countries versus the wealthy, or the tall athletes over the short. I think part of every sport is overcoming adversity to succeed.


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