I spent my Saturday morning two weeks ago watching with immense pride as my 11-year-old daughter competed in her first cross-country meet. A sixth-grader, she and a couple of hundred other middle schoolers ran on a 1.665-mile course around the stinky fake lakes at Christopher Columbus Park with one goal in mind: Get to the finish line as fast as possible.
My little girl crossed that line in 16 minutes flat, not the fastest time but not nearly the slowest. As I hugged her and told her how proud I was, all she could say was, "I think I'm going to throw up."
A proud daddy was I.
Last weekend I spent another Saturday morning watching people set out on foot, traversing a course with a start and finish line. But in between was where the sport of distance running has evolved into something I almost didn't recognize, and frankly was a little disturbed to see.
The runners were decked out in, among other things, tutus, clown wigs and neon stockings. They were covered in various shades of powder, a mixture of corn starch and food coloring that they gleefully tossed on each other like a bad impression of Kevin Garnett or LeBron James diving into the pregame courtside rosin.
This was Run or Dye, the latest in a growing trend of specialty running events—often called "fun runs"—that are as much (or more) about the journey as the destination. A couple of thousand people paid as much as $55 for the opportunity to run, jog or walk a 5-kilometer course around the Pima County Fairgroundsand have random strangers shower them with neon yellow-, purple- or green-dyed powder.
"It's like a wholesome rave!" one of Run or Dye's MCs—you read that right—yelled from atop a 20-foot tower at the start line, as waves of mostly novice athletes headed out to participate in the untimed event.
My wife ran (and walked a little) with a group of her friends and former radiology school classmates, and they had a blast. And while I was glad to be there to cheer her on along with my stepsons, I couldn't help but wonder, over and over:
When did running stop being enough?
When did running become too boring to just be done on its own? When did this simple act, something we've all done at some point (competitively or not), get to where it required frills and chills, bells and whistles, like it's vanilla ice cream in need of a makeover complete with Brazil nuts, gummy bears and cookie dough?
Ever since my wife signed up for the event a few months ago, and I did the husbandly thing and "liked" the Run or Dye Facebook page, my feed has been infested with suggestions, sponsored updates and targeted advertisements—damn you, Zuckerberg!—for a cornucopia of similar fun-first, run-second functions set to occur in or around Tucson.
There's the Terrain Mud Run (Oct. 5) at Old Tucson Studios and the Kiss Me Dirty (Oct. 19) at the fairgrounds, the same place the Neon Vibe night run will be held Nov. 30. Just to name a few.
From what I can gather, all of these events have one thing in common: no pressure.
Don't get me wrong, I know that the accomplishment of completing a 5K, a 10-mile trail run, a half- or full marathon, or even some of those trendy hybrid obstacle course races like the Tough Mudder or the Warrior Dash, is just as important to most participants as where they finished. To each their own.
But when a competition has no actual competition, doesn't that take something away from the overall experience?
Maybe this is my version of John McCain's get-off-my-lawn!-style tirade on Twitter about how bad it was that the "overpaid, immature, arrogant, spoiled brat" Dodgers celebrated in the D'backs' pool. Or how I'll never, ever pick up an e-reader over a physical book. Maybe I've just lost touch.
I was a distance runner in middle school and for part of high school. I was never the best—though my mother loves telling the story of how, when I was in the lead early on in a 5K, she screamed "Stop the race!" from the bleachers in hopes I could be declared the winner—but I savored the ability to compete against others. I wanted to beat everyone else in the race, even if I knew I probably wasn't going to beat most of them.
Nobody officially won Run or Dye, and it looks like a lot of these events don't award any prizes, let alone recognition to the top finishers. It seems that the point of them is to do some weird, wild kooky stuff that's meant to make you forget you're exercising.
Welcome to social athletics, I guess.
My wife tells me the point of Run or Dye and those other fun runs isn't about competition; they're meant to "get people off their butts," and I get that. Most of the Run or Dye people probably wouldn't have spent a chunk of their weekend running in the desert if running was the only activity on the agenda, which is kind of sad, but I guess it's where our society has ended up.
Make it worth my while, make it memorable for me, or I'll find something else (likely much less physically demanding) to spend my time on.
It's my hope, though, that some of the people who moseyed along the 3.1-mile course on Saturday treated the run like a gateway drug, so to speak. That the next time they do one, they'll try to go faster, do better. Heck, maybe even enter something that keeps score, and has winners.
Or maybe we'll soon see confetti cannons shot toward home plate as the pitcher fires a fastball at 97 mph, because pitching and hitting won't be enough anymore.