A few months ago a flame war erupted on the Montgomery County Road Runners Club  online discussion list, between a fast-skinny faction and a slow-large contingent. The trigger topic? Categories --- specifically, whether to implement "Clydesdale" and "Athena" divisions for male and female runners who weigh over 200 or 145 pounds respectively. That doesn't sound too controversial, perhaps, to an outsider. But blood boiled and metaphorical arrows flew between the camps. Mind you: there's no money involved, just a little symbolic recognition.
The "purist" position was that sub-groups based on mass are silly feel-good rewards for lazy lardbuckets who can't hack it in a real competition. Take it to the logical limit and there's no reason to exercise, diet, or otherwise work hard to improve. Just put yourself into a unique bin, and you're an instant winner! Nobody said it in so many words, but the gist of the skeptic's position was that the Dodo's ruling in Alice in Wonderland --- "everybody has won, and all must have prizes" --- is absurd.
On the "a place for every pace" side of the aisle, however, some heavy artillery was brought forth with telling effect. In particular I was won over by the health argument: it's important to encourage everybody, of whatever body shape, to get moving a bit. Accidents of birth and biochemistry mean that most people won't ever be ultrafast. Symbolic subdivisions based on weight are as valid as are widely-accepted categories defined by sex and age. If Athenas and Clydesdales are motivated by competing in their divisions, wonderful. Those who don't care to recognize such partitions are free to ignore them.
One of the debaters who scored big points in my judgment was Vanessa Payne. She recently forwarded to the MCRRC group a few inspirational excerpts from an essay by Megan Othersen Gorman titled "Making the Connection" (published in Runner's World magazine). Gorman quotes one correspondent:
Remember the big picture --- even if it hurts. I was in line at Starbucks yesterday wearing jeans and a T-shirt that says "A fit woman is a powerful woman." A table full of teenage girls noticed my T-shirt and started giggling. Then one of them said loudly, "Before she wears a shirt that says that, she should get fit!" At first, I just stood there, stunned. Then I took a deep breath, turned around and said, 'Pardon me, but I heard what you said. I just completed my second marathon. Here's my card. The next time you want to go out for a 20-mile run, please give me a call.' Everyone in the place cheered. The girls were beet red. It felt so good to stand up for myself. But the experience was also a big reality check for me. I've lost 100 pounds, and I've come a long way. But the world still views me as overweight. I must get this remaining weight off. And so I shall. Believe in yourselves! ...
Later in that same article there was the lovely thought:
... We're taking every day as a gift and using it now, while we've got the chance. We're not waiting until we get to our goal weights to live. We're running headlong into life, not away from it.
Reading about Clydesdales and Athenas led me to a funny and insightful article by Robin Chotzinoff (in Westworld, 2 May 1996 --- see  or  --- it is also possibly included in Chotzinoff's 1999 book People Who Sweat: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Pursuits). Among the quotations is one by Jim Glinn:
"Some of us were meant to be big. It's genetic. ... This world has always been full of big guys. Back in the Viking era, there was a Norwegian guy known far and wide as Walking Rolf --- and this because he was too big to ride a horse. He was still a great warrior."
All this reminds me of the wise advice offered by a swim coach at a neighborhood pool (a somewhat spherical gentleman) who many years ago was chatting with one of my kids (likewise well-rounded):
|"It's OK to be big — but you also have to be strong."|