Should a plodder run a marathon?
If you’re not a runner, you may not be aware of the debate about whether you can be a “real” marathoner if you take six or more hours to run 26.2 miles.
The most recent backing-and-forthing began with a snarky comment from a marathoner in the Oct 22 issue of The New York Times. “It’s a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours,” said Adrienne Wald, 54, the women’s cross-country coach at the College of New Rochelle, who ran her first marathon in 1984.
More than 20% of the 43,741 runners in the recent New York City Marathon reportedly took more than five hours to complete the course. Maybe 20 runners were actually running to finish first in that race. Most had no hope of winning. That means that 43,721 runners had some other goal in mind. Many were running for personal best times, but plenty were proving their mettle simply by crossing the finish line, whether in four or five or six or seven hours. Even a back-of-the-pack marathoner has typically run at least a couple of hundred of miles in preparation for the event. I find it pretty insulting for anyone to suggest that that sort of effort is a “joke.”
So what’s this got to do with education? I see the same sickness in schools where we confuse speed with wits. We set limits on how much time a child can spend in a certain grade level before they are “held back” in order to “keep up” with other students. We set arbitrary time limits for how much minutes students can spend on tests. Those who can’t finish in that amount of time are labeled as less smart than their peers who speed to the finish. We even require students to jump through many hoops in order to get permission to have more time to complete a test.
Does that mean those students have learned less than their swifter counterparts? Or just that it took them longer to cross the finish line? Is their race any less worthy than that of other students?
Marathon organizers usually judge the success of their “test” by whether there is solid competition at the front of the pack plus great participation from a huge field of runners. Likewise, in schools, we should applaud students who surge to the front and excel. But we also ought to cheer on classrooms of students who get to the same knowledge at a slower pace. We tend to demean the learning that these students acquire, failing to recognize that education should be more about growth and less about competition among students, between schools, between districts, between nations. Personal growth matters, not just collective measures of achievement.
In The New York Times article, I most liked this sentiment from the legendary gold medalist Frank Shorter who called criticisms of slow runners “snobbery.” “You never hear that from elite runners. Elite runners admire other people’s performance. I find it much better to welcome slow runners to the club than to vote them out.”
When I take to the streets for my run tomorrow morning, I can assure you that I won’t be worried about whether I beat someone else who’s running. I’ll be focused on whether I’ve bested myself. That is the focus that will improve someone who is running or someone who is learning. I may be a plodder but I’ll be better tomorrow than I was today.