Some of my running friends are in a bit of an uproar over this morning's New York Times article.
There are a number of runners who chafe at the thought of slow, plodding penguins having the nerve to call themselves marathoners. They believe slower participants have diluted the challenge of the marathon distance & lessened the cachet of their identity as - gasp - a marathoner.
Once you read the article, you'll realize something seriously missing. There are no 'elite' marathoners quoted in the article. I think in their case a marathon is "another day at the office." To the elite marathoner, slow participants are a non-issue. It's the folks who are slightly more slow & plodding than they - John Bingham calls them "slightly fast runners" - who are kvetching like a bunch of whiny, wounded animals.
While the trend is for marathon finish times to become more slow, as cited by Running USA, that may be more due to the democratization of the marathon than anything else. Remember that concept of selectivity we all learned about in college psychology? That was the same reason more students in graduate school scored no lower than a "C." Grad school was more selective to get in, & the grades reflected that very fact.
So, when Mr. or Ms. Marathon Race Director opened their event to the lumpenproletariat, the great unwashed run/walking masses, they spread out the total range of the bell curve a bit more. Of course, I don't think all of the race directors are pleased with the unintended consequences of larger fields of slightly slower participants...it means more time for the course to be closed off for safety reasons. Some events have taken to instituting cut-off times. Which is all right, in my opinion. If you can't make the cut-off, you'll look for another event where your chances of finishing is better. If I were a penguin looking for a marathon & saw a cut-off faster than my best effort, I'd find another event & say, 'their loss. Sucks to be that RD.'
Frankly, I haven't mastered the marathon yet. My best effort is in the high-threes, my worst in the mid-four range. I marvel at the elites as well as the three-hour folks. I'm not going to think any less of a person who wants to go out & do a marathon. But, what I'd like to see is running programs/coaches work over an extended period of time with their charges.
First, coaches need to be honest with the athlete about the social stigma which exists about plodding/walk-running/penguining...whatever the faster people want to call slow-paced participation.
Then, work with the person; get them off the couch doing 5Ks for six months-to-a year, then 10Ks, then half-marathons. After a couple of years of consistent training and racing shorter distances, then put them on a conservative, mostly run-based training program focusing on a marathon that has entry-level marathoner-friendly conditions...preferably a small one.
I'd personally recommend something as small as the Tallahassee Marathon, (next years' RRCA Southern Region Marathon Championship) which has about 250-300 participants, or Melbourne's Space Coast Marathon, which is on a very flat course. I'm not saying they can't do Chicago, New York, Honolulu, Disney, Marine Corps or any of the big name ones, but I'd rather see them get their first marathon in on a course where they can learn the art of marathoning, rather than be treated like children of a lesser god by wanna-be elites, fairly fast runners, & Runners' World/Slowtwitch/Let's Run.com forum posters, the gatekeepers of marathon/road running purity.