There is a growing movement afoot, both figurative and literal, that is redefining society’s image of beauty and health, while raising basic questions about national strength and preparedness.

The beauty pendulum is always in swing, of course, whether in the time of Peter Paul Rubens or that of Miss Twiggy. But health and preparedness are matters not as easily dismissed by shifting tastes and subjective standards.

Stories are rife about how much slower today’s runners are than the previous generation. At the recent New Balance Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, old-timers recalled the days when nearly 50 men would run the serpentine 7-mile course in under 35:00, sub-5 minute per mile pace. This year only eight men accomplished that goal. At the same time, the top end of the sport is faster than ever. Yet the days when that excellence would trickle down to the rest of the field has long since ended.

Scientists now say running even as much as 50 miles a week alone won’t lose you any weight. Not running hard enough, they say, to burn off the necessary calories. That’s the ugly little truth about today’s marathoners. That’s why there are so many one-and-done bucket listers. ‘I thought this unpleasantness was supposed to pare me down.’

There is a backlash, too, against the rail-thin, airbrushed model of beauty that has defined societal norms since the days of Miss Twiggy in the Swinging Sixties. The rise of plus-sized models, whether on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or on the catwalk of Heidi Klum’s Project Runway show, ascribe a turning point that has already begun resetting society’s views.

In the racing world, instead of full-blooded speed, events throughout the 21st century have ridden the pale horse of participation as if that plodder alone would sustain interest in a game once defined by speed and excellence.

Is size 0 an attainable – much less healthy – standard of beauty?  Is pure speed the only measure of running success? Of course not.    But there are some aspects of health and fitness that carry far greater consequences.

As far back as 1960 President Kennedy wrote in Sports Illustrated about what he saw as a declining national fitness. (Thanks to reader Luis Armenteros for the find). By the late 1990s the military began relaxing its educational standards in order to meet its recruitment goals.  Then in 2014 the Pentagon found that some 71% of the 34 million 17-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. would not qualify for military service based on standards of health, physical appearance, and levels of education.

But rather than rededicating themselves to a greater rigor, aspiring to a higher standard, institutions instead continued to simply lower their bars.

Before 2016, the highest acceptable body fat percentage allowable for a navy recruit was 22% for men, 33% for women. But January 1, 2016 those standards were lowered to 26% and 39% respectively. Also instituted was a 35-inch waist limit for men, and 39 1/2 inches for women. The navy never had such limits before.

Grade inflation and social advancement over competence in schools, an unending debt-limit ceiling in Congress, plus-sized models, participation trophies, they are all of a piece.

Just as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma revealed how thin the nation’s infrastructure support is when put under great stress, military standards, and even road racing stats reflect a general national softening that likely isn’t escaping our adversaries’ planning sessions.

According to a Running USA national running survey, there has been a slow, but gradual reduction not just in the finishing times of today’s runners, but a drop in the number of race participants over the last three years.

But really, in the current environment how could they expect to grow a sport based on physical discomfort and delayed gratification? After all, Apple just announced its new iPhone X. You don’t even have to press a button anymore to get it going!  Just point your fat face at the screen, and it will do the rest.

And so it goes.


6 thoughts on “GOING SOFT”

  1. Toni, Toni, Toni… You’re striking that nerve again. My 1984 Falmouth PR of 39:27 (that placed me 177th) would have secured me 56th place in 2017. This has been a downward trend for years now, with Falmouth being but one example. And that’s just running.

    When we look at all of the examples that you have cited throughout our instant-gratification, low-self-esteem, lies-pass-for-facts, I-don’t-want-to-have-to-work-for-it, standards-relaxing society, we are going to hell in a hand basket.

    For decades now, each generation has looked to the next and exclaimed how things are going downhill. I remember when I was in second grade and wore my brand new bellbottom jeans to school, my father pretty much thought that was, in itself, the downfall of Western society.

    Historians can judge for themselves, but I think that we are in a much more precipitous decline than ever before.


  2. Hi Toni,

    I think I now officially count as one of those “old-timers.” Prompted by your Falmouth comment, I looked back at own Falmouth results my first three years with GBTC right out of Boston College. 36:28 in 1981, 36:00 in 1982, and 36:11 in 1983. My place results those three years? 119th, 85th, and 95th…yeesh! In 1984 Bob Clifford and I went back and forth throughout the Freedom Trail 8-mile race, Bob taking me down the last half-mile as we both finished a few seconds under 40 minutes. I only remember it because at the time it was the longest distance I had ever broken 5:00 pace, and all it got me was 28th place.

    Coach Squires used to occasionally tell the “B” squad guys such as me to go find a small town road race (Sturleyville Classics is what he used to call them) and beat up on the locals to remind ourselves we weren’t all that bad, it’s just that “you’re training and racing every week with the best guys in the country!”

    For the non-olympians, the passion was just to get out there, thrash yourself, and just try to be a bit better each time than you were last week, last month, last year.



  3. Let’s face it we had it great back in the 70s and 80s…you could live cheap and go to college fairly cheaply in Eugene, Boulder, and Boston…I know because I went to Oregon…Class of 78…and lived in Boulder and Boston…and spending 2 hours a day training seemed normal. Also Boulder was one big running community in the 80s from Deek on down…now everyone is on their own….


  4. Toni:

    Late to the game here due to another knee surgery/recovery.

    As someone who was with the elite back in the 70’s and 80’s and looked at all the talent that finished behind us…. but still tried very hard…and ran pretty damn fast…. I was hoping back then that these guys/gals would get more reinforcement/acknowledgement. Now, they’d be freakin’ regional superstars! Yes, quality has dropped in post collegiate… although at prep and college level… it has not so much. Might even now have same depth that we enjoyed back in the 70’s/80’s in last decade of HS and college distance running. But, guys graduate and either go pro or give up the sport, it seems.

    I think another problem in the “dunning down of American distance running” is the fact that state H.S. federations have instituted so many classes for prep track and cross country now. Illinois used to be just one class…. then went to 2-class for years…. and now 3-class which really has diluted the quality of competition and almost made it an “entitlement” to qualify for state in an event in the smaller classes… rather than an achievement in itself. I believe some states even have 5 classes! I think this is political correctness run amok. I came from a small H.S. and I know the limited resources that we dealt with … compared to the bigger schools…. but you still only run 7 in X-C and score 5…and I was on a 412 person HS X-C team who finished 14th my senior year and 5th in final year of single class state champs… 3 years later. It can be done if you recruit, train hard, and promote the program within your school district..

    And, don’t get me started on my old friend, Jeff Galloway’s, jog/walk/jog training program. I don’t call people who alternate jogging and walking miles in a 26.2 race… “marathoners”… rather they are “healthy hikers.” I would rather go back to the days when people took half and full marathons…and even 10K’s… more seriously…. and trained and raced more seriously….to be rewarded with the title “finisher” than what so many do today. Call me “old school” and “bitter” if you want to…. but “runners were more real” back then.


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