Shuffle your feet, not your iPod

An Irishman’s Diary on why real runners don’t wear earphones

‘My advice to new runners – especially the 11,500 who have signed up for the Irish Times course – is that if any music pushers tempt you, just say No. After all, even on lone training runs, ear-phones can be anti-social.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘My advice to new runners – especially the 11,500 who have signed up for the Irish Times course – is that if any music pushers tempt you, just say No. After all, even on lone training runs, ear-phones can be anti-social.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Jan 31, 2014, 01:00

Being a runner of the non-elite kind – and that’s putting it mildly – I never have to worry much about my rivals using EPO or anabolic steroids. The risk of that is fairly low at our level of competition. And yet, even there, artificial performance enhancement is not unknown.

In my most recent race, for example, I noticed several people who, if random inspections were carried out, might have tested positive for the use of personalised musical accompaniment.

I can’t be sure of their guilt, of course. I only know they were wearing earphones while striding in an unnaturally purposeful manner consistent with that of persons listening to the theme from Rocky, or something similar.

And okay, even if they were, it wasn’t illegal. The race in question – last Sunday’s Raheny Five Miler – is not one of those that bans ear-phones: a tactic that in any case is usually dictated by safety concerns, rather than suspicions that an up-beat soundtrack can make you faster.

But it can, apparently – by up to 15 per cent according to studies. And that’s a big, unearned advantage over the majority of runners who perform without music, or who supply the soundtrack themselves, mentally, on an imaginary iPod. That’s what I do myself, in fact.

I’ll admit I’m sometimes tempted to use actual ear-phones, and I can well understand why others succumb. Running can be hard. It can be boring too. So never mind the supposed performance benefits of music, often you just want something to distract from the drudgery.

Also, for personal reasons, I can’t subscribe to that favourite mantra of fitness coaches everywhere: “Listen to your body”. Unfortunately, my body is very sceptical about the whole running thing. Whenever I try listening to it, it is at best unhelpful, at worst downright offensive.

It might be pleasant to shut out all that negativity with power-music. Besides which, it doesn’t really upset me (much) that ear-phones are unethical. My real objection is that they’re just a bit rude and selfish.

This is true in many social situations, but even more so in a communal sports event. And the aforementioned Raheny five-miler is a communal event par excellence. Every year, its popularity threatens to overwhelm the village, but somehow, maybe because so many locals are involved in the organisation, the village always survives.

Big crowds line the route, shouting encouragement. And when not tripping each other up in the madcap opening mile, the participants (3,000 of them this year) are also cheerfully vocal. If you’re wearing ear-phones, you shut all that out too.

I know many people limit their use to lone training runs. Which is probably reasonable, although I’m told that if you get used to music, as with other performance-enhancing substances, it can be hard to perform without it.

So my advice to new runners – especially the 11,500 who have signed up for the Irish Times course – is that if any music pushers tempt you, just say No. After all, even on lone training runs, ear-phones can be anti-social.

I’ll give an example from personal experience. A while ago, I was doing a 10-mile slog in the Phoenix Park, running along those narrow woodland paths, when another slogger, of similar age and ability, loomed alongside me.

It’s always an awkward moment when one male runner has to pass another. The slower man must ignore the Darwinian survivalist instinct that tells him this is an assault on his manhood and that he must respond by killing his rival (figuratively, in this case, with a sudden sprint).

But for this to happen, it’s important that the unpleasantness is as brief as possible. Whereas in this case, the other guy was going only very marginally quicker. So without either of us wanting to, we were running shoulder-to-shoulder for an uncomfortably long period.

At least I found it uncomfortable. He was wearing ear-phones, and apparently oblivious to the embarrassment. Not only that, but eventually, without sufficient clearance, he cut in onto the path in front, forcing me to break stride. Then, still in my personal space, he slowed down again.

As I need hardly tell male readers, this meant war. Verbal exchanges were in any case impossible: he couldn’t hear. So my options were two-fold: I could “accidentally” clip his heels, and apologise when he fell. Or I could kill him.

Naturally I chose the latter course. Fuelled by indignation, I slipped out into the overtaking lane and accelerated away from him, somehow, keeping up the pace until I could no longer hear his breath. Sure enough, figuratively, I had left him for dead, although it nearly killed me too. And the annoying thing is, he probably didn’t notice.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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