Running Through the Years
I started running consistently in the Spring of 1991. That was 30 years ago. I had just moved to northern Virginia with my family, I had just turned 30, and my life had finally settled down enough for me to start exercising consistently.
Looking back, a lot of things about running have changed over that time, while some things are the same. Some things that we take for granted were big deals when they were first introduced. This is a look back over the last 30 years to understand how we got to where we are now, and what it was like in the old days.
When I first started running, I needed to learn about running. So I went to the library and checked out back issues of Runner’s World, took them home, and read them. I also read Jim Fixx’s “The Complete Book Of Running,” which had been published in the 1970s and had helped the running boom during that time. Eventually the internet came along, and with it forums and various online communities. For a while, I was a member of the Dead Runners Society list server, named (for some reason) after the movie Dead Poets Society.
Finding out about races was a bit more difficult. I’d have to stop by the local running store and pick up The Washington Running report, which was a monthly newspaper about the local running scene. It had articles about local runners, and race results - a complete list of all finishers and their finishing times. At the back of the running report would be entry forms for upcoming races. I would cut out the entry form and write my name and address, write a check for the entry fee, and put it in an envelope and drop it off in a mailbox.
Races started using the internet for registration. Initially, this was controversial, because not everyone had internet at home. Some large races would open registration on a first-come, first-served basis, and if registration opened at night, people would come in to work to register. In the early days of internet registration, it wasn’t uncommon for the websites to be under engineered, and when thousands of people tried to sign up the moment that registration opened, it also wasn’t uncommon for the race websites to get overwhelmed and crash. This happened to the Marine Corps Marathon several years, causing many complaints.
Races were timed differently back then. At the finish line, men were usually directed to finish on one side, with women on the other side. Even though you were in deep oxygen debt and sprinting like crazy, you were supposed to pay attention to this little detail. Once you crossed the finish line, you’d wind up in a chute, with strict instructions not to change the order with other people. Then a volunteer would rip off the bottom of your race number. This strip had your name, race number, and a hole. A person called a stringer had something similar to a large knitting needle and a long piece of cord. The stringer would put the strip from your race number on this string, along with all the other finishers in the order that everyone finished. Another person at the finish line would type in numbers of whatever finishers they could see into a database synched to race timer. This system would allow the race team to reconstruct the finishing time of everyone.
A month or two later, I’d receive a postcard with my race results. For large races, it could take a while to cross the start line, but back then, there only official time was based on the starting gun. If it took you 10 minutes to cross the start line, you would just have 10 extra minutes embedded in your official time.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, timing chips became available. Initially, these were issued to you for each race, and you had to return at the end of the race. You were charged a small fee for each race, or you could buy your own chip and use it in all races. Timing chips made race management much easier, from registration to timing. Since you didn’t enter the timing system until you crossed the starting mat, it also provided you with an accurate time that it took you to complete the course. Another large benefit from this system is that with intermediate timing mats, it could catch cheaters cutting the course. Nowadays, the timing chip is embedded in the race number, and you don’t have to think about it.
When I first started running, if I ran a new route, I could estimate the distance from my pace, but this wasn’t very trustworthy. To get a better estimate, we would drive our car along our running route, or I’d ride my bike on the route. If I was out of town on travel, I’d use the map that came with my rental car and guesstimate a route. That led to some interesting runs. Eventually, a website called GMap-Pedometer came along that allowed us to build and measure routes on a map. We thought that was fantastic! I mapped out all my existing running routes, and if I had to go somewhere on a business trip, I’d plan out a route with a known distance.