“One selfless London Marathon runner sacrificed his own race to help a physically exhausted fellow runner across the finishing line,” wrote The Telegraph.
Captured on live television, media—both social and the traditional kind—had a communal pantswetting, hailing Matthew Rees as a hero, a legend, the ultimate sportsman, a top bloke, for helping a fellow runner cross the finish line. Even the marathon itself got into the act, tweeting about it and changing their Twitter profile photo to the image of rubber-legged David Wyeth being danced to the finish, supported on one side by Matthew Rees and, importantly, on the other side by a red-jacketed marathon official, one of the many stationed along the course for that very purpose. Apparently, Marathon Official Does His Job is not as inspirational.
Runners physically assisting other runners across the finish line has become an easily digestible source of feel-good internet chum, and the apparent definition of what running is all about. Two of the supposed top ten moments from this year’s Boston Marathon involved people being carried across the finish line. Overheated media response to one runner physically toting another limp competitor in community road races, college and high school cross country meets, and even Olympic track races has cast the very meaning of running as cooperation and sportsmanship as physically carrying another runner—not as facing challenges, competition, or playing fair.
These examples of faux-heroism all occurred during races where, as I understand it, the goal is to get across the finish line as quickly as possible under your own power. Racing is a personal challenge, and whether it is high school cross country, a local 5k, or the London Marathon, each runner who toes the starting line knowingly signed up for something difficult.
Regardless of aid stations, GU, pacers, and camaraderie, racing is still difficult. It’s a sport that can and does include physical discomfort, pain, struggle, and great effort. It is hard to see somebody hurting, and it sucks mightily to be the cramping or jelly-legged unfortunate, but the hard truth is that injury and extreme fatigue are as much a part of racing as winning. The agony and the ecstasy is what makes racing compelling: Relieving the agony and assuaging the failure is antithetical to the sport.
The London Marathon—and most other big city marathons—bills itself as an event. An event, like a party, has participants, not competitors, and everybody wins. London Event Director Hugh Brasher was clear though that while helping each other was at the very heart of “mass participation marathon running,” this version of sportsmanship does not extend to the front of the pack, where it was still about competition.
Similarly, Director of Communications of the Boston Athletic Association T.K. Skenderian spoke to what racing was all about at the front of the Boston Marathon: “If someone were to win an age-group award or prize money, and they were helped to the line, a review could likely result in a DQ.”
Until recently, NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rules stated that physically aiding another runner would result in both the helper and the helpee being disqualified. This was not to be cruel or foster selfishness, but to allow all athletes a fair and equal chance to run their race, whether that means digging deep for the win or dealing with a pulled hamstring.
But in the face of teary-eyed praise for physically aiding another runner, race officials have been reluctant to enforce those rules. The de facto response by NCAA and NFHS has been to review assistance on a case-by-case basis, with most incidents not ending in DQ. Luckily for officials, ultimate displays of sportsmanship are usually confined to the back of the pack, where they don’t affect a podium spot or team score.
Last July, the NFHS posted this deliberately vague change in rules:
Effective with the 2017 high school track and field season, a participant who assists an injured/ill competitor shall not be disqualified if an appropriate health-care professional is not available. Only the assisted competitor shall be disqualified for not finishing the race unassisted.
So, it may be sportsmanlike to assist somebody if there is no medical help available, but it still isn’t good sportsmanship to accept the aid. Importantly, medical help is almost always available. Races have trained medical staff to help runners; other runners do not have to stop and help, and may do more harm than good.
Matthew Rees was not a hero, he was redundant. The London Marathon official, one of many placed all along the course for the very purpose of assisting gassed runners, had the situation under control. Wyeth would not have laid unattended on the ground; the official not only helped him to the finish line but monitored his condition, and made sure Wyeth received immediate medical attention. Seeing that Wyeth was being cared for, Rees could have gone on his way.
Ultra trail runs are the exception. Medical help may be miles away, if at all. Yet, though exhaustion and injuries are common in ultras, runners physically assisting others is almost unheard of. The distances and rough terrain involved make it impractical and dangerous to both parties. The same should apply in road races. Holding a runner up or piggybacking them without an accurate medical assessment of the problem can be dangerous.
Wobbly London Marathoner David Wyeth was only 200 meters from the finish when he received assistance, and afterwards was a little sheepish and a little conflicted about whether or not he could have finished on his own: “I feel a slight fraud for having a medal around my neck. I should cut a little piece out because it belongs to Matthew.” He went on to praise Rees—what else was he going to do?—and say he wouldn’t have finished without him. But of course he would’ve—the official was right there. And if he hadn’t? That’s okay too. There’s no shame, or shouldn’t be, in DNFing.
Assisting struggling runners makes heroic something that is not, and casts fault where there is none. After being carried across the finish line of a cross country race, North Dakota high schooler Danielle LeNoue asked, “How many people ran past me? And she stopped.” The same shadow of blame has been thrown every time a story of great runner-toting heroism goes viral.
By this formulation, those who do not stop and help are assholes—they are selfish, lack in compassion, and are, god forbid, running their own race. Unless a competitor is in seriously imminent danger, there is nothing wrong with passing them by. Races were, and still are, about competition, about overcoming challenges.
But when was the last time a particular hard-fought high school cross country race made your local six o’clock news? The touching story of the North Dakota teen carrying her competitor not only made the local news, it also made it into numerous media outlets around the world. With each viral story, what’s reinforced isn’t that running is difficult and that sometimes you can’t finish, but that competition is selfish, and true athletes make sure others finish.
In this milieu, the Barkley Marathons start to make a lot more sense. The insanely difficult off-road, unmarked, approximately 130-mile footrace through the brambles of outback Tennessee is designed to be at the very edge of what’s humanly possible. The race is so difficult that the race experience is very much skewed toward failure: 99 percent of the entrants DNF. Some years, none of the entrants finish. People scoff—that’s ridiculous! That’s not a race! But is it any more ridiculous than dragging someone, toes backward, over the finish line, so that they can feel good about their race?