Tuning Back In

It was the rule heard ’round the world: In April 2007, USA Track & Field (USATF) banned the use of headphones during any USATF-sanctioned events. Runner outcry was immediate with articles and blogs questioning whether this was really a safety issue as the USATF maintained or whether this was some form of discrimination against headphone-wearing runners. Conspiracy theories abounded.

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The real issue, it seems, wasn’t so much whether or not runners believed it was a safety issue, but whether race directors cared to enforce the rule and risk alienating people who use headphones to run races, especially marathons. The answer was clear in the pages of nearly every magazine and newspaper in November. There was Katie Holmes, headphones in plain view, running the New York City Marathon. What the heck?

One race enforced the rule—Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. As far as race organizers were concerned, the governing body of their sport made a rule for sanctioned races and as such, the only option was to adopt the new rule and figure out how to make it work. Runners were given the option of surrendering the devices to be returned post-race or suffer a disqualification if they chose to run with them. According to public relations director Bob Gustafson, of the almost 10,000 runners entered in the marathon in 2007, only 21 runners received were disqualified. In 2008 that number was zero. Education was the key, says Gustafson. The races used all communication channels to get the message to runners that headphones were not allowed and runners paid attention. For 2009, the race has amended its rules in conjunction with the USATF’s modification, though, “We are asking people to consider running headphone-free,” says Gustafson. “We think the experience you receive on our race course is second to none and want everyone to experience the camaraderie, entertainment and beauty of the lake.”

In its official press release announcing the rule amendment, the USATF notes “the rule had drawn passionate feedback from all sides, including from runners who hated the rule and runners who loved it.” These days there are so many wearing headphones it may be hard for an iPod-loving runner to imagine there are those that slog through the miles experiencing running the way it was before such a thing as headphones existed.

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