Every now and then it feels good to be recognized when people know who you are, what you do and what you have done. Then there are times when it might be better not to be recognized at all, or as I like to call it “being incognito."
Since 2014, I have decided to run in many of the races I was actually directing, mainly to critique my own event. And, I do the same thing when I run someone else’s race. What better way to see it than to actually participate in it? I would line up in the middle of the pack and just keep to myself.
As I would stand around waiting for the start, inevitably runners around me would start talking to each other about the event itself, whether they’ve run it before or if it was an easy or tough course or how things were going for them that day. It's interesting to listen to the chatter without telling them that the race director was standing right next to them! Lucky for me, most of the time the comments were positive and complimentary…but not always! In most cases, I never revealed my identity but just went on my merry way, making a mental notation of the good, the bad, and the sometimes the ugly comments.
A while back I ran a marathon in Virginia. I felt I was safe there as no one would know me in Virginia. However, given I was the keynote speaker at the pasta dinner the night before, I figured a few folks might put two and two together.
Like always, I lined up at my expected pace and just blended in. Off we went and I settled in right with a guy carrying the four-hour pace group sign. I don’t wear headphones so I can hear everything going on around me. However, I do run with a voice recorder, as I like to record my thoughts as I critique the race on my own, especially noting any unique ideas or concepts that the race has developed (we race directors like to steal good ideas from each other).
There was a group of maybe 10 runners who were chatting with each other. Years ago, when I was more competitive and running between 5:30- and 6:00-minute pace, I'd never experience anyone talking to each other during the race at that pace. Now, as I run slower, I've had an entirely different experience when running a 9:00 or 9:30 pace. The conversations among the runners at this pace can go on and on and on for the entire race!
I was listening in on the conversation (I think they call that eavesdropping), when it happened, as it always seems to happen when running a marathon: the conversation turned to BOSTON. One person asks the other what they hope to run for a time and the other says, “I’m just trying to run fast enough to qualify for Boston,” and off they go into a deep discussion about how many times each of them have run it, or whether they will ever be able to qualify, or about the qualifying standards and why now are the women standards different than the men’s given that it seems there are more women running now than men. These Boston discussions also often include where they were during the bombing or why there's no longer a baggage program, or how the race is managed.
Now, when this happens, I have to decide whether I stick around and listen to what they are saying or separate myself from them. And if I do decide to stay, do I come clean and say, “Hey, I may know a little about that subject,” and reveal who I am?
During the conversation at the Virginia marathon, the runners in this group happened to be talking about the qualifying times for Boston, something I know a little about, so I decided to come clean. “Hi, I’m the director of the Boston Marathon so I can fill you in a little.” The looks on their faces were priceless, which they usually are when I interrupt like that (especially if they were just being critical of the race). I went on to answer their questions and straighten out the facts. Most of the time, I've found that people make critical comments when they may not have all the information, but once you explain why something is the way it is, most folks get it.
That being said, I usually don’t mention who I am and instead listen carefully to what people are saying — their comments are more honest that way. I’m not afraid of or get angry with someone criticizing something I am doing or once did. I want to improve, so hearing what runners are saying is one of the best ways to do that. Runners are often the ones who deserve the credit when we make improvements to our races.
When I'm incognito, I sometimes wonder if this is how Zorro, Disney's masked rider felt. Zorro means “fox.” Hmmmm… seems to fit me perfectly.