Two Sundays ago I spent a chilly (nay, freezing) morning riding in the lead vehicle at the NYC Half, and before my phone shut down due to the arctic temperatures halfway through the race I realized, for maybe the umpteenth time, why road racing is such a hard sell as a spectator sport, even on TV.
For the first five miles of the race a large pack, fronted by America’s Meb Keflezighi, ran together through Central Parkl, but the focus was on the showdown between Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai and Mo Farah of Great Britain, who are scheduled to duel over twice the distance in London next month.
Then, coming down the hill just below the old Tavern on the Green, which Mutai had ascended in the opposite direction in his 2011 and 2013 NYCM wins, there was a brief tangle of legs. Farah went down, hitting the pavement hard, and Mutai, whether in reaction or by coincidence, put the racing hammer down, dropping the pace from 4:45 to 4:30 for the next three miles.
By the time he’d made the turn on the West Side Highway Mutai was 30 meters clear of second place, and that margin only grew as he essentially time trialed the rest of the way down to the Battery. He looked as though he might have been out for a tempo run back home in Kenya, and it was about as exciting to watch – in short, not very much.
That’s one of the main differences between running and almost any other sport – the perceived degree of difficulty between the elites and the masses, and even among the elites themselves. To be sure, Geoffrey Mutai running sub-5 minute miles looks different than Joe Jogger at double that pace, but only in a matter of degree. More to the point, the only way to differentiate an elite’s 4:50 mile from one 30 seconds faster is by looking at a stopwatch, or observing the disintegration of the lead pack.
In contrast, there’s an easily observable difference in ability between a weekend duffer and Phil Mickelson, or Derek Jeter and a beer league softball player. They’re playing the same sport, but in name only. Watch a pro making a no-look behind the back pass while driving the paint or drilling a slap shot through the five hole from the blue line, and there isn’t the tiniest iota of doubt they’re performing on an entirely distinct plane, if not a completely different planet.