Incivility and the New York City Marathon

The New York City Marathon is next weekend. It is one of the largest marathons in the world with over 37,000 participants on an annual basis. Many of these participants are seasoned racers – some are on their 20th consecutive race, some have been training for events like this one for their whole lives, some will complete the race in just over two hours – but many are just regular folks. This might not be their first race but they are content to plow though the course and are ecstatic to finish the race in less than five hours. Some others, like Zoe Koplowitz will struggle through the course for more than 36 hours using forearm crutches. The workplace has a lot in common with this race. With the exception of certain high risk, high adrenaline jobs, most working environments fall into the category of marathon, not sprint.

In anticipation of the weekend’s race, the New York Times ran a story entitled Plodders Have a Place, but Is It in a Marathon? The story interviews several marathon runners who feel that the popularity of the race and the addition of all these less experienced runners have taken away the prestige of running 26.2 miles. The article raises some valid points – does one have to actually run the whole way in order to claim they have run a marathon? At what point can organizers shut down the water stations and go home? Does it count if you take a lunch break in the middle? Most of the people interviewed for the article, however, seem intent on separating themselves from these fair-weather runners, insisting that what they have done is infinitely inferior to the marathon run by a “real” runner. Logistically, the slower finishers do not have a negative impact on the faster runners. In a large race like the New York City Marathon, runners are grouped by approximate speeds and the faster ones start at the front of the pack, quickly leaving the slower ones behind.

Why then do these elite runners so carefully guard the right to call oneself a marathoner? One woman interviewed for the article even admitted that she corrects people who say they ran a marathon in six hours or more, informing them that they didn’t actually run a marathon but merely “participated” in one. Why is this woman unwilling to share her glory? Is her victory diminished because other people accomplished the same feat over a longer period of time? The reality is that many people believe, at least subconsciously, that this is true.

The workplace similarly contains many who believe that their success is enhanced by the lack of success of others. These people are quick to point out the differences between themselves and the hapless individual who succeeded slightly less than they did. It comes down to a desire to confirm one’s identity by distinguishing oneself from lesser beings in the same vicinity. This is the essence of cliques. Such schisms in a workplace run contrary to the idea that everyone here–the CEO, the professionals, the janitors, etc–all share the larger mission. Just like those who have been informed, after sweating through 26.2 miles, that they merely participated in a run, those lower on the workplace totem pole will feel animosity toward those in higher positions and are more likely to disconnect from the task entirely than to become a faster runner or a committed employee.

The sport of running has greatly benefited from the influx of less gifted runners. One can find a marathon or half marathon every weekend somewhere in North America and, with a larger consumer base, items like high quality running shoes, fuelbelts, and conditioning tights, have been developed and made affordable. Elite runners have more options and a more active sport because of the participation of the very people they resent. Similarly, organizations are improved when every employee is engaged and committed to the overall mission. This only happens when the contributions of those at the bottom of the corporate food chain are respected.

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