Please Keep Your Headphones Off My Course

This is going to ruffle some feathers, but I have a race day request:

Please keep your headphones off my course.

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I don’t care if Runner’s World tells you it’s OK, or even provides you with a 5-hour playlist on Spotify to survive your first marathon, your earbuds are not welcome at Gallup Gallop.

Why am I railing against headphones when I should be courting your registration and social media likes? Something happened on Facebook this morning that really set me off. In an attempt to engage followers, the Detroit Free Press Marathon page posed the question, “Why Do You Listen to Music During the Race?”

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What ensued was a firestorm of runners lobbying for and against headphones on the course. I took the bait and engaged with some pro-music runners, but was fixated on the origin of the debate: Why would a big city marathon shamelessly pander to headphone runners?

I realize that to the casual runner I probably sound like a pretentious dick right now, but hear me out. Here are five reasons to leave your ear buds at home while racing.


1. SAFETY
Your choice to wear headphones legitimately jeopardizes the safety of other participants. Whether it is a 5K fun run or a marathon, road races have a higher concentration of heart attacks, strokes, and broken bones than any other public event. This means that it is absolutely critical for paramedics / medics to get to their patients as soon as possible.


If you’re rockin’ out to Bruno Mars, there’s a good chance that you are slowing down their response time. It also means that you probably won’t notice any of the symptoms your comrade on the course is exhibiting before going down like a ton of bricks.

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2. ETIQUETTE
Popular races are a catch-22 for participants and organizers. The more runners on the course, the more vibrant and dynamic the event can be. But it also requires participants to abide by an unspoken course etiquette.
One of those unspoken rules is about letting faster runners pass, especially in the early miles of a course that can be congested. In a perfect world, all runners would line up precisely, according to pace, which of course, never happens. Because corrals are not perfect, racers rely on each other to leave lanes open on the course for passing.
If a runner has headphones in, it is impossible for them to hear things like “on your left,” or the pitter-patter of someone’s steps or rhythmic breathing in close proximity. Completing 100+ road races in the last 15 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been cut off or bumped into by a distracted runner with earbuds in, and it’s only getting worse.

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3. PERFORMANCE
You will run a better race without music, I guarantee it. Over and over, I hear runners talk about not wanting to hear themselves breathing. I have bad news for people in that camp… listening to your body is essential to running a good race. The most common mistake people make during races is going out too fast, especially in shorter distances.

If you make sure you run at a “conversational pace” that allows you to chat sporadically with the person next to you, that’s a good litmus test for effort during training. 5Ks are a bit different because it is a more intense effort, but the principal remains the same. If you notice that your breathing has transitioned from deep to labored, there’s a good chance you are going to bonk. There is a real correlation between naked ear canals and evenly paced racing.

As for those that say the music helps them keep pace… I’m calling B.S. on that one, too. The odds of your fave Katy Perry banger having a BPM equal to the cadence required to hit your optimal pace is slim to none. In laymen’s terms, bopping along to music during your race is not helping you run any faster.

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4. STAY IN THE MOMENT
Feel like you are taking in too much screen time these days? Ditto. Having headphones is not the same as scrolling through your Instagram or Twitter feed, but it still means that you are tethered to your phone. Let’s keep it real…When a text notification chimes and those endorphins come flooding in, you’re probably glancing at your phone during the race.

My partner and I recently instituted a rule that phones have to remain out of sight when we are dining out or eating at home. It’s the funniest thing… our conversations are more interesting, we make more casual observations, and the food somehow tastes better. It’s the same on the race course.

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5. EMBRACE THE RACE
Last year, we had THREE BANDS performing on the course, and runners still plugged in headphones. This year, we’re adding three designated cheer zones on the course, and runners will still disappear into their own world.

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What bums me out most is thinking about how many random stories / friendships have emerged from spontaneous interactions with other runners that would not be possible if I was dialed into “Old Town Road.” In almost every race I run, there is an interaction that sticks with me that would not have happened with headphones.

Two days after last year’s Gallup Gallop, I ran the Erie Marathon as a “reward” for putting on my race. There to soak up one of my favorite races, I had some of my most memorable experiences on the course. A few miles in, a middle aged runner sidled up next to me, and asked me what my goal time was. I told him that the short answer was to finish, but I would probably be in the 3:10 - 3:15 range with the disclaimer that I had barely slept the past three days because of Gallup Gallop.

Over the course of about 23 more miles I found out that my new friend was trying to get back to Boston to run with his son, who had recently moved to Boston for undergrad. I also found out that he also worked in sales, and had a hilarious story about his cop brother and a Subaru that had me in stitches. When the dust settled, we came in right at 3:10, and he was Boston bound.

We still keep in touch via email to this day. You can’t tell me that having a jukebox in your ears is better than that story.
Am I going to turn away runners at the start line if they happen to be wearing headphones? Of course not. Will I shake my fist and yell “Get off my lawn” though? Absolutely.

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Brent McDermott