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March 26, 2009

Lessons From a Loser

As a writer, it’s a great thing when stories just fall into your lap.

More specifically, as a running columnist with a pop culture fixation, it’s absolutely fantastic when a story involving distance running and a reality TV star unleashes an honest-to-goodness Internet scandal. In that regard, Dane Patterson's attempted marathon last month was the race heard ‘round the World Wide Web.

When such circumstances collide, the appropriate question to my sports editor isn’t, “Should I write about that?” but rather, “How many words do you want, and when would you like it?” The answers were 1) 600, and 2) this week, and the result is the Monterey Herald column that follows.

However, since the cyber-storm had sort of blown over by the time this article saw newsprint, I wanted to refrain from piling on criticism of what went down. (God knows enough bloggers have done that already). Instead, I used the occasion to look at one particular, slightly troubling aspect of today’s distance running culture, and to offer a reminder of an important strategy for long-term fitness success.

Finally, actual footage from the episode has been removed (for obvious reasons) from the NBC website and most of the Web, but I linked to a post that contains the clip in question if you're interested.

Running Life 3/26/09 “Lessons From a Loser”

Of all the cardinal sins a runner can commit, the greatest is claiming to run a marathon when you really haven’t. The commandment is clear: Thou shalt not call thyself a marathoner if Thou hast not covered the entire 26.2 miles.

Dane Patterson, a contestant on this season’s Biggest Loser, learned that lesson the hard way last month, and incurred not only the wrath of God, but of thousands of angry marathoners. His is a cautionary tale that highlights a couple of vital lessons for novice runners.

First, some background. After being voted off of the show’s Feb 25th episode, the follow-up piece [video link] showed Patterson running a marathon in Arizona. Viewers saw him cross the finish line, and wear a finisher’s medal as the crowd cheered him. Meanwhile, a caption reported that he completed the race in 3 hours, 53 minutes, and Patterson’s voiceover described it as “the most amazing experience of my life to run an entire marathon.”

It was a great story, except for one problem: he didn’t actually do the whole marathon.

Patterson entered the race and ran about 17 miles before NBC producers realized that he wouldn’t make the finish line before the race finished and the sun went down. Somewhere around mile 23, Patterson agreed to ride the NBC van to the finish, where he was filmed crossing the line victoriously.

Like other scoundrels of the information age, Patterson’s undoing came via the Internet. A fellow runner wrote on her personal blog that she saw Patterson and his wife get out of the van just before the finish line, and others who were present confirmed the report. Mainstream media picked up the story, and NBC was soon apologizing for creating a staged accomplishment.

After the controversy broke, Patterson reasserted that he only rode for 3 miles in the van - but to anybody who has ever run a marathon, it didn’t matter. He became a lightning rod for an angry mob of runners accusing him of the highest form of treason.

The whole fiasco raises two interesting points – the first of which is that almost everybody is trying to do a marathon these days.

Twenty years ago, new runners targeted 10K races as incentives to get in shape; today, the marathon has become an entry-level race. Training programs - many of which are fundraisers - promise to turn sedentary people into marathoners in a period of weeks. 10Ks and half-marathons aren’t impressive enough anymore; everyone is reaching for the brass ring right out of the gate.

While the notion is admirable, this isn’t always a good thing in practice. The injury risk for a novice runner starting a marathon program is quite high – and many of those who do complete the race find the process so dreadful that they never return to it.

Which brings us to the second lesson from Patterson’s story: the importance of setting manageable goals.

A new runner would probably benefit more by building up to the marathon challenge slowly, after successfully completing shorter distances over a longer period of time. Your chance of long-term success is much greater, which should be the primary reason you start running in the first place. Besides, it’s not like marathons are going away anytime soon – your goal race will still be there for you to tackle when you’re properly prepared.

We’re glad Dane Patterson was able to run 23 miles last month. He is trying another marathon in April, and we sincerely wish him the best of luck in finishing it. Above all else, we wish him the many years of health and happiness that dedicated runners have come to enjoy.


Curly Su 3/26/09, 2:43 PM  

Thanks for the fair and articulate version of this story. I found the rage painful to follow because although I understood and identified with it, I also felt for Dane - he got sucked into something bigger than him. I'm really glad he's going to attempt another marathon next month; I'm sure he'll finish this one.

Annette 3/26/09, 3:31 PM  

Nice approach. That was a tough one to tackle, but you withheld judgment and took the high road. I like it. :)

Backofpack 3/26/09, 4:20 PM  

Nicely done Donald. We had a member of our club do something similar at the Portland Marathon, and sorry to say, the other runners still haven't forgiven her. She moved soon after, so doesn't run with us anymore, but people still mention her cheat. I am sure Dane felt pressured by the TV crew, our runner just had someone she wanted to beat. Bad, bad, bad!

E 3/26/09, 5:00 PM  

hi there- thanks for stopping by my blog! i'm glad there is someone else out there who "exercises to eat!" :) looking forward to reading your blog from now on!

Alisa 3/26/09, 5:34 PM  

I agree his goal and ambition is admirable but I was pretty upset when I heard about this story. It's the last 10k that make a marathon a marathon.

I do hope he finishes the whole race this time around.

I never though I would ever want to do a marathon, I was happy with 5k's and 1/2 marathons until one day I decided, I can do this. Granted I'd been consistently running for awhile. BUT in many ways I still consider myself a newbie. I think that's a great thing about running. There are veterans and newbies alike competing together.

David 3/26/09, 6:10 PM  

You were very kind to not pile on, especially your restraint in not taking a hard dig at those dastardly prima dona TV people who manufactured a fraud.

Rainmaker 3/26/09, 7:36 PM  

Nice evenly written article. I think I'm much in the same boat as Curly - while bummed about it - I feel for him more people I know he was pressured into it by the crews. I'll be happy for him once he finishes his race next month.

Dave 3/27/09, 4:59 AM  

You took the high rode...I am afraid I may not have....I think NBC and them convincing this guy to do something somewhat unethically for the sake of "good" TV is indiciative of far deeper issues in our society than just finishing a marathon...or not. Great column, Donald.

Anne 3/27/09, 5:22 AM  

You know from reading my blog for years that I too have an issue with people suddenly discovering running and immediately signing up for a marathon. As you wrote, the attrition rate -- for those that somehow aren't seriously injured beforehand -- is very high. I think the marathons and charities that they partner with contribute to this with their marketing, and it's hard to complain publicly when they raise so much money for good causes.

21stCenturyMom 3/27/09, 4:47 PM  

This is what I truly dislike about reality shows - they are set ups. So wrong. And as for the lying - EW! His wife's final comment on tape is "what we did today symbolizes what our future's going to be like"

Let's hope not. What kind of a life is that?

I'm glad you talked about the perils of running a marathon on a couple months of training. Next up - the perils of losing 100 pounds in 8 weeks.

jen 3/28/09, 9:26 AM  

I like the tone of the article. We're not letting him off the hook but not reaming him either.

I agree with Pamela that all of reality TV is a set up. So I wasn't too surprised to find out this was all a lie, but still. It is an insult to everyone who has or who aspires to run a full marathon! Great piece, Donald. :)

PS I should admit to being a huge fan of Biggest Loser and watching it every week despite the flaws.

Rick Gaston 3/30/09, 12:46 AM  

Pretty damn lame. Good for the folks who vouched for the truth. NBC should have known better. How can you stage something like that with so many witnesses? Complete lack of integrity on the couple and the film crew who pushed them into it.

Anonymous,  4/6/09, 12:00 AM  

What is sad is now when people here a marathoner named Dane, they do not think of Dane Rauschenberg, the guy who ran a real marathon for 52 consecutive weekends in 2006 (danerunsalot.blogspot.com). THAT is a real runner!


jeanne 4/14/09, 10:53 AM  

the guy lied, plain and simple. I don't buy that he was "pressured" into it. how old is he? 5??

As to your larger point, much wisdom. I started running the wrong way 'round--with a marathon. What it promised, which many smaller couch to 5k programs don't (and can't) offer, is the group support and the ability to raise a ton of money for a worthy cause.

SO i finished my first marathon in 6:30 minutes...and I honestly didn't feel great about it. It's hard, not impossible to run a crappy marathon. But breaking 30 minutes in a 5k? That was a HUGE accomplishment which I still revel in.

nice thought provoking article.

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