The Smell of Baking Cookies

For a moment think about the smell of baking cookies. I’m serious. Stop reading and think about the smell of baking cookies. Pretend that you really can smell the cookies in the oven. You could even close your eyes if you want.

What were you thinking about? I’m sure you were thinking about cookies but I bet you thought about a lot more than that. Did you think about a nice day at home spent with your mom? Did you think about a crackling fire and feeling cozy in the warmth of your house? Smell and sound provide powerful associations with memories.

For 2008 the USATF (USA Track and Field) association enacted rule 144.3(b). It bans the use of headphones during USATF sanctioned races. This ruling has generated an uproar in the running community.

When I learned about this rule I wondered what the reasoning behind it was. At first I thought it was because you could gain a competitive advantage by listening to something that could pace you. But as I thought about it more I realized that didn’t make any sense because people are allowed to wear watches that give them instant pace information. The most common argument I have heard in favor of the rule is safety. The idea is that by having headphones on you can’t hear fellow runners, race marshals, or cars. As a frequent headphone user I really didn’t buy this argument. The road noise from tires is loud! I’ve never had a car sneak up on me. Wearing headphones you likely wouldn’t hear a runner coming up behind you but then even without headphones I never hear people passing me. As for race marshals they typically have bull horns. At the last race I ran, while wearing headphones, I could hear a marshal announcing times a full quarter-mile from where the mile split was! This argument didn’t really make sense to me either. I’ve also never seen a reported injury blamed on the use of headphones. People get injured at all major races but it’s (almost?) never from headphones. I decided to see if I could find the USATF’s rationale.

I first turned to the rules themselves. No justification was provided in the rules. I searched the USATF website and couldn’t find much information on the rule. Digging deeper I finally found this:

USATF enacted the ban in accordance with a rule put in place by the IAAF which banned the use of headphones in championship events. The IAAF ban was intended to prevent athletes from receiving information via radio about the whereabouts of their rivals

If the above is true then the USATF was just following suite. Did they enact the rule blindly or did they think about the ramifications? Did they consider that the vast majority of people running USATF sanctioned races are not competitive? (They are competitive but they have only two opponents; themselves and the clock.) Did they consider that this rule would be nearly impossible to enforce? Did they consider the huge number of runners would potentially be turned away from the sport?

Before I researched this rule I assumed the USATF to be a bunch of elitist runners that wanted to keep “their” sport exclusive. It seemed to me that they wanted to exclude the “riff-raff.” Indeed I have seen this attitude on multiple running forums. Some runners can’t comprehend that the running experience is different for everyone. They feel that if you aren’t out running in the wee hours of the morning listening to nothing but your footfalls and breath that you are missing out on what running is about. The part that shocks me is that many of these same people get angry at runners who do choose to wear headphones. They say that these people should not be running. I find that both scary and sad. I find it scary that people can be so intolerant. I find it sad that they lack the ability to empathize; to understand how someone could enjoy music while running even though they personally do not.

When I hear certain songs I’m transported back to races. I see the race course and the people around me. I feel the incredible rush of emotions of completing my first marathon. I can see my sister greeting me at the finish. I can see the crowds and hear their cheers. The experience is so real and powerful that it is almost frightening. I am re-living an incredible experience similar to you baking cookies with your mom. This is, I believe, far more powerful and realistic. I do not want the USATF to take this away from me. Banning the use of headphones takes away from the experience of running for millions of recreational runners and more importantly the “re-experience” of running.


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