What’s with the headphone ban?

So, I’m actually in the habit of reading the small print when clicking “accept” on End-User License Agreements, and on waivers for races and such, and I noticed that the Oklahoma City Marathon, and almost all USATF sanctioned races for next year have a clause saying “headphones strictly prohibited”.

And, yes, I know that traces back to USATF rule 145 or liability, but c’mon – does it really matter if runners outside of the top 100 in any race are listening to iPods or dressed with different colors on the front and back of a shirt (violation of rule 143)?

A closer reading of Rule 145 reveals it would also ban GPS receivers (such as the Forerunner) and Heart Rate Monitors, as the rule is broadly written to ban video or audio cassette recorders or players, TV’s, CD or DVD players, radio transmitters or receivers, mobile phones, computers, or any similar devices in the competition area shall not be permitted. If you wanted to be really strict, complicated digital watches could probably fall under the category of “computer”…

In any case, I fired off a question to the OKC Marathon to see how strictly they were going to enforce the rule before I sent in my entry fee.

I also wrote to Carmen Triplet, USATF’s Sanctions Point of Contact (Sanctions being getting a race approved) and Jill Greer, USATF’s Communications and PR person. The text of the email is below:

Ms. Triplet –

I’ve been running for several years – nothing serious, but a solid 20 mile per week guy. It’s been good for me – I’ve lost about 20 pounds, improved productivity, etc. What hooked me was the ability to have a half hour to an hour at a time with a series of music players – getting absorbed in whatever my tunes du jour were, and recently in listening to podcasts – making my running time not just a physical release but a critical and essential part of keeping current with the world.

More importantly, my music player helps me with my training. I’ve been using a device that not only plays music, but it keeps track of pace and distance while I’m running. Streamlined the process of keeping a training log, and giving me more incentive to run.

However, as I’ve been looking to do a third and possibly a fourth marathon in 2008, I notice that many registration sites in their race waivers are stating that headphones are “strictly prohibited”. A little bit of research leads me to believe that this is due to a strict interpretation of USATF rule 144.3.(b), which states “The visible possession or use by athletes of video or audio cassette recorders or players, TV’s, CD or DVD players, radio transmitters or receivers, mobile phones, computers, or any similar devices in the competition area shall not be permitted.”

Is this the reason behind the language in the waivers?

If so, why is similar language prohibiting devices such as GPS receivers (radio receiver) or heart rate monitors using wireless heart rate sensors (both a transmitter and receiver) included in the waiver?

I don’t think that I am in the minority in finding that using a portable audio player greatly enhances my running experience – a rough survey of runners that I pass in Mystic and Newport shows that about half of the running population prefers to train with a little bit of audio accompaniment. Similar observation at the races I’ve done this year yields similar results. If you include the number of runners in the races that are using devices such as wrist-held GPSes (such as the Garmin Forerunner devices) or HRMs, the number of non-compliant runners would be closer to 75%.

Strict enforcement of the rule makes sense for the less than 1% of runners with any realistic chance of winning a given USATF sanctioned event. However, for the other 99+% of us whose entry fees subsidize the sport of road running, this sort of wording is a disincentive to paying our race fees and participating.

I am eager to see the early 2008 marathons, and the vigor with which the headphone ban is enforced. If it is enforced on the huge body of mid-pack runners, I will be interested to see how race registrations and revenues are affected. I know I will be much less likely to run in USATF sanctioned events if the ban is strictly enforced.

Thank you for your service to the sport. Running is a great release for me, and I hope to pass the love of sweat and effort to my two sons. We are not genetically gifted athletes who will ever be in the 1%, but the chance to see the 1% run in open events, like this weekend’s Mystic Places Half Marathon in Niantic, CT (where my wife broke 2 hours in preparation for the Hartford Marathon, with headphones this year), is a great inspiration to us.

Very Respectfully,

Bill Jankowski
Mystic, CT

I know there are a ton of purists out there who think that I’m evil for racing with my iPod – a risk to myself and others. But where are the statistics about the number of injured people at races with iPods? And as far as the purity of the sport – what’s the harm if someone’s iPod gets them out the door, or gets them under 4 hours, or gets them to a Boston Qualifying time (actually, that one might raise my hackles, as they are getting some tangible reward for athletic performance with something that violated the rules…)

This wouldn’t bug me so much if it weren’t for the selective enforcement, focusing on headphones but not frisking people for GPSes or HRMs. No, sorry, it would still bug me as it does seem sort of arbitrary and capricious, trying to limit participation in a sport that’s a remote-click away from irrelevance in a nation where the average mass of an adult is rapidly approaching 200 lbs without a substantial change in the average height.

6 thoughts on “What’s with the headphone ban?”

  1. Speaking as someone who spends 11 hours a day writing descriptions exactly like that one (help me, please), I agree that their list of banned items would indeed include a Forerunner and even most digital watches (since watches do calculations to determine time).

    My bet is that what they meant by “computers” was MP3 players, and not running computers. Although, you never can tell. I know they didn’t want elites to have headphones that they could use to receive coaching advice or pacing information. Technically, the Forerunner does just that.

    I suspect they would enforce that rule for anyone placing in their division. For the rest of us, its don’t ask, don’t tell.

  2. If it’s don’t ask, don’t tell – why the inclusion in the disclaimer? If they’re going to turn a blind eye, why bother?

    One of the kicks I’ve been on is in questioning dumb laws that everybody breaks. We’re reaching a point where, akin to the Soviet Union after Stalin, everyone’s technically breaking some sort of law/rule/regluation that can get them arrested/fined/disqualified/fired. The booming sale in “portable” buildings that are delivered complete to your property? To get around building codes, which don’t apply to temporary structures. Sales of handsfree devices for cell phones? Don’t really cause less distracted drivers, as most of the studies I’ve seen show that it’s the conversation not pausing for traffic conditions that causes wrecks, not dialing.

    But whadda going to do? Become an elite, I suppose, so that I can get a say in the regulations…

  3. It does bother me to picture two sets of rules. The weird thing is that road racing serves two very different purposes, and tries to serve them both with one set of regulations.

    It’s not like there’s no precedent for runners in different tiers being treated differently. Your elites start at different times, for example. Perhaps there’s a need for more classification of entrants — a runner who can compete but not win would be under different rules.

    On the other hand, maybe when we participate in “their” races, we need to live by “their” rules, even though “we” are paying the bills and vastly outnumber “them.”

  4. they’ve cracked down at the twin cities marathon this year too (and grandma’s marathon in duluth) in terms of allowing folks to wear headphones. they sound pretty tough about it too…i suspect its where the majority of races are heading based on different things i’ve read this year (there was an uproar here). they usually cite safety. maybe its a liability thing they are worried about? who knows.

  5. Jeez, what’s this world coming to?

    I ride my bike with a set of headphones that have one wire cut off so I can only listen in one ear. Most podcasts are in mono so I don’t lose any “stereo” effect….what’s the big deal about running with earbuds?

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