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Keep the iPod at home if you’re planning to race anytime soon. Last month, USA Track & Field, the national governing body for running, banned the use of headphones and portable audio players like iPods at its official races. The new rule was created to ensure safety and to prevent runners from having a competitive edge. Local running clubs have followed suit, disallowing popular MP3 players like iPods during their races and training runs. All of the bans cited safety and insurance issues as their primary reasons for prohibiting headphones. 

Is running with an iPod inherently dangerous? Should the devices be banned from races and organized runs? Give an ear to two Blue Ridge runners on opposite sides of the debate.


The iPod has become the human battery. Before the iPod, humans were entirely capable of completing routine tasks on a sort of phantom power supply generated mostly through the consumption of fats and complex carbohydrates. The introduction of the iPod, however, has largely replaced this antiquated technology of powering human activity with a more fashionable 3.7V 630mAh lithium ion battery. 

Sure, portable music has granted us the unique ability to download and enjoy a more tolerable soundtrack to the humdrum production of everyday life, simultaneously lending the inspiration to go the extra mile. Unfortunately, we can get ourselves into trouble when our tag-along iTunes places us out of touch and out of tune with an immediate environment that truly demands our attention. A “Shiny Happy People” moment can rapidly escalate to a “Message in a Bottle” situation when a trail runner so precariously diminishes his or her ability to carefully heed the call of the wild – bears, frothy-mouthed strays, rapists. And though you may feel like the King of the Road, you should hardly expect to remain as such if shaking your groove thing gets in the way of your ability to vigilantly perceive oncoming motorists, bicyclists, and fellow pedestrians. Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world, and we ought to remain both alert and attentive while we’re running down a dream.

Beyond the safety issue, rendering yourself too heavily dependent upon an iPod to get into the zone while training can significantly decrease your mental capacity to get footloose on race day without one. And if you’re looking for scientific fact, consider this: they say that endurance training is ten-percent physical and ninety-percent mental. How do you expect to PR if your training has been ten-percent physical and ninety-percent Styx “The Grand Illusion”—especially when your iPod has been banned from all USATF-sanctioned events? Furthermore, if the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone connected to the leg bone, and the leg bone connected to the iPod, what in the heck connects the leg bone to the head bone if one should become prematurely severed from his or her iPod? 

Finally, we must consider the fairness factor. Not every runner on the course laces up with an iPod. Surely it’s not unreasonable to say that these athletes are therefore held at a disadvantage because they cannot rely upon a strategically compiled playlist to generate their runner’s high for them throughout the footrace. Undoubtedly, there are alternative methods that may be exploited in order to “Lose Yourself” without a portable media player, but let’s be honest – running with your nose shoved into a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird seems about as practical a method of hoarding motivation as contracting the Swedish glam metal band Europe to chase after you while shredding through a touching performance of “The Final Countdown.” 

Perhaps you’re sporting earbuds not merely for the innate motivational qualities of the “Eye of the Tiger.” Still, such a propensity to interface with a software device on the trail can spoil our efforts to genuinely interact with the great outdoors. We’ve all heard horror stories of runners feeling suddenly stranded along some godforsaken portion of trail with nothing but the shoes on their feet and a dead iPod, where an otherwise cheery jaunt becomes a dismal reenactment of The Blair Witch Project – because there’s nothing worse than forcing yourself to finish a run while toting around a useless iPod that only plays a literal interpretation of the “Sounds of Silence.” Except, of course, being mauled by ravenous wild turkeys because you couldn’t hear them approaching. 

As for me, give me a trail mix that melts in my mouth and not my ears. 

—Chris Weller


One of my best racing experiences involved running at night while a light rain fell from the sky and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” played in my iPod. The rain caught in the shine of my headlamp with a symphony of 70s rock as a soundtrack. I felt like Luke Skywalker whizzing through the stars in an X-Wing Fighter. 

Now USA Track and Field wants to take that away from me? For my own safety? I question the logic behind such fascist decisions. Banning iPods for the runner’s safety makes about as much sense as banning dancing because it leads to teen pregnancy. 

Take New York, for instance, where they’re trying to make it illegal for any pedestrian or jogger to use an iPod on city streets. Why? Because some poor guy got hit by a city bus. He happened to be wearing an iPod, so obviously, the iPod led to his untimely demise, right? He couldn’t hear the bus coming, and wham! 

The problem with this logic is simple: he got hit by a bus because he didn’t look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t blame the iPod—blame the guy for not taking that elementary lesson to heart. 

Race directors seem all too eager to jump on the “iPods=dead runners” bandwagon. Grandma’s Marathon in Minnesota made every runner remove their iPod at the starting line and put them in envelopes to be mailed home. Refusal to comply would result in an automatic disqualification. One of the most popular running clubs in the Southeast banned headphones from their organized training runs. They say women running with headphones become a target. They say you can’t hear traffic. They say you can’t hear someone passing you during a race. They say iPods are a distraction, leading to unnecessary injuries. 

What about deaf people? They can’t hear traffic. They can’t hear the runners behind them. Are you going to ban deaf people from your races? What about people who run with partners? Those chatty chattersons who run side by side, talking about their cats, their arthritis, and their cat’s arthritis are just as distracted as an iPod runner. Speaking of distractions, what about sports bras? Honestly, I’ve been more distracted by the tiny shorts and skimpy sports bras I see at the local 5K than I am by Bon Jovi “Livin’ on a Prayer” in my ears. 

If I want to put on my iPod and run through a lion-infested jungle wearing rib-eye underwear, then that’s my choice. Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do because of “my own safety.” That’s a slippery slope in the world of outdoor sports. Are you going to ban kayaking and rock climbing, too? If the race directors are worried about liability, give me an extra waiver to sign before the race. There are plenty of ways around the legal ramifications without banning the devices altogether. 

Ultimately, the iPod ban has less to do with safety and more to do with the innate elitism that is rampant in competitive running. I think race directors are banning iPods because they don’t like what iPods represent: fun. Thanks to the mini music player, more people are running and enjoying the process. A recent study in the Journal of Sports Medicine showed that lactic acid, heart rates, and blood pressure were significantly lower in runners who used headphones, because they were more relaxed and had a lower “perceived effort” than those who ran sans Billy Joel. 

Music makes running more tolerable, and as a result, more average people are picking up the sport— which upsets many elitist old-school runners. For example, the “Run Aware” campaign of a Maryland running club is discouraging their members from running with an iPod at any time. On the web forum of the D.C. Road Runners, one of its race directors claims that running with an iPod compromises “the essence of the sport.” 

I’m sick of elite runners constantly turning their backs on any new development within running because it threatens the “essence of the sport.” Stop fighting it and tune in to some Guns n’ Roses on your next run. You just might like it. 

—Graham Averill

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