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opinion | Jennifer Graham

Even tutus have a place in the race

This runner showed off his tutu as he raced past Wellesley College last year.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File 2013

This runner showed off his tutu as he raced past Wellesley College last year.

WHEN THE late, great George Sheehan took up running, neighbors asked his mortified children why their father ran around town in his underwear. This was in the 1960s, before Sheehan’s philosophical books helped to fuel the running boom. He’d be pleased to know that wearing underwear on public streets is now accepted, even admired; it’s running in tutus that has become the issue.

In the latest episode of tutu shaming, the editor of Self magazine had to apologize last month after her magazine mocked Monika Allen, a cancer survivor who ran the Los Angeles Marathon in a tutu. “I had no idea that Monika had been through cancer,” editor Lucy Danziger said.“It was an error. It was a stupid mistake.”

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Let’s set aside Danziger’s presumption that a person’s cancer history should determine whether or not she is held up for ridicule; indeed, the cancer survivors I know are warriors who’ve faced down far worse threats than snarky magazines. The frou-haha over Allen’s outfit illustrates a deeper divide that has nothing to do with tulle and lace. It’s about who really owns road racing, and about who’s a “real” runner and who isn’t.

In no other sport do the underwear-wearing elites compete on the same asphalt, at generally the same time, as recreational athletes in tutus and capes. There are gradations of talent, of course, tactfully managed by staggered start times and chutes that ensure those with a real chance of winning run far ahead of those with a modest chance of finishing. But still, they’re all competing in the same race.

Imagine the company softball team taking the field with the Sox, and you’ll see how strange a concept this is. It’s not exactly “all comers” — certainly not at Monday’s Boston Marathon, where most of the field has met stringent standards. But count the charity runners, and it’s close. And while runners like to rhapsodize about how we’re only competing with ourselves and how every race is a match against our last chip time, we can never run far away from Darwin. Drink the milk of human kindness at every water stop, but there’s always some elemental affront accompanying those who pass us, whether on the road or the company ladder. The competition may not be cutthroat, but it simmers there, even among friends. Et tutu, Brute?

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Races are generally organized by the self-predicted times of the runners, and, as such, runners identify themselves by how fast (or slow) they run a mile. While the elite runners appear universally gracious, a mile behind them exists a semi-vicious pecking order that separates the seven-minute-per-mile pack from the eight-minute-milers, who must be distinguished from those who run a mile in an unconscionable nine minutes, who don’t want any comparison with those hauling the unendurable weight of double-digit times. (Runner’s World editor David Willey stepped into it a few years ago when he suggested, in a column, that an 11-minute mile was a combination of running and mere walking; he later issued a mea culpa saying it was a run-walk pace for him.)

Occasionally all civility breaks down, as if zombies had donned Sauconys and infiltrated the ranks, and an outraged “real” runner will suggest that slow runners — nay, joggers — should put on their own races.

Most famously, the Newton-born Gabriel Sherman did this in a much-circulated 2006 essay in Slate magazine in which he said today’s marathons feel more like circuses than races. “The marathon has transformed from an elite athletic contest to something closer to sky-diving or visiting the Grand Canyon,” Sherman wrote.

That’s good for a laugh, just like a middle-of-the-pack tutu hustling down Route 135, but it’s worth remembering that the registration fees of the tutu-ed afford the prize money of the elites. Competition is a societal good, not just in the marketplace or among emergent species. The smug may believe Fortune favors the fast, but she smiles upon everyone bold enough to enter the race.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.
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