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Runners, some with headphones, some without, awaited the start of the Jerry Garcia Memorial River Run & Walk in Cambridge last month.
Runners, some with headphones, some without, awaited the start of the Jerry Garcia Memorial River Run & Walk in Cambridge last month. (Jason Johns for the Boston Globe)

A running debate

Competitors split on headphone ban at road races

As the owner of Marx Running and Fitness in Acton, Mark Coddaire sells Nike shoes with pockets for a transmitter that sends information about speed, distance, and calories burned to a runner's iPod Nano. He carries armbands for iPods and jackets with pockets for MP3 players. Yet, as the director of October's Bay State Marathon in Lowell, he's expected to implement a new ban on headphones at road races.

"It would be hypocritical for me to sell a shoe to accommodate the music and have people enter a race and say they can't use it," says Coddaire. "It sends a mixed message to the running crowd."

That mixed message underscores a controversy within a sport that has 35 million Americans lacing up. USA Track & Field, competitive running's governing body, approved a rule last December that prohibits runners from using headphones in races it sanctions. Although the ban arose from practical concerns about safety and liability, it raises philosophical questions about how runners define themselves.

"It's like Tom Brady listening to the Who while he's throwing a touchdown pass. Hard-core runners are focusing on racing. If they're wearing those things, they're out there for health," says Paul Collyer, director of the Jerry Garcia Memorial River Run & Walk in Cambridge. "They're peaceful-easy-feeling running. You can't hear nature around you. You can't hear the little old man who just had cataract surgery honking."

USATF not only oversees the races it sanctions, but it also sets the tone for the entire sport. The effectiveness of the headphone ban, however, is uncertain. Since instituting it, USATF has not sent notification to race directors and leaves enforcement up to them. Some race directors, including Coddaire, say they weren't aware of the new rule until contacted by the Globe and are unsure how to handle it. Some directors of non-USATF races hesitate to outlaw headphones.

Race directors have long complained about runners tuned into music who tune out directions or warnings, but USATF spokesman Jim Estes describes the decision to ban headphones as a precaution against injury or lawsuit rather than a response to a specific incident. Until then, USATF had simply discouraged their use.

The change coincides with technological advances that make music-to-go more convenient than ever. USATF reviews its rules every two years, and its previous deliberations, in 2004, occurred before Apple had introduced either the iPod Nano or Shuffle, and the same year Oakley introduced sunglasses with an MP3 player. The latest version of the Shuffle, a clip-on device slightly bigger than a postage stamp, hit stores three months before USATF passed the ban.

Collyer -- who directs the Jerry Garcia race through the Road Runners Club of America, not USATF -- is sticking with discouraging headphones. On race day, Heather Petricca, a 37-year-old accountant from Ashland, has Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" loaded on her MP3 player. "That tracks me at a 10-minute mile, so I'll keep that on repeat," she says. "It takes your mind off what you're doing."

Ian Nurse, a 29-year-old restaurant manager from Beacon Hill, is also ready for the 4.2-mile race, which he almost won in 2005, without music. "It's easier to think," he explains, "and be more focused on the running."

The debate reverberates in cyberspace. Boston Marathon director Dave McGillivray reports on that, of 62 runners he counted one recent morning, only seven -- "the real fit and fast guys" -- were headphones-free. This summer a story circulated online about a runner in Florida wearing headphones who was hit by a train, which severed her legs.

At the same time, runners post playlists online. Websites like list songs' beats per minute so runners can match their stride -- Maroon 5's "This Love" at 94 beats per minute for a warm-up, Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" at 176 for a faster pace. Even shoe manufacturers have stepped in. Reebok's "Run Easy" campaign invites runners to share play lists, while a Pearl Izumi promotion labels anyone who runs with an MP3 player a jogger, not a runner. "Runners dig music," goes its ad, "but they know that it makes them lose touch with their environment, and lose kinesthetic awareness of their bodies, and that is something they simply cannot have."

John Goldrosen, Massachusetts liaison for the Road Runners Club of America, sees both sides. "Runners who truly enjoy the time they spend running are irritated by the view that music is needed to make it bearable," Goldrosen says. "On the other hand, I see some very fast runners wearing headphones. Some runners are using headphones not only to entertain themselves or make the time go by but also to reinforce their self-discipline."

While some contestants take a live-and-let-live attitude, others complain of runners who can't hear someone trying to pass them.

"There definitely is a sort of tension," says David Mak, 38, a software developer from Jamaica Plain who runs without music. "I'm there to soak in the atmosphere of the race. When you have a headset on, you're there to tune everything else out. I kind of wonder why they're racing."

Mak wouldn't appreciate Kaushik Nanavati, 37, a software consultant from Arlington who often listens to Indian music while racing. "Recreational runners are just trying to finish," he says. His reaction to a crackdown? "I'll do the easier, less painful races."

With USATF events ranging from fun runs to world-class contests, enforcement varies widely. In Wakefield last month, the 24-Hour Around the Lake race ignored the ban because director Kate Maul hadn't heard of it. In Maine, officials at the Beach to Beacon 10-kilometer race announced the prohibition before sounding the starting horn. In Minnesota, Grandma's Marathon significantly cut the number of racers wearing earphones from hundreds to four dozen by widely spreading word of the ban and disqualifying violators.

Although the Boston Marathon has long prohibited headphones, director McGillivray expects to beef up publicizing the rule. So does Cape Cod Marathon director Courtney Bird.

"I can go to the point of saying the use of earphones is banned and their use during the race may disqualify you," Bird says. "The issue becomes: Are we going to physically have the anti-iPod police out on the course? The answer is no."

In Cambridge, bare-eared Nurse wins the Garcia race in 21:57. The 17th-fastest runner, Mark McCabe, 38, an equity analyst from South Boston listening to the Red Sox on his Walkman when he crosses the line at 26:03, is the first to finish wearing headphones. "I couldn't run 100 feet without headphones," he says. "I'd get bored."

Of the first 50 finishers, only three wear earphones. Among finishers 697 through 708, seven do.

Petricca, disappointed, finishes in 49:22. "My battery ran out," she says. "I had no tunes."