Elite: An Uncomfortable Term

Elite – Noun: A group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category.

The term Elite seems to have crept more and more into the sport of trail running in the last few years. Several races have separate, elite start times, free entry for elite runners, we even have websites dedicated almost exclusively to news and race day results of these elite runners. This is, of course, something we see in every sport. Sports fans and participants always pay more attention to those who are most often in the position of winning whatever sport it is they are partaking in.

This dynamic all makes perfect sense to me, and I don’t think there ever will be (or should be) a time when top performers aren’t celebrated, respected, and highly discussed. This said though, I think the term elite is the wrong term to use here.

Admittedly, I have used this term a handful of times in the past, although always uncomfortably. The problem I have with it is that being fast is not the only way to be a good runner. When 300 people line up and run a race whoever is the fastest runner over the distance on that particular day wins the race, but that doesn’t automatically make them a better runner than anyone else in the field, just faster. I certainly do compete in the sport of running to see how fast I can run on a particular day, against a particular group of other like-minded runners, and I have been fortunate enough to have dozens of races in which I have been the fastest on that day, but I’m not sure if I have ever run a race in which I feel I was specifically the best runner on that given day. Being fast is only one part of being good (or elite) at running.

I think it’s fine to have distinctions between faster and slower runners. In many cases it can make race-day logistics a lot easier to have separate waves for the faster runners. Free entry to fast runners draws more of these runners to a race, and thus draws more overall attention to the race, something that most races are looking for. And, certainly, there is always going to be a larger audience for the battle at the front of the pack than there is for the runners battling it out for 168th place. I have no problems with any of this. It’s just the term “elite” that so many of us are using that I have a problem with. I think it can, and often does come across as arrogant, condescending, and most importantly inaccurate.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be another commonly used term to represent the runners who compete near the front of the pack in a particular race, and so, out of ease, people revert to the term elite because it has become, through its widespread usage, the most widely understood. The only problem with this is that it’s simply the wrong term.

I really liked the approach to this that the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler took this year. They had two separate fields: The Hares (faster runners) and The Tortoises (slower runners). Not the elites (best runners) and everyone else (something less than the best? the unbest?). I did hear of a few people who were also offended by the tortoise terminology.  Let’s be realistic though, some runners are simply faster than others, and there are situations where this needs to be acknowledged, but I think there are far more accurate ways to do this then we are currently doing with the term elite.

Maybe I’m just being too idealistic here, and I need to accept that words are improperly used like this all the time. The primary function of language is after all to communicate, and elite has become the word in running that is most commonly used to convey that someone is a fast runner. What do you all think? Does it make the most sense to just continue using it because it’s the most well understood at this point, or does it make more sense to use something else that is more accurate and doesn’t come with so much potential disregard for all the runners who aren’t defined as “elite?”

There are 112 comments

  1. Trailrutger

    Why shouldn't we measure it in how much fun we had.

    It makes it less awkward.

    Because the elites don't have to apologize for being fast and the midpackers and backpackers don't have to apologize for being slow.

    We can just share the experience.

  2. Brian K

    Nations often go to war over semantics, however, so while debating word choice might seem like 'nitpicking,' pre-existing words that already have definitions, be they right or wrong, when used inaccurately, tend to end up shaping the definition of the new thing they’re being assigned to… rather than the other way around.

    Do we even have official definitions for what constitutes “Elite” in trail running at the various distances and disciplines? Is it a time thing? Is it a sponsorship thing? Track and road running organizations have “standards” for these things.

  3. Candice

    You know you are an elite runner when you feel the need to redefine the term elite, or when you find yourself disliking the term "elite". How many runners will ever be called elite? I say take it as a compliment.

  4. philosophy 101 on th

    I would fathom to guess this is the same type of analogical sentiment when one girl gets uncomfortable when someone else says this other girl is so pretty :) I swear its a word look it up, I have my elite mental moments.

  5. peter w

    I like the elite moniker (I like to be able to see those who train better, run faster).

    One of the nicest thing about ultras is that everyone is so nice – even to slow newbies. It's great to feel included in the same field with some seriously splendid athletes (and start about ten places behind them in small races :)- most inspiring

    Perhaps the uncomfortable feeling with the word is out of the common confusion with 'elitist'- something I've never encountered at an ultra (here in the uk – or online).

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