Elite: An Uncomfortable Term

A look at why the term “elite” might be the wrong one to use for fast runners.

By on December 12, 2012 | Comments

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?”

Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.