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Entering a footrace? Please mute your late-90s pop (and other tunes)

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: October 17, 2018
  • Published October 17, 2018

I was running in a Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Race recently and felt my heart rate spike. No, it wasn't a hill. It was the sound of late 90s music blaring from the hip of the runner next to me.

My brain lit into angry fireworks. No, I thought. This isn't supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be listening to the quiet thump of footfalls all around me.

I look forward to this: the thrum of community and energy accumulated in the footsteps of people who have dedicated their Tuesday night to getting outside, often with their families and friends. I know when I inevitably fall behind many of those runners, it'll just be me and the trees and dirt. Silence.

The music next to me tore into my enjoyment of the race, and surprisingly I felt myself speeding up.

"Must — avoid — (late 90s song)," I gasped as I caught up to a friend. I ran with her for a while so I could be sure I'd gotten rid of the person with the pocket-sized boombox. Eventually the music faded, and so did my anger.

Listen: I'm not a hater. I'm all for people having different methods of getting out and being in the outdoors. I know that in general a comfy couch is a more reliable and safe venue for a Tuesday night, and sometimes you need a little incentive to push yourself to do the harder but ultimately more rewarding activity.

I bait myself with friend dates, a beer, a TV show later and, yes, listening to one of my favorite pump-up jams on the way to the race. Sure, it is sometimes a bummer there are restrictions on headphones at races. But it seems like there are good safety and awareness reasons for that, and besides, I can always use a break from additional chatter between my ears. Running in relative silence is good for me.

I have tried to imagine what it would take for me to blast music from my hip during a race. At best I find it presumptuous to think I would know what 30 other runners around me want to listen to at any given moment. At worst, it's rude. By blasting whatever song I wanted, I'd basically be announcing to everyone around me that I care more about my experience than theirs.

Go ahead and call me Miss Manners, I guess. In my world that is so full of clamor — including everything from jangly pop music to yowling old folk, the advertising I experience on every given day, and the constant yammering of my own voice combined with those of my colleagues, friends and family — I need silence. Or at least something close to it.

I need the soothing sound of my own breathing, the swooshy sound of wind and the faint far-off buzz of airplanes. Especially when I'm out on a trail with other people, I don't need to feel like I'm trapped in a car with a stranger who keeps turning up the radio.

Part of sharing the outdoors is behaving in a way that doesn't impact others' experiences. And I wouldn't be writing this if it were limited to a single occasion. I've experienced it in other races and have heard from friends who have also found themselves stuck for miles next to someone playing music on a speaker.

Even with all of this indignation directed at fellow racers, I don't think avoiding speakers entirely is a universal rule. Actually, I think there are some times where playing music out loud is totally fine.

When running, biking, or even hiking alone on some trails it would make sense to use the speaker. I get that bear bells get maddening, and you can only sing so many songs aloud when you're moving fast. If you're really, truly alone, or near a noisy river, the speaker would be a good option for bear safety.

That said, I think it's the responsibility of the person playing the music to have a keen awareness of where other trail users are and to turn music off when there are other people around for a long time — someone just ahead or behind you on the trail. And again, this does not hold for most trail races where there is a critical mass of people on the trail at any given time.

I also think it's totally fun and lovely for people to blast music at aid stations. Runners breeze right through those, so even if we don't like the tunes we're not stuck with them.

Finally, if you're really all alone out there on the trail, I say play your tunes to your heart's content. If a speaker plays out on the tundra and there's no one there to hear it, it never really played at all as far as other people are concerned.

What it comes down to for me is that being outside, like anything else, is a shared resource that people use for different reasons and in different ways. I think playing music out loud in those spaces a disruption of that shared resource. Please, fellow outsdoorsy people: be considerate about your music. Especially 90s pop.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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