Stephen Day

When my children were young, the panicked parental worry of our time was the Stanford marshmallow test. The experiment’s premise is that you leave your young child alone in a room with a marshmallow to look at. Beforehand you tell them they can eat the marshmallow, but if they don’t eat it, they can have two marshmallows when you return to the room. It’s a test of one’s ability to delay gratification. The scientists who conducted the experiments at the time demonstrated that having the willpower to delay gratification led to numerous better life outcomes for young children as they grew up. 

The Stanford marshmallow test has subsequently been debunked — or at least its findings have been challenged. Like many other tests, it appears to measure children’s socioeconomic status rather than their willpower. But, at the time, it was something that middle-class parents fretted over as to whether our toddlers had the gumption to resist a short-term sugar rush for long-term rewards.

In retrospect, it seems ironic that we should expect our three-year-olds to display this talent when it is something adult-aged humanity has repeatedly failed to model. 

For instance, given a choice between letting our depleted fish stocks take a few years to recover to sustainable levels or enjoying a tasty meal of shark and chips, our answer, overwhelmingly, is ‘pass the tartare sauce’.

But this is an article for a running magazine, not fish stocks.

There is one day in the year, each year, when an unprecedented number of Wellingtonians participate in athletics. It is the biggest athletics event in the lower North Island — you are probably taking part yourself. People pay upwards of $100 each to join in. Corporations compete to sponsor the event. The mayor, officials and celebrities (such as NZ has) turn up. It is an unrivalled opportunity for our small athletics community to invest in the long-term promotion of itself to the broader Wellington population.

Instead, we gobble down the marshmallow in front of us. 

Our officials, athletes, coaches and supporters (haha) sidestep Wellington’s massive Round the Bays festival to attend the Wellington Track and Field Championships. We decide to hold our athletics champs on the same weekend because that’s what we always do. Rather than defer our event or even cancel it for a year, we instigate a head-to-head competition with the event most likely to give our sport long-term growth. 

Initially, this grizzle started as a personal gripe. Before Christmas, I decided I wanted to run a half marathon and a steeplechase in the new year. A quick calendar check showed I would probably have to choose one or the other. The timetable for Round The Bays was out at the time; Sunday, 19 February. The draft timetable for the Athletics Championships was not — just the dates Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 February. So I didn’t register for either event because maybe the two events would be on separate days, and if I felt fit and ambitious, I could run both. Or perhaps they would clash, and I would need to choose. That clash didn’t eventuate, but I missed the early bird entry fees. The now the draft timetable is out:  

  • At 9:15am on Sunday, 19 February, we, the Athletics NZ registered athletes of Wellington, have the choice of running 5.5km with over 10,000 of our fellow Wellingtonians. We could promote our clubs and our sport to people who may only be exposed to participatory athletics on this day of the year.
  • Or, at 10am or 10:30am on the same day, we can run 12.5 laps of a mostly empty Newtown Park to compete for the title of best 5km runner in Wellington.

We could put aside our need for this marshmallow and embrace Round The Bays. We could use it as an opportunity to invite more people, families, and communities into our sport. People could finish running or walking Round the Bays thinking, by doing so, they had joined our athletics community. Instead, we seem determined to signal that their achievement holds so little value to ‘real’ athletes that we need a separate race over almost the same distance at practically the same time, in nearly the same part of Wellington.  

My ideal alternative? Let’s put aside the Wellington Track and Field Champs for a year and invest all that energy into promoting athletics at Round the Bays instead. Let’s make the 5.5km Round the Bays race a championship race filled with club singlets. Let’s ask if we can hold an athletics showcase of jumps and sprints at Kilbirnie Park. Let’s ask Sport Wellington if the registration process and the follow-up surveys can offer people the chance to turn their one-off athletic activity into a year-long membership of a local sports club. Let’s mingle with all our neighbours, friends, family and fellow city-dwellers at Kilbirnie Park, sharing our joy for running and walking.