A state cross country championship race serves as the climax of the newly released movie “Overcomer.” After three miles, protagonist Hannah Scott approaches the final stretch in second place. Her face is shiny with sweat and her arms are pumping hard.  A voice in her ear says: “Do it, Hannah. Do it, my daughter.” The encouragement gives her the strength to catch the girl ahead of her and win the race.  

In the movie, an earbud allows Scott to listen to a recording of her father while she runs. Her father’s words help her finish strong despite the pain. But is it right for a runner to receive that kind of coaching during a race?

As a junior cross country and track runner at Goshen College, I know just how helpful it can be to receive motivation from outside sources while I’m racing. Hearing a coach or a teammate yell encouragement can give me energy to push a little bit harder. But I think when cheers from the sidelines turn into advice in a runner’s ear, a line has been crossed.

“Long distance running is 90% mental and the other half is physical,” says Rich Davis, who coached cross country and track at the University of Dayton for 18 years.  

Yes, running is about testing and improving physical fitness. But in the middle of a grueling race, the runner’s mind determines how fast she runs, not her legs. What a race really tests is her ability to tell herself “you can do this; don’t give up” and be so convincing that she actually follows through.  

The Road Runners Club of America, which organizes thousands of recreational races every year, is a leading opponent of racing with earphones. Since the 1980s, the association has encouraged race directors to ban their use for safety reasons.  

The U.K. Athletics Association prohibits the use of earphones in all running races in the U.K., and race officials aren’t afraid to enforce the rule. Andy Newton-Lee was one of three runners to serve as an example when he was disqualified from the Hull Marathon in England in 2018.  

He told Hull Live: “I am not saying I am above the rules, and if the rule is no headphones, then fair enough, but I do not think the way I was treated was in the spirit of the marathon.”

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) cross country rulebook, which is also used by the NAIA (the division to which Goshen College belongs), states that “using any wireless communication device during event competition” is prohibited, as is “using any device or technology that provides the user with an unfair advantage over another athlete.”  

For now, most runners are willing to comply with these rules, but it is only a matter of time before the issue of earphone use rises to the forefront in the running community just as it does in the movie “Courageous.” When that happens, a decision will have to be made concerning ethics in racing.  

On a Friday in September, I found myself one of more than 150 runners on a sun-baked 5-kilometer course in Grand Rapids. My legs were aching and my lungs burning as I turned the corner onto the long, grassy final stretch. I pumped my arms and yelled to myself, “You can do it, Sierra. Pick it up.”  

I felt the lactic acid fill my legs with slush. I saw the young women around me straining —some speeding up, some slowing down. I saw the finish line, just a little too far away. And, as runners would say, I blew up.   

When I crossed the finish line in a time of 20 minutes, 22 seconds, I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. A battle had taken place in my mind and, at the last moment, I had let the pain win.  

Would the outcome of my race have been different if I hadn’t had to fight through that last minute on my own?  Maybe. But the result wouldn’t have been a true measure of my ability. I wouldn’t have gained the mental workout I did and the strength that will result from it.  

I know a lot of people who listen to music, or even podcasts while they run. These kinds of distractions can keep a runner’s mind off of the monotony and fatigue, and sometimes that’s what you need to get through a long run, but they also keep the runner from fully engaging in the mental part of the running experience.  

Running is about testing your limits, and sometimes meeting them. We should keep it that way by letting each runner race her own race, without the aid of a coach in her ear.