I never had until late last week, when Jeff at The Logic of Long Distance put up a post lamenting the influence of corporate money and mega-races on the sport of running. I agree with most of what was in the post....but a sub-point about the de-emphasis of winning and winners in the true and absolute sense of "this person ran faster than everyone else" in favor of participation by the masses poked at what (I realize now, in the clear and charitable light of a Sunday morning) is still a sensitive spot with me.
Jeff wrote: "Are we ready for a culture that is pitched at every moment to the mass? For business models that are more about appealing to numbers than to quality? Is this the culture we want for ourselves? A culture in which everyone participates, everyone understands, but no one does anything special?" He also refers to the book Once a Runner as the work that best captured what running is at its best: "a community of friends who wanted to do something different from everyone else: namely run a ton and have fun and do it with like minded weirdos." (I wrote a review of this book a year ago, and I mostly liked it.)
I don't really believe that everyone is "special" in every way, nor do I want to believe that. I believe we all have to find the ways in which we truly are special. I've said it before, but it bears repeating. My running *isn't* anything special in the absolute sense. Really I should put all the energy I'm putting into running into something I could really excel at or that might help someone else in the world. And were I truly generous, I'd trade my own potential for paltry personal records for a shot at witnessing the pinnacle of the sport achieved again and again by our most talented runners. If I'm honest with myself, though, these lonely, very personal wins are more important to me than whether world records are ever broken again.
I'm glad there are other runners like me, people of varying degrees of talent, people who would never be admitted to the "culture" described in Once a Runner, but people who do love the sport and find their own personal quests as compelling as I find mine. They are my fellow travelers, and in my opinion we are as noble a clan as the band of brothers Jeff refers to in his post. One reason we are noble: we accept anyone as long as they share the passion. Records....speed....these are nice (and some of you other folks I'd include in this group *are* pretty fast). But we are people with families, jobs, faith, other interests--and to call ourselves runners we don't feel we have to be so different, so apart from and above, those who don't run.
Jeff is a gentleman. He replied to my little rant with kindness and his usual dose of logic, saying he wasn't intending to say that I and those like me aren't real runners, nor was he writing about fast and slow. And I realized that a lot of what I said in my comment was the kind of thing you write when someone gets to you and it's 11 p.m. and you have your own hang-ups about whether you can really call yourself a runner (even if you think you've gotten over them--maybe I should rename this blog "The Emotion of Long Distance," since I lack clear-headed logic). Jeff is absolutely right about what happens when corporate interests start moving us away from the soul of the sport.
But the implications about fast and slow that I read into Jeff's post were there. He wrote, "Once a Runner is built around a still magical idea: the goal of running under 4:00 in the mile. It's a goal that only a few can dream of, and that even fewer can accomplish. It takes everything: natural talent, commitment, heart, courage, relentlessness, character. It can only be achieved through an extreme form of excellence, and therefore is simply logically unavailable to the mass of people."
Of course "the mass" can never expect to run under 4 minutes in the mile. But don't our own goals require those qualities--commitment, heart, courage, relentlessness, character? The only thing we don't share with Jeff's clan is the natural talent--which in a way is my point. It takes tenacity to chip minutes away from a personal best to achieve another personal best only you will ever see as anything special. It takes guts to run a 5-hour marathon.
In his reply to my comment, Jeff wrote: "....maybe I have to bite the bullet and say that one thing that brought me into this sport was its 'order of rank.' I wanted to be one of the kids that 'got it.' Maybe that's not the most noble aspect of human character. On the other hand, sport is one place where this sort of elitism that might be native to our character is sanctioned and safely expressed. After all, it's just running."
Is it ever "just running"? I was never on a cross-country or track team, and none of the kids who were thought I was anything special. Those kids were right. I'm one of John Parker's "night joggers." I'm a nearly-40-year-old librarian with two kids, a spare tire, a shitty lower back and a 22 1/2 minute 5K personal record set seven years ago.
But I get it. I do.