Sunday, May 6, 2012

Running: I Get It

Do you ever unleash a rant as a comment on someone else's blog?

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.


  1. I love this post and fully empathize with the emotion in it!.  But, then, you're an elite runner compared to me!

    I often say that one of my favorite things about running is the amazing running community and how it doesn't matter if you're fast or slow, you still belong.  Whenever people talk about narrowing things to the super elites, it makes me very sad.

  2. Thanks, Mandy! In fairness to Jeff, though he's really fast compared to most of us, he's not in the super-elite either. He's making a living at a non-running job, too. But I do think he's enough closer to the elite end of the spectrum that the direction things are taking (e.g. Rock n' Roll Marathongs) disturbs him more than it does us.

  3. Excellent post, Terzah. Thanks for your "rant," too! The way I see it: if you're not hitting some sensitive spots every now and then, you aren't thinking hard enough or being honest enough. I appreciate the feedback. My intent was to praise some of the elitist elements of the sport without denigrating new runners or slower runners. I see I didn't quite make it, but I still believe that ours is an argument among friends.

  4. complicated subject. 

    First I want to respond to this: "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."   DON'T talk about my friend that WAY!!!   If I could train as well and run a marathon was well are you did for Houston - I would consider myself a successful runner.  :)

    Secondly, when I say complicated - I read a story of a woman who wanted to be a marathoner and was last during the race. (nothing wrong with being last, I've been last many-a-time at a mtn bike race) But as the story went on - it turns out she didn't really train for a marathon - the longest distance she ever ran/walked was 10 miles.  She was really upset that she wasn't going to make the 7 hour cutoff, but someone listened to her pleas and kept the course and timing open so she could "be a marathoner".    I think if you are going to be a marathoner, then actually *train* for the event with appropriate long runs and have a good chance of making the cut-off.  I know everyone is different and lots of things can happen, injury/bonk/gi issues that can cause you to be slower than planned.  But at least be respectful enough to yourself and actually train for the event. Consider the organizer that has the street closure/sag/support issues and give yourself a chance to make the cutoff or accept that it's not gonna happen this time out.  With that said - I have a very public DNF last year because I didn't make a cut-off on at a mtn bike race.  that's the way it doesn't make me a lesser person - it makes me a person was wasn't fast enough recover some mechanicals and I had to accept a DNF.  Just more motivation to get faster and get it next time!ok...enough rambling.  :)

  5. So interesting! I can definitely understand his frustration with races trying to appeal 'to the masses' ... but I also think it's safe to say that runners are no longer an oddity! There's something very addicting, healing, restorative, satisfactory, etc about a good run, whatever your pace and ability.  As much as those giant crowds can frustrate me, I certainly agree with you that it takes "commitment, heart, courage..." to chip away at our own goals.  And I love that so many "average" folks can experience the benefits of running!

  6. this is very answer is is not just running. not for me anyway.  I think it does not matter what finish time we get, what our PRs are..for a lot of people it is not just running.  It is a great thing that this sport accepts slow and fast...young..old...anyone can put one step after the other...but not anyone can run 13.1 miles or 26.2 takes some determination and some courage to stand at the starting line. and you my friend are no are a runner.

  7. Definitely an argument among friends! Thanks again for making me think on a regular basis.

  8. Hey! You are making the same point Jeff was--I think people like that give slower runners who are serious about training a bad name in the old-school running crowd.

    And thanks for defending me to myself--but was there anything in my description of myself that was untrue???? :^)

  9. Well as I get older, I learn to take what I can from the things I do. My goal in running isn't to run a 4:00 mile or win the NY marathon.  Nor is it for the vast majority of people I know.  Similarly, a lot of people play golf.  And they are not looking to win anything, but enjoy themselves.  And running gives a lot: clarity, purpose and a dose of health benefits.  If only everything I did gave me such benefits!  Reading? Watching Football?

    Let the speedsters of the world race.  I don't enter the US Open in tennis, but doesn't mean I shouldn't play if I enjoy it.  Haven't read the book, but I would be willing to bet there are no 40 year old wannabes in it.  But that doesn't mean it is over for us.

    Will relate a story.  I am not in the world's best shape right now.  but I can still go.  So a friend of mine saw me running and thought, hey, I can do that!  he couldn't run two miles.  I told him he could do what I do, but not overnight.  He could run, lift, fight his weight, etc., and I am sure he could do better than me.  Am I a runner?  I don't know.  It is something I do, but it doesn't define me.

  10. I didn't see a spare tire on you last week.  To me - my definition is "a attractive 39 year old working Mom of twins that has determination, discipline and drive to knock out a sub-4 marathon while juggling job, kidding, husband"   :D

  11. I like this: "I think if you are going to be a marathoner, then actually "train" for the event with appropriate long runs..." I think that this speaks at the heart of the issue. Many of the elite runners seek to inspire those of us that think we can't do it. In turn, we try to inspire others. But doing it also means putting in the time to train and perhaps overall making fitness, maybe not the marathon distance, a lifestyle. Through this we create the community that we all crave and love so much about running. (ps. I have come in last in mountain bike races too, but the field is about 5-10, not 15-150,000).

  12. I like this debate. I posted most of my feelings as a reply below, but I also wanted to add that I avoid the big races, like "Rock 'N Roll" at all cost. The crowds are way too huge, the traffic obnoxious, and where is my exorbitant entry fee going to? I like when races are locally focused, smaller crowds, reasonably priced, and they tell me what charity that cost is supporting.

  13. I have been running for most of my life.  I was on the track team and the cross country team and was once considered a good runner.  The pressure and the mentality of racing under the pressures of "being good" got to me and so I quit.  I quit running and racing for a long, long time.  I picked it back up when I was in my 30's and am no longer all that good, but I sure do love the sport a whole lot better.  I have a feeling that most of the "masses" are like me, nothing special,certainly not elite, but still manage to get that special feeling out of just being out there around the crowds and doing something that we all love.   And isn't that what really matters? 

  14. I've had this post sitting on my phone since you posted it, just waiting til I got to my computer to give a substantial answer.  One thing I love about running is that, while there are clear winners in every race, not winning doesn't automatically make you a loser.  I think running gives us a little bit of what we had all through school--an objective sense of where we measure up.  For me the beauty lies in the fact that I can be in awe of the speeds some people are able to maintain without feeling any worse about myself.  And in the fact that the majority of those fast people don't think any less of runners who are slower.  Running for me isn't about just the time (though yeah I love to see it get faster), it's about the individual accomplishment.