For me, running is what Foucault called la grande recherché nietzscheene, the great Nietzschean quest. It is my personal, intrinsic endeavor at self-improvement. It is a task that is entirely self-interested and entirely my own. It’s something I’ve been working at for well over a decade. And it’s a habit that for the life of me I just can’t quit.
I’d perhaps like to. I could switch to recreational racquetball, smoke an occasional cigarette, go out more, dance more, drink more, take up what a good friend of mine calls ‘the exquisite art of lawn maintenance’. But, I just can’t. In spite of myself, I can’t give it up… though my dreams have been clipped down to realistic size (unless a savage pandemic of swine flu occurs, there are no world championships in my future). Furthermore the romanticism of it has dried up a fair amount and I’ve really stopped caring about running as a team endeavor.
But it’s not just inertia that keeps me out there. It’s that basic quest that seemed alluring in the first place: to be faster than I was last year or last month or last week. To touch (or pretend to touch) the metaphysical as you crest that last goddamn hill or make the beautiful left turn onto the homestretch. If there is anything transcendent in this slimy, dirty world then the desire to make oneself better than one currently is must count.
But this is interesting because I chafe at the thought of defining myself as ‘a runner.’ I cringe just writing it. I cringe when people call themselves by it. This is partly because running is nothing particularly special. It is what we were meant to do. I buy whole-heartedly into the anthropological argument that human beings evolved through running. It’s why we have big brains, reasoning skills and the ability to complete immense feats of physical and mental endurance. We are supposed to do this. Everyone is. But that means that calling yourself a ‘runner’ is akin to calling yourself a ‘breather’ or a ‘heart-beater.
‘Oh yes, I do it all the time. I’m a Breather. In fact, I breathed over 30,000 times yesterday… How much did you do?’
This is what I think every time I pick up a running magazine or see a running advertisement. They are just sort of stating the obvious…
Also for better or worse, the activity has been exported into a mass market. It’s become a means of consumptive identity like everything else. You’re a runner. Buy some shoes and go find yourself… but come back for a shirt and socks. Then buy some gels, shorts, Cliff bars, sports drinks and water bottles before you spend $150 to run 26 miles. Go buy a copy of Runners World, Running Times, Trail Running and Born to Run. Have you tried barefoot running? Chi Running? Gallowalking? Pose Method? Check out this other book for sale.
Sure, you’re a runner, but so is everyone else that goes for a jog… or spends two hundred dollars. You’re ‘a runner’ because someone wants you to buy something.
So why define yourself by it? I wear Levi skinny 511 jeans most days of the week… in fact, I spend more time in jeans then in running shorts. Does this make me a Levi Jeans Wearer?
Furthermore, running’s revolutionary fringe, what gives the sport an avante garde status, is fast dying out too. The James Dean ethos of Bowerman, Sheehan and Lydiard is long dead. The track and roads have been the realm of multi-national banking firms and credit cards for decades. Now the tentacles of capitalism are extending onto the trails and finding a nice niche in ultrarunning, a sport that prides itself on its aesthetic freedom.
Ok, so now that I’ve offended every one of my friends who run competitively or recreationally or for health or for altered states of consciousness or for whatever, I should add that I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve worked in three running stores… and after this summer it will be four. I’ve sold thousands of pairs of running shoes to as many people... so, I’m part of the system. In fact, I made a living off it. I’ve spent a small fortune on shoes and gear. I have raced competitively for thirteen of my slight twenty-five years and to my estimate probably run enough to circumnavigate the world... twice. Indeed, running gives a fair amount of meaning to the title of this blog.
So what gives? Why slam on the sport and more importantly attack an important part of a lot of people’s lives? You, Sam, are again acting like an intellectual snob, practicing a cavalier, laid-back attitude to your own beliefs. You’re hoping to distance yourself from the masses that aren’t capable of such self-irony and thus put them down by it.
Identity through activity makes little sense if only one person is doing it.
‘What does he do?’
‘He walks on ceilings.’
‘Yes, he’s a ceiling walker.’
There may actually be a ceiling walker out there, but it’s just something he does until a couple other folks join him up there. Then he is a ceiling walker. We need others to create a sense of solidarity. It’s human… but in the process we also have to separate ourselves off from others to find meaning from this solidarity. We need our clans, need to exclude people from them so that our relationships in the clique have meaning. It’s why people with few options join gangs, why thousands of people in North Carolina wear an ugly color of light blue, why people throw bombs at other people. It’s a defense of identity. We are runners… and the rest of you aren’t.
My hyper-criticism is just a reminder. This sense of unique being, the feeling of embodying a lifestyle of distinction is a fiction. I’m no more a runner than the co-ed sprinting for the bus on College Avenue or the child wobbling across a playground. We have our activities and they will define us, but these definitions are ultimately creative endeavors.
So we really aren’t anything. And this gets back to our attempt at transcendence… and it’s why I don’t think the creation of a running market (even though it is more than a bit perverted) should keep us from getting out on our own two legs. I know that I am a personal, visceral, perhaps vengeful experiment of one, but it’s the realization that there are other experiments out there on the roads and track that make the effort worthwhile, that give it meaning. It’s why someone working their butt off to set a personal best of 23 minutes for a 5K is just as important as the skinny fellow who won the race nine minutes ahead of them. It’s why I think age group awards are actually kind of neat… even if there are too many of them. It’s why I think that if more people went jogging on the trails the world would indeed be a better place.
‘Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.’