I’ve been reading over the comments on New York Times health columnist Gina Kolata’s article from December 17, 2012 – “Recipe for Resentment: Claims of Running Prowess” (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/a-running-bias-against-runners/) – to try to do some initial thinking about the place of running in U.S. culture. Kolata wrote her piece in response to the recent dust up over the Wall Street Journal’s diatribe against running too much. The experts quickly weighed in about why we should take the WSJ’s handwringing with several tablespoons of salt – faulty study, ridiculous assumptions, etc.; but, like Kolata, I was even more interested in why various media outlets were so quick to give credence to the report, as well as why the Wall Street Journal has been publishing a variation of the “running will kill you” article for years. How many times have you run across an article, or talked to someone, who couldn’t quite suppress their glee that Jim Fixx, one of the prime movers of the late 1970s running boom, had died of a heart attack while running. Kolata tackles this resentment head-on and asks, “Why does running arouse such passions?”
This is a tricky question, because the meaning of running in the United States has changed throughout the years. During the late-1970s and even the early-1980s, I think there was a large proportion of the U.S. population that viewed road running as a cultural threat. Runners unattached to college and high school programs were out there on the pavement, pursuing individual satisfaction by doing something rather arduous at the very time that the terms of technological, cultural, and social progress were couched in the latest labor saving advancements and recreation was the realm of the spectator. Runners wanted to be within sport, rather than outside of it. The threat of participatory action in a consumer-capitalist economy should not be underestimated. Ultimately, people were finding new meaning in their lives not through work, economic, or social status, but through the simple, exhausting activity of running. The only reason that there hasn’t been more pushback to the potential rebelliousness and radicalism that running holds is that corporations were quick to recognize the consumer possibilities of the growth and expansion of a participatory, people’s sport. The running shoe companies became large and powerful when they realized that a vast new market was opening up. By the mid-1980s, running shoes were ubiquitous on people’s feet (even non-runners) and the idea that one should run had entered the cultural mainstream. They even broadcast the New York City marathon on network television, as the big city races rapidly expanded and everyone thought that they should run a marathon. I think this might also mark the approximate time when the running boom started to diverge, branched out, and ultimately entered a new phase.
It wasn’t my intention to give a history of the running boom, so I’ll stop here, merely to point out that the 1980s’ split saw the emergence of the exercise boom as Yuppies, fueled by aerobics and Reebok, began to see being fit as yet another way to distinguish themselves as part of the economic and cultural elite. Fitness was yet another thing that could be consumed and could reflect one’s status in society. True believers probably retreated to their running clubs and winter series races and wondered if they remained special if everyone ran. (I imagine that ultra marathoning may have experienced a boost at this point.) If we are looking for a source of resentment, this might be it. To distinguish themselves within the running culture, some people needed to make running, in all of its aspects, more a part of their lives. What I am talking about here, is the tendency during recent times of economic uncertainty and stagnation for people to derive meaning in their lives not through their jobs, but through the challenge of changing themselves, both physically and psychologically, through running. I’m going to refine this argument at more length in the future; but, it is hard to discount the fact that the first running boom peaked during the Reagan recession, popular interest in running flattened out during the sustained economic growth of the mid-1990s, and we are currently living through a new running boom during very uncertain economic times.
The source of resentment towards runners is deep and it has a history. It is not based on the idea that runners can’t shut up about running. Going on about stuff is merely part of the human condition. We talk about things in which we are interested. Toy train buffs talk incessantly about their layouts, new parents tend to go on about child rearing, cat owners have problems talking about anything else. Resentment because we discuss what we are passionate about is hardly unique to running. At this point, it is probably legitimate to argue that runners experience resentment as much as anyone else in our society. It’s one of those less attractive human emotions spawned by jealousy: hardly the province solely of runners. I do, however, think there is something to this resentment and that it goes deeper than a frustration that runners just won’t shut up, or that they are unhealthily obsessed with their sport. It is a frustration that runners have found a source of meaning in their lives that is almost entirely internal; it doesn’t depend on one’s economic or social status. It doesn’t depend on an occupation. Running allows one’s success and contentment to be internally generated and individually assessed. Even the race, a place where commercialism and external assessment interact, is judged on the runner’s own terms. A good race might be finishing, setting a personal best, winning an age-group medal, running negative splits, or meeting some friends. The measures of success are really up to the race participant. I wouldn’t argue that this is the only activity that meaning and success is almost solely scripted by the participant, but it might be one of the most accessible activities in which this is the case. This is where the resentment and jealousy lies. Runners have found a straightforward, readily accessible way to derive meaning in their lives independent of the social and power disparities that are necessary for industrial capitalism to function. The act of running in a western capitalist society is, at its very base, a radical (and for some) and a threatening act.
This was what academic historians like to refer to as a “think piece”: a lot of thinking aloud and writing without the hand of the editor. Some of my arguments need further examples and I think it might take a grant and some graduate students to quantify what is meant by “running boom.” I do, however, think that there is something more essential about running that explains the resentment that writers such as Gina Kolata identify that goes beyond the idea that runners are just insufferable when they won’t shut up about it. What do you think?