The Wall Street Journal is at it again. Almost a year ago, Kevin Helliker published “One Running Shoe in the Grave,” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323330604578145462264024472) which used some sketchy science and some odd anecdotal examples to argue that too much running could be a health risk. My conclusion at the time was that alarmists such as Helliker were too quick to settle on a very low threshold for what constitutes “over doing it.” I am willing to entertain the idea that ultrarunners could get themselves into trouble by never giving themselves time to recover from inflammation. I will also, however, not be surprised if we find out that ultrarunners’ bodies are able to more efficiently deal with inflammation – they would just about have to, wouldn’t they? Helliker followed up this inflammatory article with another later in the year, “The Slowest Generation,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) which argued that today’s younger runners lack the competitiveness of previous generations. The recognition that the sport’s growing popularity has increased the number of beginning and inexperienced runners is quickly glossed over in favor of a more newsworthy “crisis of competitiveness” argument, which was taken up by subsequent commentators such as Toni Reavis, who argued that this is a general problem in the United States and not limited merely to running. With the publication of Chad Stafko’s opinion piece, “OK, You’re a Runner. Get Over It: Running a marathon is hard enough without also patting yourself on the back every step of the way” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304448204579186401818882202), The Wall Street Journal once again decided that poking fun at runners and stirring controversy is a good way to generate page traffic. I know that Stafko’s piece is meant to be funny in a snarky, undergraduate kind of way; but it is written – as are many of these WSJ opinion pieces – like a lazy blog entry and made me wonder if the WSJ still has a paper edition. Yes, we understand that you can’t fathom why people would choose to run, when you can drive. Yes, we get it that the 13.1 and 26.2 bumper stickers might be ostentatious and self-congratulatory (I, too, think they’re a bit silly. It’s like an excessive touchdown dance in the end zone – act like you’re going to be there again.) and that you think running is just about exhibitionism. Yes, we ultimately realize that this was an attempt to humorously rile runners in an effort to multiply page views. As expected, runners, as well as those who appear to really hate runners, all weighed in as evidenced by 871 comments (when I last looked) and still counting. I can guarantee that a similarly sophomoric opinion piece or badly researched article about the dangers of exercise will grace the pages of The Wall Street Journal every several months (This is probably more about page views and advertising revenue than anything else.) as long as readers continue to take the bait.
Stafko’s accusation that runners take up the sport to be seen – he questioned their “infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it” – does raise the question about the meaning of running’s increasing visibility in our society. I think Stafko reaches the conclusion he does because he interprets all social interactions through the lens of capitalist self-interest – all of our actions (I don’t think many WSJ-enthusiasts would disagree) are shaped by money and the status conferred by money. With this type of “Wall Street Journal world view,” it does make sense that Stafko would interpret runners’ behavior and motivation as merely reflective of the worst aspects of the United States’ system of commercial capitalism: self-absorption and unchecked individualism. According to Stafko, runners run to be seen and subsequently the sport is more about conspicuous consumption than having fun, because how could it possibly be more fun to run ten miles than to drive?
Although Stafko’s piece was meant to rile runners, he does manage to indirectly raise some important considerations about why people run and running’s place in society as a cultural phenomenon. Since the 1880s (I’ll probably get more precise about this date range in the future.) there has been tension between the commercial attributes of the sport and running’s more metaphysical aspects. This tension and the struggle for balance was first manifest in the almost century-long debate between professionalism and amateurism and then, during the late 1970s with the rise of Nike, in the struggle between commercialism and running’s inherent radicalism. Running’s critique of societal norms, as well as its seeming promise to offer people a different way of giving their lives meaning has competed during the last thirty or so years with the recognition among various entrepreneurs and established athletics companies that given the right marketing running could be profitably “monetized.” At the same time that people such as George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers touted the simplicity of running and its essentially populist nature, companies like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and Brooks (to name a few) were effectively arguing that running was not at all simple. In fact, to avoid injury and do it most effectively one needed protective, padded shoes, crammed with the latest in running shoe technology. This was an effective and profitable message that saw its corollary in all sorts of additional running gear. Running shoe companies, aided by a host of articles about training and injury prevention in books and magazines devoted to running, made a simple sport complicated. In making the complicated understandable (and in recent years, simple again) lay the avenue to profit.
I would argue that part of the commercialization of running was necessary to its coming of age as a professional sport. Sheehan and Rodgers, for example, were able to make their livings from the sport because of the popularity partially conferred through commercialization. I would argue, however, that they also professionalized the sport very much on their own terms. Rodgers often indicated that overthinking things could undercut one’s enjoyment of running, as well as training effectiveness, while Sheehan sold a lot of books by essentially arguing that running was appealing because it allowed for a very personal escape from the artificiality of the consumer capitalist system. It’s difficult to sum up Sheehan in one sentence and I have undoubtedly done an injustice; suffice to say that Sheehan was as surprised as anyone that he was selling books more about the metaphysics of running than the techniques of running. Without the growing marketing potential of the sport, however, it would have been unlikely that publishers would have taken risks on running books, or that Rodgers would have been able to open several stores devoted to running.
Stafko is right in recognizing that commercialization and the promise of profit has helped fuel the recent running boom. Weekends are filled with races, specialty running stores are popping up all over the place, and the shoe industry produces a dizzying number of models. Yet, after all is said and done, I would argue that people don’t take up running because effective marketing has convinced them that they should or that they feel consciously or subconsciously that this is a great way to fuel their exhibitionism, as Stafko would argue. For one thing, it takes too much effort – this isn’t a fad like collecting Beanie Babies, you still have to do the work (and it can be exhausting) – to become a runner. Thus, I would argue that running is still a transgressive act, even though it exists very comfortably in the world of business. Runners can’t help but to be seen. In fact, in this day and age, it’s an essential safety requirement. At its core, running constitutes a challenge to society. It is personal, yet communal. Perhaps most importantly, running provides a model of success that bears little resemblance to the money and status markers that typically define success in our capitalist society. It is a radical, empowering activity that has become mainstream and this must be scary for the Chad Stafkos of the world.