The Art of Running
More than just one-foot-in-front-of-the-other?
Part of the ongoing series on Identity and Culture
I am a runner.
These words have been uttered from my mouth many times over the years. Often, meeting people for the first time – at college, moving to new countries, starting new jobs – this would be part of my introduction. I was part of my schools’ teams of competitive runners in high school and university, then a club in Hong Kong. Running gave me something to belong to and the success that came with it also felt good. When I broke a tiny but important bone in my foot after a night out in Hong Kong (where, by the way, there are about a million uneven concrete steps to navigate), I recall exclaiming to the doctor through tears: “But, I’m a runner!”
“Well, not for a couple of months, you’re not,” he laughed. Actually, this made me laugh, too. I realized how ridiculous I was being. The whole situation was annoying, but this was just a literal and figurative small part of me. Both would heal relatively quickly. I could have more time for other pursuits in the evenings, then get back on the track. I would be a runner again.
I’ve given it up, though. Not the running, just the way I frame it. I made a conscious choice to tell people instead that ‘I run’. Maybe it’s because I generally don’t compete anymore. Mainly, though, I didn’t want the statement to put me into a category.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to assert your identity through language and broad statements like this one. I’m a writer… I’m a mother… I’m an American… If we choose just one item when stating a claim, aren’t we limiting ourselves or at least the perception of others?
[You might want to explore philosophical concepts of identity from Derrida or Heidegger, nicely explored in comparison in this article by Kenneth Itzkovitz: “Difference and Identity.” Dominic Griffiths also has a good exploration of Heidegger’s notion of identity that places ‘thinking and being’ as one. But perhaps more useful here, is the deconstructionist idea that identity is unfixed and filled with dichotomies at play of both presence and absence.]
We all know that identity is a complex matrix, but perhaps this is also why we try to categorize parts of it. Through markers like career, nationality, and sport, we give people a little window into who we are.
Or do we? Are these assertions simply reinforcing false identities? I know about as many types of runners as there are concrete steps in Hong Kong. We have different relationships with the act of running and it has different roles in our lives. Can labeling myself as a ‘runner’ give someone a certain idea about me – rigid, escaping something, motivated, obsessive, loner, early riser, anal retentive, introverted? Some of these elements are true and some are unidentifiable in me. Researchers have even attempted to do psychological profiles of marathon runners and this informal discussion by sports psychologists attempts to categorize runners as well.
I guess there are some common points, whether correlational (those born this way or who go through certain experiences in life seek out running) or caused by the running subculture and biological impact of the specific exercise, I’m not sure. However, even through these commonalities, even if you are on a team or club, running is something that each individual who participates has a relationship with. Perhaps by stating ‘I am a runner’ we are paradoxically making ourselves more part of a tribe than a particular personality, and within that culture, running plays a particular role for ourselves.
In this way, running allows one to get to know many kinds of people. Maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths with these people from different cultures, professions, and classes. Even if you enjoy running for its solitude, the common path, the feeling it creates in our bodies and release it creates in our minds, makes a human connection. One can find this at races, on trails, in online forums, or through art. And that is what we are here to look at today: the way art, including the art of journalism, explores the concept of running. I’ll mostly talk about distance running today and leave the track & field to another time.
The 1970s running boom in America
Running has always been around, but different methods of framing by runners themselves or by the media change the narrative around the sport and its purpose in our lives. Perhaps due to the confluence of more-readily-available-color-television, the desire for an escape from media about the Vietnam War, and several talented runners (who were also colorful themselves), running took off in America during the 1970s.
Bill Rodgers, or “Boston Billy,” became famous after winning the Boston Marathon in 1975 as a grad student and then going on to win it three more times. The local hero wrote this autobiography (with Matthew Shepatin): Marathon Man My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World (2013). But even champions like him couldn’t make much money off of running. In some ways, it poeticized the sport, but in others it made it a difficult one to continue without the support of family or friends.
Another famous runner in the 1970s in America was Steve Prefontaine, who was famous for his gutsy running, good looks, fight for professionalizing running, and early death. Oddly, two films were made back-to-back in 1997 and 1998 about “Pre.” This article from Entertainment Weekly explains that how both came to fruition after a botched attempt back in the 70s:
Back in 1977, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Kenny Moore, a former Olympic runner and a friend of Prefontaine’s, was consulting on a TV movie about the late runner’s life when he called Towne for some screenwriting advice (a mutual friend put them in touch). At the time, Prefontaine seemed like a natural for a Hollywood adaptation. The Oregon-born runner had broken every American record in events from 2,000 to 10,000 meters, crusaded for the rights of amateur athletes, and was the first sports star to ever officially endorse Nike shoes. He died in a car crash in 1975 at age 24. (At the time of his death, his blood alcohol was well above the legal limit, a fact glossed over by the Disney film because of a deal with the Prefontaine estate.)
The article discusses how the unearthed project then created a competition between Steve James’ Prefontaine (starring Jared Leto in 1997) and Robert Towne’s Without Limits (starring Billy Crudup 1998), and had differing treatments of Bill Bowerman (Nike founder and Oregon coach) as well as Prefontaine’s death in the car crash.
Critic Roger Ebert discusses the focus on economics in the first film:
After he returns from the Munich Olympics, Prefontaine supports himself by bartending and lives in a mobile home: Other nations support their athletes in style, but the rules of American amateur sports at that time essentially required a life spent in training, and poverty. (Much is made of the shabby quarters supplied to U.S. athletes in Munich, while 100 adult "officials'' live in splendor at a luxury hotel.)
The film is in this sense more than a biopic; it is political. And it is critical of American Dream narratives that forget the way America often doesn’t allow for economic mobility. We kid ourselves that if you work hard, you will have riches. These athletes were working as hard as one can imagine without the backing of their nation.
The cult culture of (male) distance running is shown in the novel by John L. Parker, jr. called Once a Runner (1978). As Goodreads claims, it became a “rite of passage for many runners.” It examines what it really takes to succeed as an athlete. But I would argue that it also reduces a runner’s identity to a crazed animal that needs glory to survive. This quote from the book could be identified in cinema’s portrayal of Prefontaine:
...Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scald dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God's own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race dark Satan himself till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway....They'll speak our names in hushed tones, 'those guys are animals' they'll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a gut, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet! We can, by God, let our demons loose and just wail on!
Films at the time also reflected the 1970s running boom in America. Rocky, although a boxer, is famous for his running scene, demonstrating his independent will. This one and this one in Rocky II – both triumphant in the conflict of man vs himself but the second taking a decidedly more easygoing tone and including many people along the way to help Rocky on his way. Perhaps it can’t be separated from Born to Run from the same era (1975) (I also love the Sesame Street spoof.)
And everyone knows the iconic running scene on the beach from Chariots of Fire (1981) (also with Sesame Street parody, which plays up the friendships of ‘Harry, old chap’ and ‘Grover, old bean’ as well as perhaps poking fun at the reason people would choose to run back and forth without destination — “What am I going to get now that I’ve made it to the end of the beach…?” / “…[Y]ou get to run the other way!”).
Every fall our cross-country team in college would go on several runs at Popham Beach in Maine and have our own Vangelis moment. But the film is about much more than running on the sand to 80s electronic orchestral music; it’s about pride, religious discrimination, and privilege.
In 1979, The Washington Post investigated the phenomenon of the 1970s running craze in relation to the ‘jogger Jimmy Carter’ and a male, white middle class subculture. Runners “are nine times as likely to be scientists, they are rich, they don't smoke, they are thin, and possibly compulsive about their sport.” These claims don’t seem to be grounded in any research; instead relying on quotes from men within this description was sufficient, probably thinking the ideal reader of the article would likewise fit the description.
What makes me especially sad about this article is the fact that running is for anyone; you don’t even need shoes to do it. By celebrating the dawn of a new subculture, it was also excluding many from its joy.
Finally, women get a chance
In contrast, Runner’s World looks back at How the Running Boom Began at this time and includes the shift in women’s running, with the first women’s Boston Marathon in 1972 among other feats.
People used to think women couldn’t run a marathon. That they were too weak and it would hurt them. (They still, apparently, don’t think they can do a decathlon; my male university coach was pushing for it as he had been a decathlete and several of us were pole vaulters with multiple events…I digress, but it makes me sad and frustrated that 20 years on, women still only do seven events in the multi-event competition. Sigh.)
I remember on a cool trip to France to refurbish a medieval castle, which I’ll talk about more next month, that after one of my morning runs through the vineyards, a fifty-ish female Californian told me I shouldn’t be running because it’s bad for my uterus.
But she wasn’t the only one who used to think this way without any scientific evidence to prove it. There just weren’t many of them left in 2006, at least not publicly.
Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, although officials were unaware before the start due to her initialed first name. Switzer went on to become a journalist (which is what she had been studying already) and contributed to the positive narrative around the rise of women’s running. Her memoir, Marathon Woman (2007), which first appeared in Runner’s World Magazine is also in part about shaping this narrative and the power she held as a journalist. She discusses being both protected and physically pushed by male runners and officials, but most just let her be.
She decided to wear bright lipstick on the day, defying the idea that she should try to be unseen and just finish the race, instead making a statement about her identity as one of a woman and a runner. Of course, women don’t have to wear lipstick in a race or otherwise to show they are women and many men wear lipstick (now at least) as well. But her act was also one of performance to show or even flaunt her identity in addition to her sex on the starting line and throughout the race.
Theorizing the concept of playing with gender identity or having it superimposed on us by society is perhaps best (initially) explored by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe 1949) and elsewhere. She famously declared: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” By accentuating rather than negating her ‘womanness’ (or society’s view of it), Switzer takes ownership of the identity and makes it more complex. (i.e. A woman wears lipstick and studies journalism and runs marathons.) Obviously, this simplifies her act and the construct of her identity, and maybe she just likes wearing lipstick! But the fact that many media outlets picked up on the fact that she was wearing makeup makes it more of a political act, flaunting her ability to do whatever she wants. In this way, it became also part of the written narrative, challenging thinking at the time. Her lipstick became a symbol of her strength rather than a marker of her fragility.
She reflected 45 years later with the BBC:
Anything long like 800m, or even longer, God forbid, was considered dangerous, de-sexing and de-feminising for a woman. [It was thought] that their uterus might fall out and their legs would get big, and maybe they would grow hair on their chests.
The irony is that more recent research has shown that women are better at running distance than men…at least after the 200 mile mark. I’m especially unsure why the woman from California said what she did when she did because the tide was already turning greatly in the 70s and 80s, which we can see partly reflected in film from the time, such as Without Limits’ director Towne’s film about a competitive woman runner in Personal Best (1982).
During that time, the world watched as Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. A documentary of her life as a runner was finally made a decade ago (There is No Finish Line, 2011). She is also featured in another of the supposed best running movies of all time.
Although a commentator and humble ambassador of her sport, “Joanie” is not really a fit for Hollywood dramatizations and largely stayed out of the limelight during her heyday. As a member of the Bowdoin College track team, I had the privilege of running with Joanie several times as this was also her alma matter and she would occasionally come to visit us at practice. She was still a student-athlete there when she won her first Boston Marathon in 1979. Twenty years later, she still lived simply in Maine with her family, often inviting students to her home for a meal.
I caught up with her once as well while living in Hong Kong. She was visiting the Nike factories as an ambassador, trying to ensure good labour conditions for the workers. She met with several of us from the alumni club and all I remember was chatting about the food (and her own recipes with vegetables from her garden) and having a lot of good laughs. An incredibly humble woman, she never talked about her time on the podium, even though she was continuing to go on it and break records into her fifties at least.
Women have continued to have different fights in the running world. Although we’re sticking mostly with distance running today, it may be useful to look at the power of journalism in exposing the inequalities of sport. This time, it came from the most decorated woman in track and field history, sprinter Allyson Felix, who also has the most golds by any male or female athlete at the world championships. When I coached a boys high school track team, the team members, some of whom would go on to sprint at NCAA Division I schools, held her as their strongest idol.
While receiving support from both the USATF and Nike in the past, Felix was not guaranteed a salary with Nike after announcing she was pregnant in 2018 (she has since gone on to win both Olympic and World Championship medals after having her child, only retiring just this past summer). Felix was rightly outraged and used her voice as power, publishing an Op-Ed with the New York Times: My Own Pregnancy Story, which the subtitle: “I’ve been one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes. If I can’t secure maternity protections, who can?” (A video version is available here, featuring her own voice as well as a montage of a few others.) She discusses not just getting the respect and care she deserves but also helping those coming after her, especially African American women at greater risk for complications.
She and several other athletes essentially forced Nike to change their policy by going public and being supported by the media to do so. Additionally, because we are in the age of social media, Felix has been able to control her narrative. Now, she has her own brand of running shoes designed for women: Saysh. The shoes may be a kind of text all their own.
I’m at my ‘email length limit’ and have yet to discuss the African diaspora of runners, ultramarathoners, Mexican barefoot runners, Japanese author-runners, and visual art projects about or in conversation with the sport.
I’ll pick up there in a couple of weeks after taking a look at a literary autumn and my home state of Massachusetts, where I am also heading in person. Let us know in the meantime what role running plays in your life or if its narratives have somehow changed your identity or your perspective. If running were a symbol of your existence, would it figuratively give you strength or exhaust you? If you run, do you feel a part of a running community or culture? Or do you have something else in your life that accomplishes what running may for others? Thank you, as always, for reading and for sharing your thoughts with us.
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I tried, more than once, and I failed. Okay, I gave up. Now I walk.
Forgot to add!! In answer to your question of something which fulfils us as an alternative to running, mine is Yoga : ) It is the one thing where everything else falls away and I feel light and unselfconscious.