Discover more from The Matterhorn: truth in fiction
9. The Art of Running II
Why do people run and how does it reflect culture(s)?
Part of the ongoing series on Representation and Culture
I left off a couple weeks ago talking about the great recently-retired runner Allyson Felix and her work in changing the status quo for pregnancy and motherhood in sport. She speaks especially about the dangers Black women in America face during pregnancy, including research showing they are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Serena Williams has also spoken out about her “harrowing ordeal” during and after childbirth and the way these horrors affect Black women disproportionately. More recently, she has discussed the need to retire from tennis to focus on her family.
We also looked a bit at identity (what it means to be a runner; how and why to show your gender identity during a race; what ‘sort of person’ is included in the running subculture).
Another (Black American highly decorated) runner who doesn’t shy away from what is considered political discussion and the varieties of identities in the running world is Michael Johnson. If you enjoy watching track and field on television, or want to give it a try, check out commentary by Johnson on BBC. The Guardian sings his praises, too: “With his gravelly voice and a delivery as lyrical and mesmerising as Barry White, the former 200 and 400 metres champion is both wise and articulate.” I could listen to him all day, giving context to races and field competitions and taking para-sport program at the Commonwealth Games as seriously as the 100 meter men’s final.
And somehow he can talk about others’ plights with empathy and respect, such as the aforementioned work off the track of Allyson Felix to incredible 400 meter hurdler Sydney McLaughlin, who, he said, had difficulty with fame as a beautiful woman who also happens to be married to a former NFL player. He even had something considerate to say about Caster Semenya’s difficult journey through success and sex classification. He doesn’t shy away from discussion; rather, he dives in poignantly to help us understand the athletes as humans as make the competitions more important than numbers. He’s not afraid to question things he sees as well, which of course upsets some, but if you watch Johnson enough, you’ll know that nothing is clouded by stereotype or egoism.
In 2012, Johnson was the face of a documentary that “tries to demystify…the [B]lack domination of track sports.” From Jesse Owens to Carl Lewis to Florence ‘Flo-Jo’ Griffith Joyner (and her sister-in-law Jackie Joyner Kersee) to Usain Bolt to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price we have all witnessed the dominance of Black athletes at least in the sprints. Survival of the Fastest, though, received speculation and strong criticism from the start, perhaps most carefully articulated and researched in Matthew W. Hughey‘s article published in the American Sociological Association Journal:
The film’s message relies on a series of well-documented spurious relationships such as: racial groups are biologically distinct; and different groups are naturally predisposed to certain characteristics like possessing high IQ or running fast. But despite the flawed reasoning, Johnson’s deft narration renders this media spectacle of black athleticism and biological determinism believable.
The article goes on to reference many claims from the twentieth century about Black racial dominance on the track that were never proven as well as the media’s construction of the “Black Super-Body.”
The documentary is probably not his best moment, simply because there are claims that have not been proven (and even disproven). Johnson “talks about his slave ancestry and wonders whether his African forefathers coped with such harsh conditions because their bodies adapted through breeding. More contentiously, he suggests that the genes handed down to him could have given him an edge over his white competitors.” However, he is simply discussing what he knows; his knowledge system is functioning with normal hypothetical contributions. It is the producers of the documentary who should be held accountable for the overarching thesis they present.
If we move back to distance running, in this century, everyone talks about the African runners instead of the white middle-class men from the twentieth century (discussed last month). But we need not racially classify these athletes (even though it is extremely important when talking about social justice, media representation, and audience perception). What about simply trying to understand this phenomenon of success by a roughly shared culture or migration status?
Hughey concludes: “Race is a “social construction” that governs our lives because it is a meaningful identity, a powerful ideology, an interactive framework, and a notion institutionalized in the mundane activities of everyday life—from hospitals to prisons and from our neighborhoods to our schools.” Instead, no, I am talking about runners of the African diaspora, which happens to be made up of mostly (identified as) Black athletes.
[As an aside: this is the reason I capitalize Black as a cultural identity rather than racial designation, something I was first taught as a student of the late great poet and professor Michael Harper. I know there are differing opinions on this. Kwame Anthony Appiah agrees in The Atlantic but concludes that ‘white’ should likewise be capitalized as a social-historical construction. The New York Times also capitalizes ‘Black’ as discussed here with reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’s work. Or should we not mention race at all when discussing identity, like the French model? Your thoughts, as always, very welcome.]
African diaspora of elite runners — is it an illusion?
Thomas Kiprotich from the Kenya B squad joined our running community in Hong Kong back around 2008. And what a wonderful guy he is. When he arrived, everyone seemed to bow down because, well, he is a Kenyan. He must be good! Actually he was good. Very. We listened to him like a sage; anything he said about running, everyone accepted as truth. Maybe it was, but not because of his genes; it comes from the training he has done and the journey he had already gone through as a runner, sweating beside champions and highly qualified coaches.
In fact, Thomas’ identity went much wider than being a Kenyan runner in Hong Kong. His family, including an Australian wife and their children, love for nature, and kind ways (also as a coach for children) define him much more for me as I look back on the years I knew him.
The running world is a culture just like that of other sports. Is New Zealand good at rugby because they are biologically different? What makes Cubans great boxers? Chinese good at table tennis? What about Scottish curlers?
We’re talking about a whole region here, however, as well as the diaspora of people, or at least several successful individuals, who have come from that region of East Africa and gone on to become highly decorated distance runners. What is it that sets them apart?
Some Americans and British look back with nostalgia at this time of running success before the Kenyans and Ethiopians took over. But of course, this is a success, too. Running well should be a nationless idea, but we use uniforms and language to separate us from them.
Many people perhaps don’t understand the great African distance runners of the twenty-first century as individuals, seeing them more as a group and perhaps not recognizing even marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge separately. In reality, runners in these countries do train mainly as groups, and the work they do together in part determines their success. However, perhaps the media’s fault, we often don’t get the full story of these champions with their own remarkable victories and varied backgrounds. For example, there is an invisibility of Kenyan runners and how their lives may be less privileged than those of the ‘west’ even after great running success.
Migrants from Africa with running success have had different treatment, sponsorship, and media. Perhaps this has nothing to do with Africa and more to do with language or nationhood. After all, we do rally behind our own countries at the Olympics.
In “East African running dominance: what is behind it?”, Bruce Hamilton claims that no biological advantage had yet been found in 2000:
Like Scandinavian distance runners in the early 20th century, who won 28 of 36 possible Olympic medals over 5000 and 10 000 m, the East Africans have developed an aura of invincibility, both in their own minds and the minds of their caucasian opponents. Caucasians world wide are searching for proof of the physical advantage of the East Africans while handing them on a platter a psychological advantage which, until removed, will perpetuate the current state.
The article cites some advantage for oxygen use by East African children who ran to school, but then “14 of 20 elite Kenyan athletes interviewed never had been required to run to school.”
The concluding sentence says it all: “Until our athletes, coaches, and support staff accept responsibility for their own performance, the current level of athletic domination by East African athletes may continue.”
But it is unclear why this has to change at all…why not just let it be and not make oppositions between black and white or ‘the West’ and Africa?
People — at least in the media — can’t seem to let it go. The Atlantic published “Why Kenyans Make Such Great Runners: A Story of Genes and Cultures” in 2012. Although much of the ‘genetic superiority’ claims are correlational, at least it looks at a matrix of factors, including the culture of the sport in the country. Athletic success will always be a combination of natural ability and mindset. It can be useful to understand what types of coaching and other factors motivate athletes. I’m still stuck on why people keep searching for secret gene codes…unless they’re looking to make Franken-runners. Ugh. It’s almost like they don’t want to believe that Kenyan runners might be working harder or training their brains better to win.
American and British distance runners have, in fact, had success in the twenty-first century. American women are running faster than ever and have had some great names in running: Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and Sara Hall.
There are also examples of successful migrants from East Africa in the US and the UK. American Meb Keflezighi and British Mo Farah surely are each a combination of good genes, independent motivation, and a culture helping them succeed.
Mo Farah has had success both on the track and as an individual celebrity, knighted and treated with great respect. Most famously, he completed a ‘double-double’ by winning the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 meter races twice in a row (at London and Rio).
Farah often talked about his immigrant family from Somalia in the past, but recently revealed he had been hiding much of his personal story, that in fact he had been trafficked or kidnapped and lived much of his young life in fear. In The Real Mo Farah (BBC, 2022), he discusses this painful part of his identity. He also discusses the way discovering running in high school changed him completely. He was naturally talented, but he also ran to escape and to be free. His PE teacher recognized Mo’s gift and also helped him receive better social services. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer if you are in the UK (although there are clips available here even if you are not, or don’t use a VPN).
Meb Keflezighi came to the US with his family as a refugee from Eritrea. He has gone on to much running success, especially at the marathon distance: silver at the Olympics and two golds, a silver, and two bronze at world marathon majors.
“He would finish the workout and immediately get a protein shake, and then he’d go sit in an ice bath or the creek,” [Gregory] Jimmerson told me. “Then he’d get massaged and stretched and do core workouts. Then he’d take a nap and do it again.” Meb even had a tiny pool where he could run in place, Jimmerson noted, allowing him to get in additional workouts without pounding his legs. The sport itself doesn’t take that much time: Meb was running only about twelve hours a week. But he had turned his preparation into a full-time job. Jimmerson realized he didn’t have that kind of commitment. “It was an all-consuming life style with a singular focus,” he said. “That’s where his strength was.”
My journalist brother (and runner!) had the privilege to interview Keflezighi before the 2015 Boston Marathon and discuss the music he listens to during training runs. What stands out from these articles and others is the pure joy Keflezighi has for running and for life in general. Is it his journey as a refugee that gave him a different perspective? His community? Or something he was just born with?
Ultras and the Mexican barefoot runners
So how do people achieve great athletic feats? How could someone run faster than anybody else? How can people run a hundred miles when even many relatively fit people struggle with five?
What if it were a mindset? Not ‘merely’ a mindset but importantly one. I’ve been reading a fascinating book by science journalist David Robson called The Expectation Effect (2022). Robson presents research from a variety of sources to show how our minds can affect our outcome and well being, including research about placebos and nocebos. The chapter on exercise discusses the importance of mindset in athlete performance (which seems rather obvious) but then presents non-obvious research about the way sugar pills, words from outside observers, and the effect of perceived pain on performance. He also seeks out claims by elite athletes, such as the first sub-4-minute miler Roger Bannister’s: “It is the brain which determines how hard the exercise systems can be pushed” (p. 92).
To some extent, the most interesting research to me was about stuff I already knew — your state of mind largely determines your performance — but the extent to which the research proved this to be true was much larger than I realized. One example is a study where athletes performed mind-fatiguing intellectual tasks before competition. The negative impact was large: “Fatigue of the brain reduces strength of the muscles” (p. 93). Another determined scientifically the power of visualizing a good outcome of a race or game.
But what is also important in relation to East African running dominance is the way groups can share and spread mindsets. Robson discusses this aspect in relation to altitude sickness (pp. 76-7). So if a squad of runners feels strong and confident due to the history of success, they are likely to perform better. If, in contrast, others fear that group’s success, they are likely to do worse.
Ultras: there’s something really mythical just about the idea of these races, something that makes me want to do one! And then…I remember how long a marathon felt.
This ultra thing has become popular through personal accounts in books like Scot Jurek’s Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (2012), where he talks about his vegan eating regime as much as clocking lots of miles, and a bunch of others.
Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run was one of the influences in changing the way I run to one without a watch and with minimalist (zero drop) running shoes (though it hasn’t swayed me to do ultras…yet!). Barefoot running gained a huge resurgence following its publication.
McDougall sought out an indigenous group that “show[ed] us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong”:
Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence.
How, with all our money devoted to sports science, could we miss so much of the wisdom McDougall claims is hidden in this group of runners? Is their running mindset (and genetics, perhaps) one that is deeply embedded in their cultural identity and knowledge? Is it impossible to fully extract if one is not a part of this culture?
Some have also looked at the Hopi runners of Arizona and New Zealanders’ foot structure after growing up barefoot. We can probably conclude that running is a part of many cultural identities. Rather than a simple act of nature, the way we run and the reasons for it are decidedly human. That is, we run not to survive but to feel emotions, to share with a community, to compete, to escape.
Running as escape
We talk about running as an escape all the time — running away from your problems, run away and save your life…
One of my friends from the Hong Kong running days, a highly talented British runner, got into ultras during the pandemic when things were going a bit tough and unexpected (anyone else??). It was a major switch for an always-800-meter-runner at heart, but it seems the open mindset helped her to change her physiology to start off with wins at this distance.
She’s a remarkable person and athlete; I’m not suggesting anyone could win an ultramarathon, even on their 172nd try.
And what about for non-traditional runners? People who run without singlets and little ankle socks but instead run in the middle of life. The films Run Lola Run and Trainspotting have many running scenes that amplify the feelings of chaos and searching for peace in the characters’ lives. The movement in the scenes helps us feel the characters’ pain they are attempting to shed through the physical act of running as well as seeking salvation from choices.
And there’s something real in that – the endorphins as well as the physical experience of the movement and observation of your surroundings can help one to escape. Running can be a positive form of escapism and can help you cope with stress or anxiety. However it can also form an addiction (to the running), even in a cult-like setting.
Sometimes I think running is more about the metaphorical escape to freedom, to childhood, to love…whatever it is we need to run to or from at that moment. For me, it’s a way to observe the world and observe the sensations in my body; it’s a way to meditate. Tiffany sang: Running just as fast as we can… The only running she does in the video is on stage, but maybe it has the same effects: freedom, joy, independence.
As a pole vaulter in college, we named our hot-pink pole Tiffany in her honor. And I guess that’s what pole vaulting and track were for me: a daily escape from expectations and ‘work’ and how life should be. We were playing around, sometimes with workouts that left you dead on the track, but it was a pure joy. Despite the constant measures and timings on the track, I never felt pressure, only this joy.
Running is an art
Here is another great list of books about running, but what about known literary authors who also happen to be runners?
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami runs a lot, but is not especially fast or decorated for his running. Instead, it is a part of his life, like a ritual and an escape. He has a beautiful memoir called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008) that gives us insight into the meaning it has in his life:
As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says. (p. 23)
Some claim running is an art form itself. One runner makes art out of the tracings of his routes.
Elsa Jean de Dieu is a runner who also paints murals and finds a strong connection between the two experiences:
“When I have something in mind, I say I want to do this loop, I don’t care about the time or the kilometres, I just go and do it,” she said. “At some point, you just let go of everything – the pain and the heat, and the kilometres, whatever. I like this feeling and I have the same feeling when I’m working.”
Despite being an artist for her entire life, it was not until Jean de Dieu started running that she experienced the flow.
So running may give us the same sensation as other aspects of our lives. It’s fascinating to me that a sport often knocked as boring or lacking complexity has so much to offer in terms of creativity and the limits of the human brain.
I could go on and on about running, because it’s been such a big part of my life since I was about thirteen. But mostly, it’s just one foot in front of the other and ‘personal bests’ and different types of shoes! Nobody really wants to hear about that. Do they? If there’s something you do want to know, feel free to ask about it in the comments. And, as always, feel free to add your own running anecdotes or textual encounters or replies to open-ended questions included here. We would love to hear your thoughts!
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