Running With Distinction

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Image: Oiselle-fan-girl

Depending on which version of the story one knows, the Eskimo have 6, 20 or 50 distinct terms for the English word snow. While Franz Boas’ ethnographic observations on Eskimo language are mostly regarded as a hoax today, the man did have a point. When the thing you’re describing is all around you, there’s no need to be stingy with the modifiers. Hold forth. Be verbose. It’s not TMI if its omission invites a question. Only Captain Obvious tells an Eskimo it’s “snowing.” Or a running shoe sales associate that he’s a “runner.”

Since the beginning, we runners have applied specificity to our training. Now it’s in our jargon. When our sport was in its infancy, it sufficed to say that one was a “runner,” plain and simple. This usually meant that one wasn’t a jogger in the days when you were one or the other (assuming you laced up a pair of Brooks or New Balances at all). Beyond that, there wasn’t much more to say. Being a runner meant you were already odd and on the vanguard of a fringe movement; further explanation might have been thought redundant. This isn’t to say that while making a sweep of the 70s literature one’s detector won’t occasionally beep to the presence of some colorful taxonomic ingot. Take, for example, the curiously Orwellian phrase citizen runner, denoting a runner with a full-time job (and presumably a birth certificate handy for immediate presentation at random police stops). But such fine distinctions were, during the Nixon era, as scarce as a pair of ankle socks.

Then running went forth and multiplied, along with its phraseology. In 1970, running’s word pool looked as if it might evaporate in a single afternoon. Today it has lanes, superslides, and even a deep end, and can charge whatever admission it likes.

Still, when dealing with those who take no particular interest in our sport, it may suffice to describe oneself simply as a “runner.” It may be preferable, in fact. Why not save one’s adjectives for when they matter, for when one is in the company of other runners who’ll be more exacting in their call for identifiers? Imagine you are newly introduced to a throng of running veterans. Tell them you are a “runner,” and you risk being pegged as a novice and accordingly dressed down. What they’ll hear is that you’re a freshman with an undeclared major. (Until you blow past them, of course.)

With a quick primer, the most unversed novice can avoid an unpleasant hazing. The following list (which for brevity says nothing of track and field distinctions) treats the lexicography only cursorily and jocularly (you’ll thank me for it). Of course many of us will find that we fit into several of these categories. Slashes don’t come across well in conversation, so my suggestion is to pick the single descriptor that best describes you, and to wear it proudly and with distinction. (Or use it in word-magnet affirmations on your refrigerator door.) And though I won’t be around to proctor it, there will be a quiz on this stuff. Count on it.

Fun runner, fitness runner, social runner: These various terms describe one who runs for the health, fitness and psychological benefits alone, or one who skips, gambols or perambulates across a finish line for the sheer joy of getting out and participating in a social/charity event that involves covering a designated course (distances usually vary from 1 to 13.1 miles). Used pejoratively by elitists, these are today’s PC terms for the J word. Here’s hoping all runners–even elitists–are sometimes fun runners. All work and no play make Jack an ex runner.

Road runner, road racer: The adjectival noun road was originally used to distinguish between events contested on a track and those contested on the more-or-less straight asphalt or concrete surfaces one encounters in cities, city parks and suburbs. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of running shoes were manufactured for road runners and racers. A decade or two of pounding the pavement, and it might spell the end of the road for your plantar fascia, shin or Achilles tendon. Fortunately, today’s runner has options. Please read on.

Cross-country runner, harrier, hasher: Cross-country running vaguely refers to 4-12 kilometer events contested by individuals (and teams) over mostly natural terrain that may include natural or artificial obstacles. Don’t get tripped up by cross-country’s English roots and rules; although the spikes have been replaced by EVA foam and rubber soles, I’ve yet to see a cross country race in which half the finishers didn’t look like they’d just come in from a rugby match. Also see trailrunner. The lines separating American cross-country and trail running are often as blurry as a trampled chalk mark. Harrier, a folksy word for a cross-country runner, seems to have missed the turn onto the information superhighway. Look for it on the sweeper bus or having a cold one with a hasher, with whom it is guilty by frequent association (i.e., Hash House Harriers, “a drinking club with a running problem.”).

Masters runner/racer, age-group runner/racer: These terms generally refer to all manner of over-40 runners who measure their racing success against age-appropriate competition as opposed to an open field that includes runners of all ages. Contrary to how it sounds, this form of “handicapping” tends to produce relative performances that equal or exceed those of high-school and collegiate runners. It is far from unheard of to find a masters runner in the lead pack of an open race. This is one party where you’ll want to be caught acting half your age.

Marathoner: One who specializes in racing the 26.2 mile distance. Don’t be put off by the fact that marathoners often enter shorter races; they’re only using them for speedwork. Dick Beardsley is a classic example of a marathoner: a man who could barely crack 30 minutes for the 10k but who, in the early 80s, ran shoulder-to-shoulder for two hours and eight minutes with Alberto Salazar, the greatest marathoner in the world at that time.

Trail runner/racer: The less-structured and rule-bound cousin of the cross-country runner, the trail runner/racer trains and competes on natural surfaces offering moderate to extremely challenging conditions that often include rocky and exposed-root surfaces. This is where geographical isolation meets the ever-present risk of tripping or twisting an ankle. Kudos that you remembered to punch the ER’s number into your phone’s contacts list. Now if you could only get some signal bars.

Mountain runner, fell runner: Take trail running and dial in a 10% grade, and you have mountain running. Newbie’s often assume that mountain running is hard only half of the time. That’s because they’ve never experienced the unique exhaustion that comes with breaking one’s precipitous free-fall–for an hour straight. Downhill running requires Napoleon Dynamite skills. For me, no mountain runner will ever best local legend Matt Carpenter. Fell running is the UK’s equivalent. Half the altitude, double the entendre.

Skyrunner: On the rise as a running term. Sounds like it should be ushered in with the cinematic crawl, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” As near as I can tell this is an over-the-top way of saying that one is a mountain runner. Goes best with a post-industrial soundtrack ala 127 Hours and groupies at the finish line. Kilian Jornet Burgada, whose grandiosely-titled book, Run or Die, reads like the frenetic footage from a skyrunner’s headcam.

Ultrarunner: On speaking tours, Dean Karnazes says that in Latin ultra means beyond. This could mean beyond 26.2 miles, and it could mean beyond help. This time, take trail running and dial in a distance of 30-350 miles. If it were only about the distance, Dean would be its icon. But it’s more about having the right attitude. Ultrarunners tend to hold themselves with a free-thinking, off-the-grid air. During the week they may wear ties and sit through meetings. On the weekends, they’re sherpas. Scott Jurek and Ann Trason represent the American contingent.

Barefoot runner, minimalist runner: Steely Dan‘s Donald Fagen once crooned, “Kick off your high heeled sneakers, it’s party time.” To barefoot and minimalist runners, that about sums it up. Injury is afoot, and she treads anything-but-lightly on slabs of EVA foam. Better run from her in your bare feet (or in something with a zero-drop, at least). Before Barefoot Ted (of Born To Run fame) there was barefoot pioneer Ken Bob Saxton (against whom I had the pleasure of competing over 12 years ago). Before either of them, there was homo erectus.

Before moving on from this primer, please don’t forget to read the aside: There is still more that unites runners than separates them. Running code, while it will never rival Navajo code talk for incomprehensibility, can nevertheless be challenging. A glut of hard-to-differentiate jargon is a small price to pay for clarity in a rapidly growing sport. Today racewalking is still just, um, racewalking (our respects to sub seven-minute per mile racewalkers). The running boom of the 70s was no hoax.

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