Big Business and the Shrinking Runner

thr4g4clu7Fifteen years ago the average runner was bigger. Before you Google it, I hope you’ll read on.

It was the early 2000s. And as an ordinary, average runner of middling proportions, I remember walking tall through finishing chutes, proud to be involved in a movement I believed (and, 15 years later, still believe) to hold the key to better physical health, improved clarity of mind, and abundant, youthful energy. Like millions, I took comfort knowing that even if running wasn’t adding years to my life (which it probably was), it was adding life to my years. I was content to run my 30-40 mile weeks, race once a month, rarely enter a marathon, and only sporadically hit the track. I happily eschewed the latest highly-touted high-tech gear and gadgetry in favor of brand loyalty and a quarterly shoe bill that rang up shy of $80.00. As modest as all of that was, it was still far more than the average person was doing, activity wise, and I knew it. Mine was a bliss shared by millions of folks united in our uncomplicated love of putting one foot in front of the other. For me and others like me, running equated to a healthful approach to health, a way to cultivate one’s physical well-being while maintaining life balance.
Then somewhere on the way to 2016, running, like so much else, got “supersized,” making “ordinary” runners look rather diminutive next to what has become the media-fueled, larger-badder-crazier-faster-sexier-than-real-life image of the ultra-marathoning/cross-fitting/Iron-Man finishing/adventure racing weekend all-week warrior.
 As recently as the early 2000s, a plain-and-simple runner didn’t feel the need to sheepishly qualify his or her training and racing distances when asked about them. If you’ve ever caught yourself answering the question, “How many miles was that?” with, “Just six,” “Just 13,” or even “Just 26,” then you’re aware of the personal miniaturizing effects of the supersizing phenomenon in running. If you’re not following me, then try following this bumper sticker: “You ran a marathon? That’s cute.” Reading that, I’ll be darned if I didn’t find it a little harder to reach the gas pedal. And then I thought about it…
So when did getting off one’s backside and moving (even for 26.2 miles) begin to feel like a publicly shame-able act? And when did this distorted sense of proportion begin to make “ordinary” runners question their status as “real” runners. It’s time for a reality check, runners.
Running has been supersized for the same reason that every other supersized thing has been: to supersize somebody else’s bank account by selling buyers more—a lot more–than they need. If a runner wishes to purchase running at that size, I applaud her and marvel at her appetite. But for the runner who doesn’t want all of the excess, he should never have to feel shamed into taking it, not by bumper stickers, memes, emailed race spam, print media, or zealots who don’t just passively wear the logos of sports apparel heavyweights but who may also unwittingly and highhandedly take their more-is-more message (sports marketing’s shrink-ray gun) everywhere runners congregate.
A 2012 survey revealed that over 70% of runners enjoy an annual household income of over $75,000.1 With runners now being seen as a highly target-able market segment, marketing and commercial media are trying to do to us what the fashion industry has been doing to women for decades: encouraging the perennial pursuit of an unrealistic image as a goad to purchasing a lot more of what they’re selling. “The [running] industry is huge–it’s running the sport now, not the sport running the industry,” laments former marathon world-record holder Steve Jones in a 2015 interview with Competitor magazine, in which he goes on to call the magazine out for its own irresponsible marketing practices.
Veteran runners view a modicum of suffering as more or less just going with the territory. Sports marketing, on the other hand, tends to fetishize suffering en route to selling us experiences in which we’re free, in the company of others who’ll not judge us, to court as much pain as suits our fancy. Understanding that our brains will likely connect, by way of the Protestant work ethic (to which even atheists may subscribe), suffering to gain, marketers are able to leverage our cultural biases to lift sales. A 2014 ad by runDisney (Disney’s bid to attract the relatively affluent running population by hosting large running events), features the tag line, “Run Till You Drop.” (Too close to “shop till you drop” to be a coincidence?) While the line makes better sense in the context of an ad that also pitches a Disney attraction featuring a tower and an elevator drop, it serves as an example of the kind of irresponsible marketing messages that frequently target runners in both running and even mainstream magazines. The Disney ad is neither an isolated nor the most egregious example of this species of marketing. In all such ads, the message is simple: running is pretty cool; but suffering on the run is uber-cool. If you doubt that suffer-while-you-run stories have trade value, you haven’t spent time in the company of those who swap yarns of cardio perdition with a view to outdoing one’s neighbors. What money won’t buy (friends), a dramatic chronicle of one’s time in the pain cave just might. A story (turned with narrative panache) of the ultra that landed you in the hospital will make you–to paraphrase a wildly successful marketing tagline–the most interesting runner in the world.
In the beginning, recreational, mass-participation running gained momentum as a health movement; 40 years later it often seems like a keep-up-with-the-joneses game of who can bag the most destination marathons, run/walk/crawl the longest races (which cost more) and be the first of his running friends to own the latest, greatest fitness-tracking watch or phone app. There was a time when recreational running pioneer George Sheehan, ogled on his morning runs by unbelieving gawkers, felt like the oddest duck in his neighborhood; these days one gets the feeling that some are running to be the coolest kids on their block. At least when Alberto Salazar, giving a nod to popular running’s health movement roots, admits that “health was never my motivation for running,” we understand that he was motivated by whatever motivates champions; we who aren’t destined to win major races may have difficulty saying just what motivates such types, but we can confidently say that it isn’t marketing. With a mounting body of research strongly suggesting that “moderate” running (for Salazar, an oxymoron) translates to the most favorable mortality outcomes, running for health and running for today’s runner-as-trendsetting-daredevil image are destined for a falling out. So at what point must these incompatible objectives go their separate ways? This is a personal question, the answering of which requires a clear mind, not one muddled by company-coffer-serving marketing messages.
If you absolutely must get your run-crazy on, do it for the right reasons. Failing that, do it for the wrong reasons (that’s what freedom is about). Just don’t do it for someone else’s reasons.
The human brain tends to view the world through a filter of paired opposites: night and day, black and white, etc. The folks who want you to stuff your oversized shopping cart with all the races, coaching, fitness programs, performance apparel, sports drinkables and edibles it will hold, know this. Regarding your running life, they’ll try to cow you–as though your image depended on it–into choosing between a pair of false alternatives: you are either all in, a monomaniacal, hell-bent, Terminator–make that T-1000–of running, or you might as well not bother. I’ve got news for them. Real runners don’t go big or go home. They go for a run…any run. How’s that for a real slogan?
1Morse, Parker. “Running For the 99 Percent.” Running Times, May. 2012, pp. 63-65

 

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