Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 by the numbers

2:35:54, a new marathon PR.
15:49, tied my post-college 5k PR on the track.
3372 miles.
402 hours.
118 miles in my biggest week.
64 days off.
42 blog posts.
11 races.
4 wins.
1 DNF.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wanting to Want to Run

A guest contribution by Zach V, aspiring runner and one-time philosopher.
One of the things I like most about running is that there are as many reasons to run as there are runners. For those who like to geek out, there’s gear that will track your every move via satellite and automatically update your cloud-based running log, while minimalists can run without even buying shoes. There’s a 5k at a place near you whenever you are feeling competitive. If you want to lose weight, six miles at a ten-minute pace will burn 680 calories. If you can't catch a ball, you can still enjoy the experience of a team sport. At the same time, running is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get away from it all.

I think running illuminates what Freud called the “polymorphous perversity” of desire. Maybe the word “perverse” is a little strong, but the idea is that people can get their jollies in lots of different ways. Forget your cartoon image of Freud—the uptight Austrian with a mother fixation. Freud was a genius because he was perhaps the first to understand that our deepest desires are not fixed. They change according to our upbringing, environment, relationships, experiences, and will. Humans are unique in that they can sublimate and repress their desires in lots of different ways.

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." -- Sigmund Freud

I started running in college for a mixture of idiosyncratic reasons, or, in other words, to satisfy a number of desires: I was tired of lifting weights and wanted to try something else. I thought it would improve my cardiovascular fitness (and I was especially interested in decreasing my sweating while playing drums). I ran a miserable 5k after no preparation and had something to prove. And I wanted to share something with my little brother, who was proving to be an elite high school runner.

After a few months, I found that I enjoyed the experience of running (even though I seemed to be increasing my net amount of sweating). I gradually became someone who had to run—I feel restless and gross if I go more than a few days without running. My primary reasons for running have changed as well. Now, I am most driven to run in order to escape the office and use my body instead of my mind for a while. Throughout the years, I have also run in order to be closer with my good friend Jeff, to avoid the cost of joining a gym, and to have a stronger connection with nature.

I think one of the main reasons I have stuck with running is that it has satisfied so many of my desires. And the more I run, the more I seem to need it because it creates new desires in me. I never knew I needed a runner's high until I started running. I never realized how many ails running can cure, including a bad day at the office, a headache, or a hangover. And, of course, I never knew about all the cool running shoes I could buy.
"A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into
accord with them: they are legitimately what directs his conduct in
the world." -- Sigmund Freud
It seems to me that those we call Runners are those who are most fulfilled by running. This may seem obvious, but I often hear people say things like, "I want to run a marathon—I just don't like running that much." I don't think this is contradictory or laughable. It's actually profound. Such people have not yet become marathon-level runners because they haven't found enough holes in their lives for running to fill. Maybe they never will, either because running can't satisfy their desires or something else does the job better. For example, I have found that people who begin running purely out of self-hatred in order to lose weight tend not to stick with it very long. Self-hatred can be a pretty strong drive, but unless it is turned into something else, like joy, it is easily directed towards something else, like another slice of chocolate cake.

I think running can show us a lot about desire in general. You're not going to stick with something if your motivations are based on denial. Eating well, for example, is about finding things that you like—whether particular foods, the joy of cooking, or the way healthy eating makes you feel. Instead of denying your existing desires, it's about replacing your old desires with new ones. It's about becoming someone who wants to eat well, just as becoming a runner is about becoming someone who wants to run. If you want to change who you are, whether to be a better runner or a better person, you have to figure out how to replace the desires you don't want with the desires you do want. Running has shown me a lot about how to do that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why Have Marathon Runners Gotten Slower?

A current hot topic of conversation on our local message boards as well as on letsrun is the decline of quality depth in local racing and in marathoning more generally. In the late 70s to mid 80s, there was a running boom, much like there is today. That boom had some different qualities, but in some ways I believe that it came from a similar source. In the late 70s to early 80s there was a sense of general unease. Economic conditions were uncertain, and the national mood was anxious. Perhaps these general social conditions put people on the move. They make us nomadic as a culture, looking for a better way of life.

Also, in running, the relationship between effort and results is clear. It is a good proxy for the American dream--you put work in and you get results out. When this dream is jeopardized by economic uncertainty and high unemployment, running offers, perhaps a way to remake the connection between effort and results.

Despite what I see as these general similarities in the motivating causes of the running boom, there are some real differences in the nature and shape of these two different booms. In the 70s the iconic figure of the distance runners was Steve Prefontaine. The representative runner was young, male, defiant, and individualistic. Running was a way to escape social pressure, a way to take individual control over one's life. The country was captured by folks like Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar. These were household names, iconic figures who were admired not just because of their achievements, but also because they helped a nation understand itself and perhaps remake for itself the connection between individual effort and results. They were also elite. They inspired, but their story was about individual achievement, perhaps in spite of mediocre social conditions.



Nowadays, the iconic figures of the running boom are folks like Oprah Winfrey, Dean Karnazes, and Chris MacDougall. They are concerned more with positive health effects than with wrenching another few seconds off of their 10k PR. They are also concerned more with how running is representative of a certain lifestyle rather than how to get faster. Today running for the most part is understood as a social event, connected with charity causes, and its value is taken in terms of its social benefits rather than in terms of the achievements of individuals. There is more of an attempt these days to cash out the value of running in terms of the other challenges we face in ordinary life. Perhaps this reflects a different, less elitist, notion of achievement. It is also, not incidentally, a notion of achievement that is more marketable to ordinary folks. Not everyone can be Prefontaine. His life is interesting because it is exceptional. Oprah, Dean K, MacDougall--these folks are more like us; at least this is how they present themselves. Their challenges are ours, broadly speaking--how to lose weight, how to run without injury. Not how to run fast, but how to keep on going. They inspire, but their stories are pitched as ordinary folks overcoming ordinary challenges, not as extraordinary folks overcoming a mediocre social milieu.



When this discussion comparing the two epochs arises, an assertion is often made that today's runners are softer than the runners of the past. The lack of 2:20 marathoners and 15:00 5kers is taken as evidence that somehow we have lost our will as a nation, or as a recent poster put it, "If Teddy Roosevelt came back and looked at this sad sack of America that we have today, he'd whip us into shape or start a revolution."

I was born in 1976, so I came of age in the 1990s when distance running was at its relative low point. I have no experience of what times were like for adults in the late 70s and early 80s. So, I cannot judge their toughness. I admit that I remain impressed by the old school attitude of those runners, the emphasis on simplicity, on training hard, and racing with guts. I esteem runners like Prefontaine and Bill Rodgers, and I look up to local folks like Terry Coker who was getting it done back in the day.

Maybe my generation is softer, but I believe that many of those who look to the past to denigrate the present make a fatal error. They take the standards of success and values of the past to be the measuring blocks of current conditions. This method of analysis always ends in a judgment of the decline of civilization. My view is that not only must each generation strive to be tough and strive for success, but we must also work to transform the values by which success and failure are judged so that they are more adequate to the actual problems that we face.

This means a few things, concretely:
1) It makes sense today, when we are encountering a major health crisis, that our running be thematized first and foremost in terms of the health of the runners who take up the practice. This is the problem many runners are trying to solve, unfortunately. This problem is not rooted in a lack of willpower, but in a food production and distribution system that encourages and rewards overconsumption. This problem was born in the 70s and 80s, but it has tremendously disrupted the bodies of the American people in the last decade. Running, and the effort it requires, is one way of taking on this problem--a way that many folks have access to and which is successful and inspiring in many ways.

2) Running as a social event. In a world in which human interaction more and more frequently takes place through screens and in a sedentary position, it is no odd thing that folks would seek out running as a cure for the problems that such interactions produce. Every runner knows that we speak more freely, with greater humor, and more truthfully when our bodies are in motion. Sport does not only exist to test the limits of human achievement or even personal achievement. It also exists because we are better people to each other when we exercise together. Running is more social today because this is a social need.

3) Running as anti-elitist. In the 70s and 80s running fast was held in greater esteem than it is today. Many folks today are skeptical of the faster running crowd, even hostile to their values. They see elites as narcissists, caught up in an absurd and highly individualistic effort that carries no social benefit. Who really cares if you are fast? How does that make you a better person? These are anti-elitist attitudes, and they are perhaps a consequences of a society today that is skeptical of achievement. And why not? When the rich and powerful in contemporary life use those spoils to work for their own interests instead of providing for the common welfare, an anti-elitist attitude is healthy. In a society in which upward mobility is threatened, in which the rich get richer while the middle class spins their wheels, a little resentment towards those who do manage to achieve is not only understandable; it is likely rational.

Whether these changes in values are good or bad most likely depends on your perspective. My perspective is this: I think it makes more sense to see the changes in values as responses to a social scene that is quite different than it was 30 years ago. Running has changed, and the past will not return. It is we runners who have changed it, often unconsciously and without regard for the effects of those changes. We understand our own age by comparing it to the times that came before us. This is the only way we can take its measure. But, when taking that measure, we ought also to be attentive to the current conditions in which our practice takes place--and be wary of denigrating present actions only because they do not line up so precisely with the achievements of those who came before.

To return to the question that is the title of this post. Why have runners gotten slower? Well, which runners? Some have gotten slower--mostly the young male 2:20 marathon types. Others have gotten faster; our national elites have broken all the old distance records. Many more women are running, and running much faster. High school runners are now running faster. East African runners are running incredible times (and some Americans like Solinsky, Ritz, and Hall are closing the gap.) And finally, so many more people are actually running, which means that they too are faster.

The history of running is complex, not simple. How we narrate social change is colored by our political values, our personal values, our own experiences, our age, our gender, and our own identities as runners. Running is now more corporate, more materialistic, more mainstream than it has ever been. It is also more open, more diverse, more available to women, minorities, and ordinary people than it has ever been. Social change is never wholly positive or entirely negative. It is specific, complex, and ongoing--good for some, damaging to others. So it goes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? Is it important?

I think it's pretty clear to all of us that our perception of reality is organized at least to some extent by the language we have inherited. This language structures and organizes the way we encounter the world. One thing that I appreciate about philosophy--which Deleuze defined as "the creation of concepts"--is that it takes as its task the critical reorganization of our habits of perceiving. When done well, this reorganization is in the service of better habits of living.

By this definition a guy like Einstein would be a natural philosopher. By rigorously describing the concept of relativity and introducing it into language, he opened up new orders of perception. We were able to understand the universe in a totally different way. This reorganization of our understanding of the universe literally gave us a new universe--new possibilities for technology, new avenues of control, new paths of exploration. It's important to remember, though, that in order for Einstein to make his discoveries, a number of material conditions had to be in place: namely an experimental apparatus delicate enough to find the limits of the Newtonian world view.

Another example would be W.E.B. Dubois. His concept of the double-vision of racial consciousness also opened up new avenues of racial criticism. It described in language that was available to academics and other fairly powerful folks the perspective of living in a racial minority. Dubois was also perfectly positioned in culture to make this point. He had a mainstream education and knew how to express himself in the language of the dominant culture. But he also had access to the world of black experience, and he worked from within the dominant philosophical position to open angles onto this other universe, just as Einstein also couched his explanation of relativity by reference to foundational Newtonian physics.

These two examples show us that the relevant question with respect to the relationship between human consciousness and the shape of the universe is not the Cartesian question of whether our mind truly grasps reality. Or whether the subjective self or the objective world is more Real with a capital R. The more important questions are the smaller ones. How do our current habits of consciousness shape and delimit our perception? What sort of experiences make it possible to reorganize those habits? And how can we develop and maintain the habit of critically reacting to the blindnesses and gaps that are a necessary feature of intelligent categorization of the world in which we live?

The word "philosophy" describes the general habit of reconstructing the categories and ways of thinking that structure our interactions with the world. To take up the task of philosophy explicitly is to work consciously on behalf of keeping this critical habit alive, both in ourselves and in our culture.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Friendship

"...to a friendship of good men all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves; for in the case of this kind of friendship the other qualities also are alike in both friends, and that which is good without qualification is also without qualification pleasant, and these are the most lovable qualities. Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men." --Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

"And yet. Isn't the main reason we love this sport because it gives us an excuse to idle away an hour (or more) a day with the other skinny social rejects talking about who knows what and god knows why all the while fooling the rest of the world (and, admittedly, sometimes ourselves) into thinking that what we are really doing out there is suffering mercilessly and ascetically towards some impossible goal?"
--Some dude on a message board

In a world in which facebook is reconstructing the concept of friendship, it is interesting to return to Aristotle's writings on friendship. For the Greeks, friendship was the ideal form of association; it was at the heart of the good life of individuals, and it also gave shape to the ideal form of community. For Aristotle, particularly, the Good with a capital "G", had as its material earthly condition the qualities of friendship.

For the Greeks, friendship was a relationship that was always outward looking. Friendship was a name for the sort of relationship that pursued ends that were higher and nobler than the individuals who entered into that relationship. For the Greeks, friendship was not a state or a feeling or a title. It was essentially transformative, a relationship of growth towards the good. It was an activity: a name for a relationship that brought out a shared pursuit of the good life.

For the Greeks friendship was rare. It is the sort of relationship that points us towards our best qualities and teaches us how to become our ideal self.

I think Aristotle is essentially right in his conception of friendship, but sweet jesus he can make friendship sound as if it's such a drag, especially if we import our 21st century American vision of "the good life," which has basically come to mean racing around in an overcaffeinated blur trying to earn enough money to buy the one million things we are absolutely sure we need in the moment but turn out several weeks later to be outdated and, frankly, drab.

Plato and his buddy Aristotle regularly ripped off sub 60 ten milers back in the day like nothing.
What we need from our friends today more than anything is help imagining a more expansive notion of the good life, one that includes not just working your ass off in a job that doesn't make much sense on good days and may actually be morally reprehensible on bad days but also things like laughter, leisure, pleasure, meaning, sunshine, and fresh air. Those things have more than a lot to do with excellence and achievement in life, especially if you are looking for the kind of life that's worth living.

We runners, being goal oriented and driven sorts of folk, have a tendency to get caught up reducing life to a very narrow set of goods. Like, say, the ability to run a 2:30 marathon. We pile all the eggs into that basket, not because there is much that is remarkable about that basket outside of its ability to hold a lot of eggs. This makes things simpler, you know, than having eggs all over the damn place. Who knows what might hatch?

So we need friends. We especially need the sort of friends who can laugh at our goals. The sort of friends who are not afraid to tip over the basket and break a few eggs. Let's face it, endurance training when it's done right is boring. The trial of miles has more to do with the relentless molecular grinding of shoe soles than anything else. We like to talk about the effort and the brain-bending fatigue of a hard interval session, but most of the work of training is as easy and simple as putting one foot in front of the other, getting it on down the road.

Running friends, training partners, remind us that life happens out there in those training runs, too. Their value is larger than the race they point towards, measured not only in minutes, miles, and average pace, but also in laughter, memories, tall tales, and big dreams. The best training partners do what the best friends do--they make our narrow vision wider and show us goods and possibilities where we could only see shadows. They enlarge our vision of what is possible. They slow down when our legs are dead. Push the pace when we want to fly. And most importantly, they'll meet us late at night or early in the morning, in blinding heat, rain, or bitter cold. Friends show up.

Maybe showing up is not quite meeting the Greek bar for friendship of pursuing the good life, but in this distracted world, when we could always be doing something else--and usually are--showing up is no small thing. You show up, your training partner shows up, and the next thing you know you are running. No guarantees that the good life lies at the end of any single one of those runs. In fact, each of them taken alone is almost absurd in its insignificance.

But, if you show up, they add up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Different Sorts of Seriousness

"...it's inevitable that we look at our worthiest goals and hopes with a seriousness which is difficult to maintain, [but] ... Another ideal runs before us, a peculiar, seductive, dangerous ideal to which we wouldn't want to persuade anyone: ... the ideal of a spirit that plays naively, i.e. not deliberately but from overflowing abundance and power, with everything that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine, ... it is only with this spirit that the great seriousness really emerges."                                                --Nietzsche, The Gay Science

My buddy Mike wrote a nice piece on how he started running, and I've been meaning to link to it for a couple weeks now. His experience was much like mine. I think it pairs nicely with this Runner's World piece on the tenth anniversary of the 2000 Footlocker, when Ritz, Webb, and Hall--three of the greatest runners of my generation--duked it out for the first time as high schoolers.

These pieces got me thinking about what it means to take your running seriously. Since those high school days, Ritz, Webb, and Hall have become professional runners, which means that in a certain sense they have become very serious about their running. This seriousness manifests itself in different ways.

Ritz's running is serious enough to have his form recently profiled in the New Yorker. From this piece we learn that Ritz's approach to running is detail oriented and work-oriented. His seriousness manifests itself in his exemplary work ethic, his constant striving to improve and increase his training. The New Yorker profile is a look not only at Ritz, but at a certain take on what it means to train seriously. To train is to employ science rigorously, knowledgeably, and with great effort to aim at maximizing performance.

Webb is a different sort of animal. He is a picture of pure talent. He ran 3:53 for the full mile in high school, a record that will not likely soon fall. His racing is erratic, and he has been known to be a junk food aficionado. He falls out of shape often, only to hammer himself back into shape with mind-numbing workouts. When he races, it is with an acid intensity, nostrils blaring, screaming as he crosses the line. When he is off, his is miserable. When he is on, he can't be beaten. Webb's seriousness is not the steady, methodical, relentless seriousness of a Ritz. His seriousness is the white-hot passion of a born racer. It is best represented visually.



Then there is Hall. Ryan Hall is deeply religious, and his seriousness about running gets filtered through God. Recently, after a season of subpar training, he announced that he would no longer have a coach and that he would be depend on prayer for training guidance, along with his experience as an elite runner.  Hall has explicitly thematized God as a motivator for his running, and he sees the value of his racing in terms of a larger life purpose to glorify God. If Ritz runs to reach his human potential and Webb runs out of an unharnessed and erratic competitiveness, Hall runs for spiritual enlightenment. That's some serious stuff right there.

Chances are that each of these runners has been caricatured by their time in the spotlight. Like the rest of us, Ritz, Hall, and Webb probably run for a variety of reasons, and the way in which we view their motivations probably says more about the culture of running than it does the reality of their situations. I know that I find a little bit of each of these characters within myself . The obsessive tinkerer, the intense competitor, the seeker of spiritual ecstasies. Our own temperaments as runners, most likely, have varying doses of each of these personae.

All of this is interesting enough, as far as it goes. But what Mike's piece and the Footlocker piece got me thinking about was that adolescent high school seriousness, which is a different sort of seriousness entirely from the adult, professional serious seriousness that I've been talking about. I was serious in high school, no doubt. Every race seemed like the end of the world. I would have died out there on the course if that's what it took to help the team. We were perhaps in some ways more serious than even these professional runners.

Andy, my brother Philip, me, and John

The reason, though, that we could be so serious was because that seriousness was motivated and driven by the enormously good time we were having. The thing about adult seriousness is that, well, it gets to be a drag. So heavy, sometimes, chasing these PRs, training just right, racing as hard as you can. Too often, the seriousness comes first in adult life. In adolescence, the seriousness was secondary. We were serious because we loved it. We loved our friends. We loved to compete. We loved the feeling of being strong, of running hard. It was a seriousness born out of play--the most genuine sort of seriousness because it was a natural consequence of the sheer joy of being on a team, competing, doing your best, or just running.

In the retrospective on Footlocker, Ritz describes the seriousness like this:
I was hurting so bad the last two miles. I kept going by telling myself, You only have to hurt another 10 minutes. If you don't keep pushing, you'll regret it the rest of your life. It was my last high-school cross-country race. My last Foot Locker. It was so important. It seemed like the biggest thing in the world. 
This is not the seriousness of the obsessive compulsive, the out of control intensity of the racer, or the spiritual bliss of the running sage. It is the seriousness that we find when we leave all those other seriousnesses behind, when we compete because we are strong, because we can, because this is life. A seriousness that is not a reason for but a consequence of the simple joy of being a runner.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Running, Philosophy, and an Ethics of Faith

In an April post on his blog Requiem for Certainty, friend and fellow traveler Colin Koopman writes about the need to find room for faith in the contemporary cultural scene. In the wake of the confrontation between science (which puts too little value in faith in unverifiable propositions) and religion (which puts too much faith in unverifiable propositions), we have become a culture bifurcated between camps that believe too much in faith and camps that believe too little in it.

In response to this situation, Koopman calls for a working faith that grows out of a realization of the contingency and fragility of the world. This faith is not traditionally religious; it is not founded on the idea of an ever-present and all-powerful creator, nor would it be backed by powerful institutions. Instead, it is the sort of faith that grows out of a strenuous confrontation with the facts of change and uncertainty--a faith that is a working hope that change and fragility, as frightening and dangerous as they might be, might with some effort be turned towards the good. Koopman finds this sort of faith in the ethical writings of William James, and I find it there myself.

Another place where philosophers might look for a model for this sort of faith is the working attitude of the distance runner. As a friend and I ran down the road last night, we talked about how training always requires a delicate balance between one's ideal plans and the contingencies that life throws at you. It is easy enough to chart out a course to a certain goal. The difficulty is not conceiving an ideal; we all know what it takes to become a better runner, just as it is likely that we know how to become a better person. The difficulty comes in the interaction with the contingencies that life throws at you. The difficulty is in the execution of the ideal, and it is here that we see in action the flexible melioristic faith, the sort of working hope, that Koopman and James are talking about.

The runner has to dream big in order to achieve. We all have a picture of the runner we could be if everything went right. This picture is, of course, a pure figment of imagination. Its function is to provide a range of working possibility, a sort of center of gravity that keeps us in orbit, pushes us out the door. We make steady progress towards that ideal. Along the way, in the execution, we learn what keeps us back and make efforts to transform ourselves. Slowly, over the course of time, we refashion our habits against the rough edges of the obstacles we encounter. We eat differently. We sleep differently. We try different sorts of workouts. Our bodies change, cell by cell. Capillaries bloom. Muscles grow lean and striated. The creases of long effort work their way onto our faces. Our tendons become steely cords. Our minds learn the rhythm of a hard pace, our mouths the tangy flavor of lactic acid. Incrementally, intangibly, with multiple setbacks along the way, through frustration and effort, we edge closer to that picture of the runner we want to be.

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a first-rate philosopher of democratic faith.

It is this slow process of self-transformation through ongoing effort towards an ideal that James means to denote by the simple word "faith." This is the only thing faith has ever meant for actual people living on and in the world. This, it seems to me, is a vision of faith worth believing in, a faith worth working for. Running has value beyond itself because it shows this faith in action; it shows that this human form of faith is possible. Philosophers can find it alive and well in the working attitude of the distance runner.

We runners can learn from philosophers how to dream bigger dreams. We can learn to inculcate this sort of faith beyond our sport, in our communities, in our friendships, in our wider ethical selves. Such a faith will be necessary to continue working towards the worlds that we desire. And, just as importantly in a pluralistic and democratic culture, such a faith will be necessary to do the work to understand and live with those who have faith in different worlds. This is the work of a strenuous democratic faith--the ongoing reconstruction of our minds, our habits, our communities, our selves--to be able to live together, with our differences, without violence and indignity, hopefully, perhaps, someday.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What Does It Mean to Run Naturally?

Aristotle, in the Physics, opposes the natural to the artificial. He says that natural things have "their principle of motion or of standstill" in themselves, whereas the artificial is dependent on something else for its "principle." Understanding what he means takes a little unpacking, but I think doing so will shed light on some current movements that are motivated by the idea of running more naturally.

Aristotle describes the difference between the natural and the artificial using the example of a tree and a wooden bed frame. He notes that a tree's principle of growth is located within itself. It naturally follows the form of a tree, given the proper conditions, and it grows itself into a tree on its own. A wooden bedframe, notes Aristotle in one of the few moments of humor in his texts, will not grow into a bed when planted in the ground. In order that it take shape, the bed needs someone else to conceive of its idea. For this reason, we say that a bed is not natural, but artificial. It is a work of human art--it had to be conceived in the imagination and did not come into its own naturally but through the effort and mind of something outside of itself. The natural, therefore, is self-subsisting. The artificial is dependent in its very essence on something outside of itself.

 The tree did this naturally, all by itself. The photograph, however, is a product of human artifice.

Proponents of naturalism in running, then, see running as something we are born to do: read Born to Run, yet? On this view, we run as naturally as a tree develops branches and grows roots. Running is not a learned skill like medicine or architecture (do we naturally build skyscrapers or airplanes or MRI machines?), but something that is as native to the human condition as, say, having ears and toes. To rephrase Aristotle in terms of contemporary scientific discourse, you could say running is in our DNA.

As for me, I think running is a natural human activity, as far as this goes. We don't have to be taught how to run; running, like crawling and walking and speaking, emerges as a natural human capacity just like leaves grow on trees. But, in order to understand the implications of this for life today in 21st century America, we need to begin to look more carefully at the kind of running that we are talking about.

Running is a natural activity. Maybe even competitive distance running is natural. But the specific practice of racing 5ks and marathons that emerged in the 20th century seems to me to place the natural capacity of running in a set of very artificial circumstances. One characteristic of the natural is that it is seamlessly integrated with the rest of the world.  A leaf grows out of a branch as part of a well-ordered organism. Competitive running and racing is not so integrated with the rest of life. It is something we do on the side, bearing only tangential relationships to the rest of our lives.

Few of us today in America use running as it emerged--as a means of locomotion, a way of getting from one place to another. We have other more advanced forms of travel now: automobiles, email, airplanes, trains, bicycles. So, running has this sort of strange position in contemporary life. It is a natural capacity of the human body, but our environment produces no demand to run. So, we have to artificially produce situations to run in our environment. We do this through racing and training. We would do the same thing tomorrow if, for example, the sun refused to shine. We would light the world with artificial bulbs because our eyes naturally want to see.

We already have built environments when artificial light replaces natural light completely.


From an Aristotelian perspective, then, running more naturally is really an almost impossible task in the contemporary world. It is a natural need that will have to be satisfied artificially. But in order to construct better artificial running situations it is useful to remember the natural situation in which we run. This situation has less to do with the type of shoe that one wears, or whether one forsakes shoes at all, and much more to do with remembering that just as a tree sends its roots downward and its branches upward, the human body is constructed to be in a fairly constant state of locomotion. This is the natural situation. Getting back to nature, then, is less about footstrike and minimalism and more about finding ways to let the body move, constructing situations where we are forced to run in a variety of ways.

I think that this is what accounts for the current popularity of the marathon. Though the marathon is an artificial institution, it is a great way to reproduce a natural situation of a human body in constant motion. It compensates for the lack of natural stimulus to run in contemporary culture. It does so by producing a training situation, which is really just a plain old running situation. But the downside of a marathon is its status as a "bucket list" type of event. Insofar as the value of the marathon is conceived solely as an "accomplishment of willpower," its specific connection to the natural need for locomotion is erased. Under the sign of spiritual effort or willpower, the material needs of the body are lost as a primary justification for the event. The fact that completing a marathon is seen as an extraordinary thing is a sign of the way in which running is not naturally integrated into the rest of life.

 Natural or unnatural?

This is the way culture seems to be trending in general. The demands of the mind--intellectual stimulation, bright flashing images, strange noises, the need to communicate--all of these needs are being met through the rise of virtual technologies. But the heady flights, the sense of being ungrounded, the dizziness and vertigo we feel after too much time spent in the virtual world are all effects of an overstimulated mind and an understimulated body. Why have certain aspects of human nature been stimulated to the point of grotesqueness while others have been understimulated? How have the institutions that we have built neglected certain aspects of our nature when they obviously care so much for other aspects (take, for example, the natural desire to hoard things)? Whose interests do these sorts of artificial institutions serve? And whose interests do they ignore?

These are the sorts of questions that come to my when I think about the desire to run naturally. The question is broad and complex, and we ought not reduce it to something that can be marketed as easily as a pair of Vibram Five-Fingers.
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