A Somewhat Cranky Defense of Democratic Elitism

First off, check out this stellar 2008 review of the cult classic Once a Runner by Marc Tracy.

The book was given to me when I was 17. It was a gift from a girl. Back then (before the internet when things were harder to replicate and books were physical objects) the book was out of print. This copy had obviously been handed around from person to person before it got to me. It felt like the book found me as much as I found it. The writing is cheesy and adolescent, but I was cheesy and adolescent, and it spoke to me.

It's set in the late 70s and the book paints runners as neither hippies nor squares, but folks who simply opt out of the stale culture wars. By then everyone knew that the hippy movement was going nowhere and that the square mainstream culture was pretty much going nowhere either. Both the culture and the counterculture were sorta dead. The culture war was over; nobody won.

So what's a young person with energy supposed to do with himself, without politics, without drugs; even rock and roll was dead. How could he be American? How could he balance work ethic with fun, desire for progress with satisfaction in the moment, opt out of consumerism and commercialism and all the betrayed dreams of capitalism? Why not just run?

So, that's what Quenton Cassidy did, along with a bunch of other runners from a time when sponsors and marketers and all of that stuff wasn't all up in your face. They formed small communities and clans, and they got together and ran. In the review, Tracy calls these clans "cults," and the behavior was somewhat cult-like. What made Once a Runner so special was that is was a book for the few: those that "got it." As Tracy puts it:

The forthcoming edition is by far the handsomest copy of Once a Runner I've seen, but a part of me wishes the novel had stayed out-of-print. Not everyone is up for the running life, and not everyone should be able to get their hands on this book. It should take effort, whether that means borrowing (or stealing) it from someone or saving up $77.98. Once a Runner's portrait of running may smack of elitism, but it is a democratic elitism: Not everyone can be a runner, but a runner can come from anywhere.

Those last two lines are worth chewing on. The culture of running has--or at least had--its own view of democracy, one that praised a certain equality and fairness, but put itself in opposition to democracy as mass culture.  Running was something that resisted commodification, embraced an order of rank and heirarchy, and praised a form of work that couldn't be monetized. It was a community of friends who wanted to do something different from everyone else: namely run a ton and have fun and do it with like minded weirdos.

I've been thinking about this lately because the Country Music [Half] Marathon just came through town [35,000+ ran the half, fewer than 3000 ran the full marathon.] If you want to be cynical, you could say that the organizers of CMM are intent on destroying these cult values in order to produce a business model that has something more than cult appeal. The CEO of Competitor Group, Peter Englehardt, is hoping to make the Rock 'N Roll race series a $100 million dollar business, and the only way he can get there is through maximizing the scale of the event: appealing to as many people as possible.

In short, Competitor Group is interested in producing a commodified product that appeals to the very mass of people that runners used to set themselves apart from. In order to do this, they have cut the distance in half (though everyone still calls it a marathon.) They pitch it not as an alternative way of life, but as a one-time (or perhaps annual) "bucket list" event. They focus on the health benefits and the charity benefits and the business benefits. They make it less about a small community of like minded people who are kinda weird and don't share the same values as everyone else and more a celebration of the most superficial form of togetherness that we share: country music and the "city of Nashville"--a strategic path reduced to a few (white, upperclass) neighborhoods and the businesses they frequent.

To top it all off, they've stopped offering prize money to the top finishers, pretty much depleting the front of the race. My guess is that this decision was as much symbolic as it was financial. The payouts to elites are a rounding error in the CMM budget. I suspect that the organizers have come to realize that payouts to the top runners are actually bad for marketing, as they reinforce the old "cult" hierarchy that Competitor group is trying to undo in order to generate mass appeal. See, the old sport used to admire the talented, the swift, the best. But the new sport finds the idea of rewarding talent to be elitist. Which, of course, it is.

This shift has allowed them to make a lot of money (and also take advantage of tax money.) As they say, it's brought a lot of new people into the sport. But it's also made the sport somewhat unrecognizable to the weirdos who started it all.

I don't really want to say that this is necessarily negative, as there are still events that cater to the traditional crowd (track meets, the ultra trail scene perhaps, the local Flying Monkey Marathon in a different way, etc.) But I guess the effect is sort of like seeing your local coffee shop turn into a Starbucks (which shouldn't be surprising since Englehardt is modeling Competitor after Starbucks.) Sure, Starbucks is more attractive to the general consumer who doesn't really care about coffee more than the energy it provides. It's convenient, and it's awesome that you can find them everywhere. But a Starbucks will never give the sense of intimacy or community of the sorts of places that it replaced, simply because that's not it's purpose. In the end, its purpose is to appeal to as many people as possible in order to make as much money as possible.

Such is the case with an event like CMM. The traditional marathon race respected and valued people who devoted their life (or at least a large part of it) to a somewhat absurd and definitely not profitable hobby of running endlessly down the road with your friends in an attempt to get as fast as possible. It valued a form of democracy that sometimes gets buried in our mass/big box/corporate culture. The idea that sometimes people want to get together and just do something different. Or better. Not for money or profit or fame, but just because they want to. An event like CMM doesn't care much about these people. It cares about your bucket list (half) marathoner, who will run it or walk it once or twice, and spend a lot of money on memorabilia. It cares about the people who find Once a Runner cultish, childish, elitist and frankly incomprehensible.

There are times when Once a Runner looks like that to me, too. Competitor Group has a right to make their money. If I had run the half, I would have had a great time (too hot for the full marathon!) It would have been really fun. Just like Starbucks coffee is actually pretty good. I even feel bad for writing this post, like a grumpy old man who just isn't with the times. Like a fast kid who looks down his nose at the slower kids. Maybe some of that less attractive form of elitism motivates this piece.

But that's not all there is to it. Sometimes I think we are too quick to just accept change, forget how things used to be, resign them to the dustbin of history, and move on. Are we ready for a culture that is pitched at every moment to the mass? For business models are more about appealing to numbers than to quality? Is this the culture we want for ourselves? A culture in which everyone participates, everyone understands, but no one does anything special?

Once a Runner is built around a still magical idea: the goal of running under 4:00 in the mile. It's a goal that only a few can dream of, and that even fewer can accomplish. It takes everything: natural talent, commitment, heart, courage, relentlessness, character. It can only be achieved through an extreme form of excellence, and therefore is simply logically unavailable to the mass of people.

Idealizing excellence runs counter in some ways to our democratic intuitions that culture ought to be for everyone. But maybe those intuitions are itself just a marketing scheme. Maybe that culture is okay for everyone, but excellent for no one, with the exception perhaps of the shareholders of large corporations and their stupendous and stupefying bottom lines.

Listen to the voice of the cultists: isn't this also the voice of democracy?
"It is simply that we can all be good boys and wear our letter sweaters around and get our little degrees and find some nice girl to settle, you know, down with...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 black 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!"


  1. Awesome column! Well said! - I am reminded of the words of Theodore Roosevelt. Though Teddy spoke of those who strive to do great things and those who criticize their efforts, I think the phrase is also applicable to those of us who count ourselves not among the joggers, but among those who strive to run like the wind. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

    1. Reading the remarks from Jeff, Mark, and yourself, I can not help but think that the culture of runners described by John L. Parker is symbolic to the qualities of a true free society. One where Success and Failure is measured objectively, rather than subjectively.

      Please do not take my above statement as either condemnation or endorsement for the Competitor Group, Starbucks, or Exxon-Mobil, or any other large, profitable enterprise.

      Thanks for the read. It is always pleasure.

    2. Thanks guys. I am always a little suspicious even of my own self. So I get a little nervous when we take the activity we ourselves love and say: THIS is the key to democracy (which I guess is what I've done here.) Most people won't see running that way, and really that's fine with me. Running is about hard work and objective improvement, but it's also about a community of friends doing their own thing.

    3. Right.

      I wouldn't say running is the key to democracy either (or a more perfect union), but the qualities displayed by a successful track club (ie GBTC, UCTC, ....) - and individual runners hoping to tap their full potential - make for a nice comparison to what a free society would look like. A society where people earn their place based on effort and achievement. A community of individuals who share a common identity. And a institution where a person knows if they fully invest themselves they will see the fruits of their labors.

      My local running club gives me that. I just would like to see my country give these qualities to every citizen.

  2. i am just glad i came through school before they quit posting grades because they thought it would hurt the feelings of the kids that couldn't make the grades and before they started awarding extra grade points to the AP students to even the playing field with the kids in the easy classes. back in the day, we had to earn A's in AP to compete with the kids earning A's in remedial courses. grades were posted every quarter, everyone knew where they stood, and valedictorian wasn't a popularity contest. if you wanted the grades you had to sacrifice and work harder than the other people and yeah, you had to have brains, sure, and a knack for organisation. it was ass-kicking hard work, but it was rewarding. what do kids have today? no hard work and no reward. bunch of lazy good for nothing bastards... get off my freakin' lawn.

    1. Ha ha. It's funny because my students seem more grade oriented now than ever.

      My best experiences as a student were about the rewards of the work itself, and yeah it was nice to get a grade that reflected that work. But sometimes I worry that my students care a little too much about what I think (as a university official/gatekeeper to the real world/representative of knowledge, etc.) about their performance and too little about what they, themselves, think.

    2. there's a disconnect between effort and reward in academics just like with running. all the emphasis on everyone's a winner means that not only is no one a winner, but no one even knows where they stand. your students are grade oriented for the same reason some runners get attached to gadgets and numbers -- they haven't internalised the connexion between effort and outcome.

    3. i got distracted.

      my point is that our whole world is being flattened. there's this push to protect people from the ill-effects of losing, but that presumes that there are ill-effects to losing. the root is a misunderstanding of how self-esteem is built.

      with meritocracy comes elitism. without elites, to what do we have to aspire?

    4. Good points, ace. I like how you flip things around and focus on the idea that it's not so bad to lose, to be a lesser athlete. I was just thinking about my high school and college running career. It was really exceedingly rare to win a race. I think I won one--out of literally hundreds--in college, and of course that was simply because the guys who normally beat me didn't run. From one perspective, it was a lot of losing, a lot of mediocrity. Sometimes it hurt, but after it was over I realized just how much I missed the chance to lose, and every now and then lose well.

  3. Jeff - as thought provoking and enjoyable a read as ever. Thanks

  4. This was a great read and helped resolve the very similar feelings I have. By no means elite, I take running seriously and fully understand that I won't ever be winning any races. And that's okay. But there is nothing like seeing those people who are special and who do win, because it is the greatest inspiration there is - seeing what the body is capable of. Running long and fast is hard, and it should be. I hate to see it soften via these kinds of events.

    1. Thanks, Lauren. That's the idea I was going for.

  5. One of your best posts ever, and I've read a lot of shit by you. Bravo.

  6. Great post. Need to go find my copy and have my son read it, after he reads this post.

  7. Glad to see this one resonated. It was fun to write.

  8. I was, honest to Goodness, going to say just what Mikey said. This was one of your best. The writing was good and the thesis was interesting: Elitism can be a good thing and that those who are threatening this good elitism are doing so by way of the low road.

  9. Here's a cranky comment to go with your cranky post.

    On the one hand, I agree with your point--I have no interest in Competitor style mega-races, and I think it's ridiculous that they don't offer a prize to the winners. Some of us whose only ribbons are participants' ribbons knew when we got them that it wasn't the same as winning.

    But on the other hand, this post makes me feel like the pathetic un-cool kid who is making an ass of herself by chasing the cool kids around. To that I say this.

    I have no intention of dropping my modest-in-comparison goals because they don't, can't and never could involve breaking a record or winning a race. I do not think my goals, though subjective, are mere bucket list baubles. And we night joggers (to use Parker's condescending phrase) do play our part in the sport. For one thing, it's the masses of dedicated mid-packers buying shoes and other gear who, at least in part, fund the sponsorships of the runners we all admire--allowing them time and space for those beautiful soul-building training runs and track intervals that they think we can't possibly understand because we do them so much slower. (Read this excellent article that explains these economics http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/08/11/080811fa_fact_hessler)

    You are not wrong--the old-school running crowd IS a beautiful thing (I loved the descriptions of running in the 70s in that article). But I'm getting crotchety as I age, and I'm finally confident enough in my longevity in and love for this sport to say this: I have just as much right to call myself a runner as any kid two or three decades my junior who thinks differently because God bestowed on him some speed or endurance gift that I don't share, therefore gaining him admittance to "the club". Honoring a gift is a noble activity. But so is taking something that's really hard for you and MAKING it a gift through hard work and force of will.

    Here's my review of that book: http://bqby40.blogspot.com/2011/04/book-review-once-runner.html

    I do like your blog. It makes me think.

    1. Hey Terzah, thanks for the critical comment.

      I just reread my post because I didn't know that I was setting out criteria for differentiating real runners from other folks. I didn't talk about fast and slow. I have heard the sorts of charges that you levy against me here before, but I wonder if there is some projection going on here. I didn't say that your goals are bucket-list baubles. I didn't say that you were not a real runner (I don't believe that!)

      Also, my post was not interested in commenting on whether or not elite runners are financially supported by midpackers; maybe this is true in some ways, but in other ways they drive up the price of shoes, racing fees, etc. through the creation of demand, creating good profits for running companies and those who work for them. That's exactly why organizations like Competitor Group target them (and not me.) So, sure midpackers pay the salaries of Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher and maybe a handful of other runners. But they don't pay mine. I don't expect them to; this is a hobby for me, not a living. The proceeds from CMM go to their shareholders--stock market investors, not runners.

      I don't know. I certainly did not want to act as the gatekeeper to a certain club with this post. On the other hand, I did want to pay tribute to the values that perhaps a minority of runners share. These values do run counter in some ways to an event like CMM. I think it's false to pretend that they are compatible, for the reasons that I outlined above.

      I like what you say here: "Honoring a gift is a noble activity, but so is taking something that's really hard for you and MAKING it a gift through hard work and force of will." Are these things at odds with each other? I don't think so, and I didn't mean to imply that they were.

      What I wanted to show was that when a corporation takes over the running scene, and its interests are in maximizing profits, then it might make some decisions that undermine a practice that was built without much thought to profit. At least, the financial kind.

      I also wanted to suggest that if running is a counter-cultural practice that expresses freedom from marketing and stuff and corporate culture and all of that crap (it might not be for all; but I think it is for some), then any event that appeals to a mass of folks through the standard corporate marketing practices might simply not be reconciliable with this way of running.

      Finally, maybe I have to bite the bullet and say that one thing that brought me into this sport was its "order of rank." I wanted to be one of the kids that "got it." Maybe that's not the most noble aspect of human character. On the other hand, sport is one place where this sort of elitism that might be native to our character is sanctioned and safely expressed. After all, it's just running.

      Hope you keep reading! And thanks again for the critical post--it makes this blog finally feel like a philosophy blog!

    2. Thanks for taking it in the right spirit. It was late when I wrote that. I wrote something more cogent on my blog today. I'll never be as logical as you, but hey! there's a place for emotion, too. :^)

    3. Absolutely, and your criticisms are valid; seriously--thanks for them.

  10. Racing is just not about racing anymore, it's about participation, charity, and in the case of Competitor Group, profit.

    That is my problem with the state of today's sport. All I want to do is run as fast as I can and try and beat the guy that beat me last time. I'd rather finish in the middle of a highly competitive race than win some weak race. I don't care about "amenities" other than results and accurate courses, I don't care about shirts, post race crap (though some water is nice), etc, etc, etc. I also certainly dislike massive crowds, and massively overpriced races.

    These days, racing seems to be anything but a test of your actual limits. Note, you need not be fast to test your limits. Someday, the scene will change, and those eccentric runners will keep pounding the roads as they always have, and always will.

    Elitist? Yea probably... But I learned everything I know about running from my track and XC days, and honestly, don't know any other way to be a runner.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  11. @Ace - Pretty sure I agree with you. Losing is the greatest builder of champions. Had I not been beet at my first mile would I have refocused my efforts to succeed? Not grading a child on their effort is ludicrous; while it might preserve the dignity of a person with a lower score, it surely invalidates the work of a student who earned an A or trained to accomplish the 4:00 mile, or finished a 4:00 marathon spending every fiber of strength left within them. All victories/successes should be earned and that earning is what makes it worthy, not the goal itself.

    @Lauren - I'm not sure winning is the goal. No matter how big the field, only one runner wins, but that does not diminish the efforts of those behind that winner. Some people come to the start line with visions of success that vary between overall champion, age group winner, podium in AG, being competitive amidst peers, improving on a time, learning something about themselves to catching up with a friend over a cup of coffee while we push our strollers 5 wide down the thoroughfare at a brisk 20 minute mile pace. I think the cultish view is that no matter where you are; look to improve. And I furthermore think the article was stating that the audience is shifting from those who look towards self-improvement to those who just with to show up. When I was in collegiate track, not everyone on the team was starter material, but you better believe that I cheered the hell out of a guy who puked after a 5:00 mile, because that was a 10 second PR. I always saw running as that "democratic" endeavor that what you could do defined your existence and order in the group. Your ability to spin yourself or to ingratiate yourself has little standing on your position in running.

    The CMM was my first marathon. I was very surprised when I saw there were 26000 1/2er and less than 4 full marathoners. I was even more surprised that from the first corral, I was passing walkers at the 1/2 mile mark. Back in the day folks started where they were supposed to start ;)

  12. I've thought about this post numerous times since you posted it. Once a runner is one of my favorite reads. To be the best that you can be, to have the strength to train alone, when the going gets tough, run when there are no prizes, but you don't loose sight of the goal.

    One of my favorite places to run is when I visit my hometown and have the chance to run on my high school track. I stand by the fence or warm up on the track and I can relate to how Quenton felt in his later days. Mind you I didn't break records but can remember and feel the glory of my younger days. Hear the coach yelling, see my teammate waiting for the baton or feeling the sense of trying to keep it together in the final stretch of the championship mile. It's on those days I do feel young again, feel like an elite, and my age no longer matters. I may not be able to handle 40 x 400 repeats but I can pretend I do and still feel like a winner. This post made me feel like I was on the track again or to relive that sense that PRs will be broken whether they're on a dirt track or race where I'm getting my butt kicked by elites.

    We all want to win and it's possible that we can break our personal records that feel out of reach. The prizes we earn may not be of cash value or tangible, but are everlasting and worthy just the same.

    I'm glad I found your blog, it's brought something I was missing to my training and racing. Thank you.

    1. Willie, thanks for the kind comments. Let's keep rockin' it.

  13. I afraid that I have to agree with you on most of your points here! It's all part of the dumbing down of everything and the "bucket list" mentality. I was criticized last year when writing about Boston's new qualifying times, because I think it's a positive move for running in general (http://www.chronicrunner.com/2011/03/culture-of-bucket-list-argument-in.html). Not that there isn't a place for the everyman/everywoman runner out there, but I believe we should also be encouraged to push ourselves beyond where we think we can go. Now, that may mean different things to different people, but the fact remains that there is a place for excellence (an Aristotelian Virtue). The profit motive seen with the R&R series results in fiascoes such as R&R Las Vegas, and they're plan for this year is to make it bigger! Biggering and biggering everything is no answer.


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