Friday, June 15, 2012

Is Running For Everyone??

To be nobody but yourself in a world doing its best to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can ever fight and never stop fighting.
- e. e. cummings
As I sit in the auditorium of the Dairy Center for Performing Arts in Boulder, surrounded by some the best and the brightest in running, past, present and future, I am struck by a certain strangeness: The room is full of slim, fit, well educated, well off white people. That's pretty much Boulder - at least the Boulder most people know and choose to see.

The crowd reflects the demographics of running: Male: 76 % earn over $75,000/yr, 76% are college educated. Female: 70.3% earn over $70,000/yr, 78.2% are college educated (RRCA). This doesn't exactly make most runners "average" Americans.

The evening opens with a show of hands from those who ran that day. How many miles, 1...5...10...20...50...? Hands wave through the air like so many first graders vying for attention...recognition...legitimacy. Thank goodness I ran 9 miles that day - oh, did I add that it was a tempo run - or I would have wanted to quietly crawl under my seat.

Now we, the choir, are all set to hear all about the "ordinariness" of Scott Jurek. The "everyman" everyone and anyone can transform themselves into - to be something rather than nothing. It is a bit much for this choir girl - though even I want to believe.

I am not exactly "part" of the Boulder running scene and for those on the outside (though I'm not necessarily on the 'outside' either) it can seem pretty intimidating. I've heard many, many Boulder area runners comment about the overly competitive attitude of serious runners in Boulder - and while I don't think that's actually the case, I do see how some could see it that way. Running in Boulder is intense and the 'community' is dedicated, close knit - dare I say (and I may get some flak for this), even a bit (in appearance) clicky. The problem here is that it tends to scare people off. Some are afraid to run a race or join in a group run.

I wonder if we runners do this more than we realize and unintentionally (or intentionally) scare others away.

And so the question I kept coming back to is: Are the tales of the transformations of Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes, and others, really motivating people to get their butts off the couch or are they seen as so different that "normal" people just dismiss them as amazing and insane freaks? Are we undermining one of our aims, to get others out there running, by claiming that these runners are just normal guys - like me and you - only they get up and do it?

I personally find them very motivating, but I'm already a runner. I understand that what they do is pretty amazing, but I don't see them as super human. I know some non-runners who do see them as just way off the charts, and I wonder what that says to them.

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After a short, very well done, video about Scott and his book Eat & Run there is a panel discussion, and a Q & A segment. The panel consists of: Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Buzz Burrell, and Michael Sandrock - all well ensconced in the U.S. and Boulder running scene. There is lots of talk about the ordinariness of all these runners (all men!) and the only difference between them and me is the drive, the commitment...The strength of mind to push through and on and on when every bit of their being wants to quit.

Many years ago, when I fashioned myself a 'serious' rock climber, a friend sat across a table from me at the Boulder Theater before the start of the Banff Film Festival and revealed to me the secret to success. She said she had decided to "make the commitment" to climbing. She decided to quit doing the jobs that took valuable time away from her deepest passionate pursuit. She decided to climb full-time. All I could think was some smart-ass, sarcastic comment like, "nice work if you can get it", but I decided to make nice, smile and nod. Clearly I was missing something. The assumed implication of course (and I wasn't just being super sensitive) was that I was unwilling to take the leap of faith, make the commitment, do what needed to be done. What a loser I am! The tone and tenor of her comment was clear: I just wasn't willing to do what it takes.

So as I hear Mike Sandrock claim that the difference between champions and the hoi polloi is commitment and dedication, I want to protest. Scott Jurek presents himself as just an ordinary guy (and I sense he actually believes this) who made the choice to "be something", to "do something".  But the fact remains that as inspiring as his story of transformation may be, he is an outlier - He is not "ordinary" whatever that means. He is extraordinary, and all of us can be too even if we don't run and win ultramarathons.

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Now perhaps I'm being a tad defensive or insulted, but I want to speak up for the hoi polloi for a moment - I don't think we necessarily lack dedication, motivation, commitment - and for many of us it takes considerable sacrifice to pursue our passion for running. I have pushed on when everything in me screamed to stop...when I was afraid to start. Whatever the challenge, that's what makes us both ordinary and extraordinary.

As a self described "serious" runner - as in, I take it seriously and it's important to me even though I'm not super talented or fast - trying to balance work, family, running, climbing and all the other things that give my life meaning and balance, I find it VERY challenging to make it to organized group runs. I cobble together my crazy running and life schedule and fit the bits and pieces together as best as I can. I don't want to give up my family (though I'd be more than happy to give up work!) for running.
 
I may seem aloof (I have been told this throughout my life), but that's unintentional. What's going on beneath the surface is a concerted effort to find balance. We all want to belong to some degree, we all want to achieve some measure of greatness, but many of us out there are very busy doing lots of stuff other than running (gasp) and that makes it difficult. Some of the other things we do we must do - to pay the bills, to care for those who need us - and some of the other things we do we do because they enrich our lives, as running does. Having such a truncated definition of "greatness" or understanding of what it means to "be something" and "do something" seems self defeating.

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Do I need to win Western States 7 times and break the course record at Badwater to "be something"? What about all of us who go to work, raise children, volunteer in our community and still run? What about those of us who wake at 4 a.m. to squeeze in some piddly miles before the rest of the house wakes? 

If I believe that I have to do what Scott Jurek does to "be something" then I might as well stay firmly planted on the couch. While I admire amazing feats of athletic prowess, I don't think I want to live in a world full of such single minded individuals. I understand that that level of obsession is usually necessary for so-called "greatness" but perhaps we're undermining other larger goals by focusing exclusively on this notion of greatness. So-called "ordinary" folks can achieve their own greatness, whatever that means to them - it may be running that first mile or 5k. But let's face it - Running is just running! Wait - did I just say that? I hope that others will realize that you don't have to run 100 miles to be something.

But then I am preaching to the choir here.
I know that I have found fulfillment. I have an object in life, a task ... a passion.
- George Sand

10 comments:

  1. I was there last night, too, and was entertained and elevated by the whole thing, but I also agree with everything you say in this post. When Scott signed my book, he wrote, "Be somebody!" And I thought, yeah......does that mean at present I'm "nobody"? I also noted that the panel was entirely male, and (I don't know about Buzz) at least 3/4 childless. It reminds me of what one of my co-workers said about Eckhart Tolle: "I'd love to have him come spend one long hot afternoon with my three kids and see how he feels about 'the power of now.'" (You could throw in spend a day at my job as well--library patrons often act like small spoiled children.)

    Also, the whole vegan thing in Boulder continues to strike me as unbelievably self-righteous. If some of these people would concentrate as much on improving their characters as they do on improving their diets, we'd have a town of saints.

    Still, it was good fun and I like feeling like a part of that community, even a peripheral shy part. :^) And I may even try some of the recipes in Scott's book, though the kitchen is one place I do NOT like to spend a lot of time (probably to my detriment as a runner, but there you have it).

    Hmm...I wasn't going to post about this, but maybe I will.

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    1. Argg. I can't believe you were there! See, I "know" lots of runners in Boulder.

      I didn't get into the childless thing nor the money issue - both of which, I believe, are crucial for ones freedom and ability to single-mindedly pursue running (and I see this in the climbing community to an even greater degree!)

      As far as the vegan thing, I've been a lazy vegetarian for 30 years. I don't spend much time on my diet and I made this choice for ethical reasons - but yes, one can go over board when the whole thing becomes a focus - I don't see the whole "simple food" movement as very simple.

      In my book Scott wrote "Do Things, Always". I do. I do a lot!

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  2. Wow! Another great post about much more than running. I've never been to Boulder, don't know who anyone you mentioned in your post is (except for Dean K. because I get ads for Road ID with his name/pic on it) but I've lived places that were heavily inundated with a particular "trend" or "mystique" about it. Ann Arbor is nearby -- known to be progressive -- yet when the Prez came last year they rounded up the homeless from their outdoor tent city under a bridge and forced them into the shelter. I visit there and perhaps it's my over sensitivity, but it seems to smell of entitlement. I've never been one for guru-izing anyone. (Okay, sorry, I'm editorializing.)

    While I love running and it does so much for me emotionally, spiritually and physically, I also have a marriage, children and grandchildren, a job and so much more. You're right, it's all about balance. Maybe even more, about the expectations we put on ourselves that come from outside of us. I tell my clients that "must-erbating" and "shoulding all over ourselves" rarely comes from who we really want to be, but more from what others want us to be. The 3 "running goals" I've set for myself by the end of 2012 are inter-related but they also positively effect all kinds of other areas of my life (relationship, family, job, community member). While I'm ambitiously pursuing them, I'm keeping them in the place they belong in my life.

    Thanks for letting me ramble. I hope I've not offended anyone. Your posts continue to make me think on a deeper level.

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  3. interesting perspective. I was at the show too and I guess drank the kool-aid. Or maybe I romanticize too much (or I'm delusional) but I totally felt like I was with "my people".

    I'm a new runner (8 months now!) and I'm old (50 years old) and I am by no means fast. But I felt like I was with "my people" that night. Yes - I (a middle-aged hispanic female) considered the white dudes "my people". Everyone seems happy for me that I recently found running (even Scott seemed genuinely pleased for me). I felt his smile in the picture I got was real and from the heart. Oh and my friend Naajreh(he's Indian) was behind me in line - so between the 2 of us we skewed the all white demographic. ;)

    Yeah - those guys are WAY better and faster than i can ever dream of being in my lifetime and I don't think that the message is to "be something" you had to be like them.

    For me to "be something" means live with passion and be a good/decent person. That was the message I got. I know from reading your blog -you live with passion. Passion for running and passion for your family.

    I do think that these guys do inspire the ordinary people. I guarantee that book didn't make #7 on the best selling list by being bought by just runners. "Born to Run" inspired people to started running and not just Boulderites and hopefully Scott's book will inspire some to start running.

    Thanks for posting this - as always you always give me something to think about!!!

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    1. I agree with you on many points, and as I said, I find these stories inspiring and motivating. I always feel I'm with my people when I'm around runners (see my post two days ago :) But I also feel that we need to be honest and understand that what we do, many many people consider crazy - and you are part of that now. Scott's book may be bought by non-runners but will that actually get them moving, running? As a vegetarian for ethical reasons (been so for 30 years) I'd love to believe that everyone who reads the book will stop eating meat. But I'm skeptical. All these amazing stories, all these reasonable points made, and yet America gets fatter and fatter. We ALL have the job of passing on OUR stories because those may motivate those who know us even more than the stories of Scott and Dean. Maybe.

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  4. Caolan...you nailed it. The Scotts and Deans don't live in my world, I don't live in theirs. Their stories are inspiring and motivating, to be sure. But it's the ordinary people that get me off my butt -- that help me set goals for myself with running/physical health and other important areas in my life -- the yous, the Terzahs, the brgs and anyone else that shows up here.

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    2. And YOU inspire those around you too! Aristotle argues that we learn by example, and the examples we are afforded are very important, but also subject to luck. If we are surrounded by virtuous people (and I'm not claiming to be virtuous here;), we are lucky. But we must also recognize that each of us is a model for action. Go forth and set a good example - that's what changes the world. Scott and Dean do that. We should an do do it too!

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  5. I really enjoyed reading your post, and find myself wondering why on earth I have neglected your blog for so long.

    My first pair of running shoes- nikes in the green and gold were bought for me in Boulder. I was about 5. So it's got a really long history of running elitism.

    I live in a community of Tri-athletes and Olympians. Yes, I work out at the same gym as David Oliver, Tyson Gay, Nina Kraft, to name a few. I see them I chat with them, we talk about the weather, family, how bad foam rolling can hurt, and our mutual love/hate relationship with various massage people and Phys therapists.

    Right behind them are a bunch of very near Pro-level athletes. I hear conversations in the gym daily about how they are balancing their kids and careers (usually not that well) to go after a goal of several seconds off. How that several seconds off is going to benefit their kids, or families or anything...I never hear. I just hear how their diet is completely changed, they have to bring their 5 yr old to sit on the pool deck at 5 am to see them practice etc...many have changed jobs to a lower salary/lower fufillment job to "dedicate more time to training". But yet, they don't progress and they seem to feel shame, saying, "If I could just focus more..."

    I'm in the group "behind them" In that I have a VERY fufilling (and time consuming career), and I run mostly because I enjoy it. I have running goals, that I take very seriously, but I don't take myself seriously because I have realized that a Personal Best will be personally satisfying for me, but not earth shattering. it will not contribute to world peace, nor will it find a cure for cancer, so in chasing after it completely, I will miss opportunities to actually create change. (Opportunities that I thankfully have through my job and volunteer life). Don't get me wrong, I want those PR's. I want them! But my goodness, not enough to ignore things where I am truly talented.

    Frankly, speaking, I find these Near Pro-Level people much more intimidating and less fun than the Olympians. I think the Olympians have come to realize that they are actually different from others, through genetics or whatnot, they are different. I was amazed this year when I started to run again after surgery that I had HUGE support from them. So many of them expressed total excitement and joy that I, a middle aged nurse, was going to be able to participate in running again. What did I get from the Near Pros? Oh, snarky comments about how much weight I may or may not have put on, and speculations that I may never again run "fast". So who do I find more inspiring? Hmmmm.

    I think we all need to work on keeping our sports- and everything else in perspective....

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    1. What! You've been neglecting my blog!! :(
      Your comments reflect a lot of what I see out there too. I am in the same place as you in terms of my personal goals - which are important to me alone. Of course one of my desires is to get people running because I do truly believe that exercising the body and the mind is essential for vibrant culture. I believe that people can't think very clearly about important things these days and ONE of the reasons is that they don't move. We're turning into blobs. We no longer value autonomy. But on the other side there's the narcissistic and solipsistic tendency to deceive ourselves with the belief that running a PR will actually be important to the world in a grander sense. Even if someone runs a sub 2 hr marathon, world hunger, war, disease will continue - Oh, I do go on...Thanks for reading!!

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