Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Private Battle, Publicly Fought: Our Obsession with Competitive Running

The start of Halifax's 9th annual Bluenose Marathon, last Sunday

Last Sunday was the 9th annual Bluenose Marathon in Halifax. At 8am, I laced up my sneakers and got ready to run the 10K. Leading up to the race, when anyone inquired as to the distance I was running, I found myself apologetically admitting that I was only doing the 10K. The 10K was in fact the most popular of the 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon, with almost 2800 participants. As I crossed the finish line with a sense of pride at completing my lowly 10K, I began to wonder what (besides a sense of pride) compels our society to embrace running as we do.

For many of us, running is a chance to run away, to escape. Of course, everyone escapes different things in different ways. Over ten years ago, Running Times published an article entitled “The Marathon Mystique.” Their claim was, particularly in the age of convenience and shortcuts, we run marathons for the sheer challenge – to escape the banality of everyday life with a rigorous training schedule and finite goal. In a recent Globe and Mail article, Katrina Onstad writes convincingly that she runs to be alone – to escape the world and all the noise that comes with it. But for every runner in training mode, there’s a casual jogger. For every solo sprinter, there’s a running community.

Community is certainly at the center of any race day; the runners themselves form only one part with the spectators, volunteers and officials who come together to make race day special. Observing all those people rallying as you run by panting will turn even the most stoic runner giddy. I almost cried when I ran by a father and his daughters with signs that read “go, complete stranger, go” (father), “run like you stole something” (teenage girl) and “free piggy-back rides” (youngest girl, who looked as if she could barely carry a pillow). You don’t often see strangers cheering on ordinary strangers just for the hell of it. Competitive running reminds us of our humanity.

Mari-Beth crossing the finish line
From walking the 5K to running the full marathon, there is a race for everyone. Amongst the final finishers of the Bluenose 5K were those with disabilities, those who had every excuse not to participate. Inspiring seems too trite a word. Of course, those who complete the full marathon are inspiring in their own right. The marathon distance connects us with history – with all those who ran the epic distance before us and with the Greek myth that gives name to the legendary race.

There’s confusion around the details of Pheidippides’s momentous run that inspired Olympic Games founders to create the marathon distance. Depending on the source you use, you’ll get a different version of Pheidippides’s 42.2 km journey over the Plains of Marathon. Was he announcing victory or seeking help? And why did the Greeks send a runner, not a horseman? The only commonality is that Pheidippides dies at the end of his journey (a finale I’m sure today’s marathoners can attest to, figuratively if not literally).

Likewise, there is no clear answer to why we run, especially competitively. It seems like a healthy activity, but with so many runners complaining of knee braces, ankle sprains and strained hamstrings, one wonders if perhaps walking is a more “natural” form of exercise. Running is a very solo sport, but the community of race day is anything but. Distance running is no doubt a challenge, but broken down to the essentials running is really quite simple: you put one foot in front of the other and repeat. And then there’s the paradox of competition itself. Although we are competing against each other, our shared sense of humanity as we push past the finish line creates compassion in the competition.

 Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment