The state of running

I started the running-research journey as a naive undergrad, exploring how running afforded runners a deeper connection to the natural environment they often ran in, through and on. I loved it, and results were positive and exciting. Research highlighted some of the ways in which running connected bodies to environment, owing to its multi-sensory and immersive character.

Before going ahead with this research, I had read running free by Richard Askwith. A thought-provoking book that surfaced an academic curiosity with running. Askwith detailed his own personal journey with running and how a return to a ‘purity’ of activity, through barefoot, technology-less runs reignited a passion for the sport. He had turned to what he termed ‘free running’ ? after growing frustrated with the failure of shoes, watches, online platforms and coaching technology in helping him improve, and stay injury free.

During this journey Askwith uncovered a growing trend within the running world: its commercialisation and neoliberalisation. I returned to this dimension in my Masters research, attempting to expand, explore and critique this idea. The Masters research used ultra-marathons as a lens through which to explore the relationship between economy, western society and (natural) environments. Research used the Cape Wrath Ultra-marathon (CWU) as a case study from which runners’ motivations and expectations, as well as event legacies and experiences, were contextualised amidst a growing commercialisation of running and commodification of nature-based experiences. The CWU is an 8-day expedition race that starts in Fort William and takes participants to the most north-westerly point of Scotland, finishing at Cape Wrath. The route covers over 450km. It attracts participants from Australasia, North America, South Africa and across Europe, as well as the UK. It costs around £1800 to enter. This year’s race sold out in 3 minutes.

I understood the event as a form of global adventure-tourism. Theoretically, tourist events are facilitated through the commodification of ethnic and environmental difference, as tourists are invited to safely consume organised encounters with an environmental and/or cultural other. Such consumptive practices commodify place and direct tourists’ actions towards phenomena with hedonistic or transformative potential. The CWU can be understood as a branch of adventure tourism that relies on a narrative deeply woven into society and the psyche of modernity that, through ideology and the glorification of an adventurous mentality, has seen it become a popularised form of adventure tourism. Carefully marketed images of fit bodies and aesthetic landscapes bestow identity labels and signify cultural capital and social status. Ultra-marathons offer a new form of adventure travel that ties together fitness, adventure and health.

Running, as a popular mass hobby, emerged in the 1960’s in the USA, primarily because of government concerns with widespread sedentarism amongst the ever-expanding urban middle class and a concern for the declining health of the working population, especially surrounding heart attacks and obesity levels. Both ‘health conditions’ are now seen as ‘treatable’ by buying some trainers and going running. Higher living standards, urbanism, and the rise of white-collar employment led to a sustained rise in heart disease cases across America in the 1950s/60s. These changes were exacerbated by the reducing physical effort required in most jobs and the increasingly indoor nature of working life. Running offered a cheap and simple ‘fix’ to public health issues and over the next 50 years running as leisure activity, and health policy, would rise dramatically. Large road-running events, such as marathons emerged from the jogging boom, attracting thousands of participants, springing up all over America and subsequently western Europe. Crucially, the practice of running allowed government individualise responsibility for health. The marked rise in runners paralleled the implementation of neoliberal economic policy throughout the 1970’s. Running subsequently became commodified through expensive shoe technologies; fitness watches; technical training programmes; specialist clothing and more recently fitness tracking apps; websites; and increasingly expensive race events.

Since the early 2000’s ultra-marathons have overtaken the marathon as the primary event of running. The majority of ‘ultras’ take place off-road on trails, with many recreational athletes fed up with ‘pounding the pavement’ and seeking new, more multi-sensory experiences. The ‘post-marathon age’ represents a desire to ‘look for more’ as road races feel unfulfilling in comparison to ultra-marathons, which offer a uniquely enjoyable but arduous challenge.

German ultrarunning website DUV has plotted a 1000% increase, globally, in the number of ultra-marathon races now on offer. In the UK, the sport has fed a strong desire to reconnect to, and encounter, natural environments. At the turn of the millennia there were only 595 ultra-marathon finishers in the UK. By 2017, this number had grown to 18,611. Ultra-marathons are an increasingly popular, celebrated and intensely mediated form of cultural tourism that emerge from a new experiential economy presenting experiential consumerism as a form of self-help, and physical exercise as an aspirational device. An industry of self-improvement, communicated by speakers, books, podcasts, and expensive self-help technologies (e.g., fitness watches, exercise apps, training plans, GPS trackers) all converge in products or experiences for self-improvement. Running has become a material and discursive extension of the neoliberal presumption that biological improvement can be acquired through self-optimisation, via the marketplace.

Healthiness has become a desired and prescribed state, one which is more an ideological position than a biological condition. Health is used as a lens through which a variety of other values – discipline, civic responsibility, family and stability – are articulated. Globalised markets have arisen out of this health discourse as fitness technologies and consumer goods become inculcated into the culture of long-distance running and self-help. However health is mobilised, it is assumed to be an unambiguous and universal good, and is especially appealing to corporations, who see economic value in employing healthy productive bodies. Running has become a medium through which businesses and corporations can increase profit through having productive, self-governing and resilient bodies in the workforce.

Developing from the commodification of movement, research configured bodies as becoming increasingly tied to corporate ideals and projects of self-transformation. Such projects are actualised through testing the body’s limits and encountering topographic otherness. Understandings of the ultra-marathon as the ultimate endurance race for those aspiring for an ideal neoliberal body, that which is healthy, civically minded, autonomous and resilient, evidence the changing culture of distance running.

I love running and it is a sport/activity that has given me a lot throughout my life. It was out of this appreciation that a curious concern grew… there is, undeniably, an issue with the current state of running. It sadly has succumbed to globalised, neoliberal capitalism. The fact that there are so many now exercising and running in a variety of stimulating environments is undoubtedly a positive. However, running races are becoming increasingly expensive and the expansion of technology and apparel is excluding a lot of people. Running is marketed as expensive, complicated and requiring of significant investment. If we are to keep or return running to its core principle of accessibility, we must decouple this simple form of movement, an act of placing one foot in front of the other, from individualised pursuits of status and health. We should support the local, the small, the un-commercialised, the parkruns, the act, the freedom and above all else the simplicity. *Any* pair of trainers will do and some shorts (maybe not just now!) and a t-shirt (optional sports-bra) is all you need. Honestly. Running can be one of the most inclusive leisure pursuits, lets keep growing the participation and route finding, not the capitol-value, of going for a run.

(if you would like to read the full 15,000 words, do let me know!)

4 thoughts on “The state of running”

  1. Thanks for sharing, you uncover a stealth topic that many will not have seen becoming established – the capitalism of health- which is less obvious in this ‘simple’ sport than say in cycling or golf.

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  2. This is an excellent article that has arisen from your research. That is incredible the rise of the ultra marathon. I started running late (at 55). My 1st 2 years it was pounding the pavement for marathons, but have completely switched to trail running and ultras. 😀

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  3. I am a graduate student of the history, sociology and anthropology department of sports and I am thinking of doing research on the concept of pain and pleasure experienced by long distance runners in the light of neoliberalism. I’m interested in being able to read your complete 15000 word work. Thank you in advance

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