I(dan)tity Crisis

On running blogs and why I read what I read.

The act of writing, while simple and ecumenical, can be incredibly complicated.  If the task of properly conveying emotions and events isn’t difficult enough, we have to find our unique voice through trial and error, an often circular act that usually feels like playing darts with a chalkboard.  The internet only complicates things.  Bloggers by definition jot down very intimate thoughts with the explicit intent of someone else, sometimes many people, reading them.  So much can change when you write assuming an audience.  Some writers keep their most private thoughts at arm’s length from their digital audience, exaggerate their personalities to suit an overall narrative, or casually prevaricate about key story details to do the same.

The other day I was reading one of Jen’s posts, in which she discovered a forum that discussed running blogs and what turn readers away.  More to the point, it was a forum found on a website bluntly called Get Off My Internets.  I’m not one to get caught up in popularity contests, but reading about what inspires “the internet” to click away caught my attention.  Inevitably, it got me thinking about my own corner of webspace and how it fits in the barnyard of collective taste.

There is certainly no shortage of running blogs out there, which is great.  If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have any insightful sources of local races and I’d have met fewer amazing people in my travels.  But with so many runners writing about the sport, what makes me stand out?  It was a potentially dangerous question, one that could lead to an identity crisis, or worse, writer’s block.  But it was still worth examining, and the first place to start would be to ask myself, what do I look for in a running blog?

The first, and quite possibly most important element, is personality.  Despite being a runner and reading exclusively running blogs, when I read a race story, I’m not that interested in splits or time goals.  I understand in many instances, that’s the main focus of a recap.  After all, it’s a fitting and simple way to structure a richer, more complex story.  A lot of us wouldn’t race this often if we weren’t at least partially consumed by PRs and 5k splits, so avoiding these numbers would be near impossible.  But personality is what can tether all the data into a fitting portrait of a person.  If by the end of one post I feel like I’ve learned something about the writer outside of their finishing time, then we’ve achieved a little symbiosis.

Personality is, I will admit, a very vague term, but it can come out in a multitude of ways.  Some bloggers are insatiably enthusiastic about life, others like to add a snarky edge to their already off-color commentary, and a select few infuse a transcendental spirituality to what is otherwise a purely physical activity.  On a smaller scale, an injection of personality can come in the form of a detailed memory, a funny locution or a telling description.  Reading that you crossed the finish line is interesting, but connecting the experience to an earlier struggle or your favorite childhood book makes the feat compelling.

But a winning personality alone won’t do it for me.  After all, these are running blogs, and my attention tends to gravitate toward interesting racing stories.  Although I read a good amount of blogs, I’m very choosy both in my own writing and on which posts I read.  Put simply, I like reading about races.  From the snarling celerity of a 5k to the slow burn anguish of the marathon and beyond, every distance has its own unique story and my interest in reading anything else stems from that root.  I’ll shamefully admit that I tend to skip over multi-part stories and get straight to the starting line because that’s really what interests me.  I will gladly read about your sightseeing tour of a new city if you can manage to keep it within the frame of a footrace.  Yes, I realize that bloggers are more than just runners and that the infinitely colorful mosaic of their lives can’t always be enjoyed by covering a pre-set distance.  But so much can be told and learned through this narrow lens.

So that still leaves me with the original question: where do I stand among the droves of runners who write?  I’ve always been very particular with my output, be it posts, songs or even tweets.  Although many bloggers are much more prolific and post high-quality missives on a weekly or even semi-daily basis, I like to post infrequently.  I think part of me fears that I’ll bore people if they get too much of me.  Or I compare it to a magazine subscription: I’m much more likely to read an issue from cover to cover if I only receive one a month than if they stack up every week.  My hope is that when I do post, it doesn’t get lost in people’s feeds because it’s not a daily occurrence.

As for content, I’d like to think that I’m someone who is careful and precise about his writing.  Running, though primordial and primitive, has the remarkable capacity for so many variations of nuanced expression, and I want to be one writer of many who seizes the opportunity to tell a familiar story in a creative way.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn I majored in English, so perhaps I feel encouraged (or even pressured) toward using language beyond the usual, reliable methods and descriptions.  Some might call my writing over-thesaurus’d, which sounds like a terrific dinosaur name, and I wouldn’t blame them.

But I think there’s something special about describing a course as having “honeyed, autumnal hues” than “nice fall colors.”  Not everyone does it, so that can be my thing.  It won’t generate millions of hits or make me an internet star, but at least I enjoy it and can think of a few readers who get a kick out of it.  And if I can use a GRE word or two in the process, then that’s just a small bonus.  Or a myrmicine perquisite.

I’ll excuse myself.

What do you look for in a running blog?  Are there certain hallmarks shared by most blogs in your news feeds?  Is there one thing that can get you to completely X out of a post?  How badly did you roll your eyes at that last full paragraph?

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

24 Responses to I(dan)tity Crisis

  1. Dan,
    I do dread, sometimes, clicking in to read a 2K word race recap. I do go through and delete a lot of email notificatinos of blog posts just from reading the first snippets.
    A well written, short post is best. I try to keep that in mind while writing and often go back and edit for brevity. I also write with a dictionary on my desk and google words at times.
    I enjoy playing with the language, and sometimes a word comes to mind and I’m not certain of it’s meaning. It’s easy enough for me to look like an idiot without adding is impropper word usage!
    I guess I look for short, fun, interesting, emotionally engaging content.

    • Dan says:

      Well, I’m definitely guilty of breaching the 2,000+ word mark for a race recap. There are times when I actively tell myself to be succinct, but that never happens. It’s not for lack of trying … but if brevity be the soul of wit, then I must be a soul-less meat blanket. Thanks for the honest breakdown – I know not everyone will sign on to a 3,000+ dissertation on a local half marathon, and I understand why. I feel like an author has to earn my attention before I’m going to delve into such a voluble post.

  2. Jen says:

    Well, you already know how I feel about this topic, but I’m glad to read more about your thoughts. I’m also a big fan of race recaps… I could honestly read recaps for hours, as long as they’re relatively well-written and have unique perspectives/insights.

    p.s. Hate to be a stickler, but my name only has one “n”! 😉

    • Dan says:

      Not at ALL stickling — it’s your NAME. I corrected the error immediately — my most profound apologies. Anyway, since I’m such a fan of race recaps, I tend to get a little antsy when I go 2 months or so without an actual race to write about. I feel like I lose my spot on the internet if I don’t keep a steady (albeit occasional) flow of writing. But I suppose that’s my lot. Thanks for continuing the conversation!

  3. MedalSlut says:

    You may (or may not) be thrilled to know that when your posts pop up in my feed, I make an effort to earmark them for a read – though it’s partly to allow myself the time to give what you’ve written the attention it deserves (and the time, because you obviously do not have a fetish for summarizing). You are a bit, for lack of a thesauris’d-word, ‘flowery’ with your words, but I mean that in the best way. You have a unique ability to pull it off without coming over too try-hard or, more impressively, pretentious. I don’t have the patience (or inclination) to cover my running exploits in your style, but I love reading it.

    By the way, I feel like I’ve just written a school report.

    To answer your questions: I also need to find someone who writes with a ‘voice’, and I appreciate humour. Though I am guilty of rushing a post every once in a while, I often go back over things I’ve written (like I might read back through an old diary), and if I spot a mistake, I correct it. If a blog is riddled with typos, or unclear, I’m usually put off. I also like it if the person I’m reading about has balls and/or a positive outlook on life (even if they moan about stuff sometimes).

    P.S. The last paragraph was OTT. I am also about to leave my flat for an hour, and I’m paranoid that this comment is full of mistakes, but let’s live dangerously!

    • Dan says:

      I’ll definitely take “flowery” over “turgid” or “overblown.” People like flowers — they smell nice, brighten up a room and augur the coming of spring. Fine by me. Though I DID have to look up “OTT” because this old man isn’t always in sync with the kids and their 3D movies and pogo-sticks.

      I agree with writers needing a unique voice in order to captivate me. It’s weird to say, but despite having never met 90% of the bloggers I read, including you, I feel like I’ve been able to hear them when they talk about a run, why they enjoyed it, where they’re coming from and how it fits in their overall plan. This is partly what makes meeting the person such a potentially disorienting moment. Always fun, but discombobulating as well.

      Thanks for the thoughts. Hope the ultra regimen continues to go well!

  4. I get to know people and follow the blogs of the people I like or have something in common with. I follow one who has a short post almost every day and then there’s yours that is less frequent and longer, but I enjoy it the same. I like the bloggers who share things, the real things, about themselves. Not everyone is perfect, runs the perfect race all the time, or feels great all the time and sometimes it’s nice to know I’m not the only one!! The thing that turns me off is negativity. I was actually just working on a post about that. Negative begets negative and I do not have time for that and I will not read about it.

    • Dan says:

      I agree with the negative thoughts, though for me it’s all about pervasive negativity. I have no problem with a blogger writing one post about how everything sucks, but if that post is one of a neverending series of woebegone musings, then yeah, I’ll start signing off. Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  5. tootallfritz says:

    For me it’s ABOUT the story, not the finish time. A friend and I always joked that we do what we do to have a good story, not just to cross something off “the” list. It’s all about the story. In 30 years when we are sitting around with our grandkids, the finish time won’t mean much to the little ones but the words and the description of how it all went down is really what they will want to know. Or at least that’s what I’d like to believe. I’ll take a good story over a good finish time any day, if I have to choose. 🙂

    So I read blogs that tell me a story. Facts are good but flow is imperative. Draw me in. Make me laugh. Tell me YOUR story.

    • Dan says:

      It’s funny that you mention talking about this with grandkids, because the biggest reason that I began this blog is to be able to remember each race experience in my twilight years without resorting to an increasingly unreliable memory. And I agree that when that time comes, I’ll be more interested in the places, people and lessons than the hours:minutes:seconds of each feat. Thanks as always for your thoughts.

  6. Angela says:

    You know, I have to say, though I’ll often *start* reading a blog because of its running content, I’ve often found that a good writer with an interesting personality can keep me reading happily even when they write about other things. Some have even transitioned away from running altogether & I still read.

    What keeps me coming back: Interesting, informative, reasonably good grammar, strong writing, funny, posts at least a few times a month. (I need at least five out of six, I think.)

    What drives me away: Too many sponsored posts/giveaways, poor writing, every post being a play-by-play of the day’s run, too much negativity/complaining (particularly about other bloggers), too many stock photos, too earnest/inspirational, too much focus on weight/dieting, talking about “eating clean” ever. (I think that’s most of it, anyway…..)

    • Dan says:

      If a person is interesting, eloquent or simply zany enough, I will definitely read past their running ventures. But I probably started reading their stuff in the first place because of their compelling running adventures or unique storytelling style. I agree, it’s not ALL about races, but that is almost completely contingent on whether they can pen a good tale.

      I’ve been lucky to not follow anyone who actively and publicly complains about other bloggers. That would be counterproductive to the sport, I think. We’re already considered crazy by our non-running peers, so why bicker amongst each other?

  7. Mike says:

    As usual, there’s a lot to say here. I follow very few running blogs because while there are many strong runners who write, there are many fewer strong writers who run. Like you, I prefer entertaining race recaps… I couldn’t care less about someone’s workout regimen unless they can spin a story out of it. And I avoid blogs that post more than once a week because I’ve yet to find one that can hold my interest on such a regular basis. If you’re a journalist on the ground in Crimea then great, post your brains out… but chances are your running life isn’t compelling enough to merit more than one post per week. More frequent posting tends to degenerate into negativity or look-at-me ramblings or self-help tips, which I’ll quickly delete after sentence one.

    I seem to be one of the few bloggers who eschews brevity in a blog post, both reading and writing. I appreciate every person who reads my blog, but I don’t write for them… I write to amuse myself and because I enjoy the process. It’s a selfish act that’s open to the public. Making no claims to my own aptitude as a writer, I like to let my posts (and clearly my comments) breathe, and I appreciate when others do the same. I’m not looking for the latest running news (no bags at Boston this year!) or product reviews/endorsements; I have no shortage of those in my news feed. What’s harder to do – but to me more worth the effort – is to choose a topic, inci(dan)t, experience etc. and tell a story – weave your running into a larger quilt that I can happily wrap myself in. Have a distinct voice. And feel free to make me laugh, early and often.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne was right: easy reading is damn hard writing. Good writing takes patience, and if you don’t have the patience to spend writing your post, how can you expect me to spend the time reading it? If you hammer out the entire thing on your iPhone while standing in line at Starbucks, we’ll all know. And clogging your post with sushi-stuffing selfies and random internet memes won’t make it more readable.

    Maybe I have high expectations, but I don’t think I’m unreasonable and I don’t expect Shakespeare – a little effort goes a long way. You hit it on the head – “honeyed, autumnal hues” is so much more compelling than “OMG, leaves!” or, worse, something forced and hackneyed. Having a WordPress account doesn’t make you a writer.

    So by all means, do keep producing your “over-thesaurus’d” posts for an appreciative audience. Skillful blogging after all is a pons asinorum, and your writing an anodyne for my RSS-induced headaches. Keep it up!

    (Oh, and nice job linking to your composition list… I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure.)

    • Dan says:

      I mentioned it in a comment above, but I largely started writing race recaps because I want to have a record of every long-distance race to enjoy later in life as I approach the inevitable dotage that awaits most of us. Once a wizened husk of a person, I want to be able to fondly remember these races, and not just in terms of how fast each one was and whether that opening mile was faster than the last one. So, like you, it is a selfish act at its core … and if others are willing to read and chime in, that’s a fun extra.

      But that doesn’t mean I’m not often conflicted about it. I’ll write something and then delete it, thinking “Nah, that won’t reach a lot of people.” Or I’ll want to go into something deeply personal and reconsider, fearing that it would rub people the wrong way. I’m definitely not hits-driven, because then I’d have a lot of “Top 10 Things Runners Say” posts or sanitized, 100-word posts on the most recent development.

      I’m sort of in between the two. I like writing my way, with my own style and voice, but I’d also like to be accessible to a wide variety of people because I enjoy developing these relationships. I suppose that’s worth mentioning — while it’s not 100% guaranteed, I will often stray from a blog if they don’t value my input. Maybe that’s narcissistic, but I like to be involved.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Mike.

  8. Haha! No eye roll from me, just a hearty chuckle. For me, what I look for in a running blog is a sort of uniqueness that keeps me coming back — something different from all the rest. I love your wide vocabulary and that’s one of the reasons I keep coming back. I also look for story/narrative, as you described. The thing that will force me to click away though faster than anything is poor grammar/spelling (something you don’t ever have to worry about). I’m sort of an English snob and if someone doesn’t take the time to use proper spelling/grammar then I feel like I don’t need to take the time to read it. If the writer doesn’t care about his/her work, then why should I?

    • Dan says:

      I agree with you on all counts. I feel like part of the allure of blogging is that it lets you unload completely unfiltered thoughts onto the page, which might imbue the post with some sort of pure honesty. No premeditation, no editing, just raw brain data. But there’s a way to do that without resorting to complete free-form disorder. And I think you nail that perfect balance of stream-of-consciousness instant feedback with a sense of structure and purpose. Thanks for your two cents Jeff. Hope Armadillo Dash was fun and that Boston training continues to go well.

  9. Laura says:

    I look for puns & proposals for dinosaur names. So, you nailed it. But, actually, I love that I usually giggle at some point while reading your posts– which shows not only that you’re clever but that you really think about who’s reading and try to connect with them. I’ve always been impressed with how you use running to build or maintain your connections with people, and the fact that the blog does the same makes it more compelling.

    • Dan says:

      I do write with an audience in mind, which can be challenging. Not everyone reacts the same way to the same perspective, so I do find myself alternating between voices (which sounds insane). Maybe that’s why I’ll draw a giggle from you on occasion — it’s my “Laura Voice” vs my “Everyone Else Voice.”

      Pumped for some east coast adventures!

  10. glenn says:

    I often search for recaps of races I’ve run or am about to run. I consider it reconnaissance. Just another way to figure out what other runners thought or what I’m about to go through. And this sounds a bit, um, haughty, but bloggers have to “earn” their way into my feed. I rarely add someone after a first read. I’ll bookmark the site and revisit it to see if the quality stays consistent. Yikes, I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a dick.

    On a sidenote, Dan from la Mancha, your blog is the very first one I ever added to my feed.

    • Dan says:

      If it makes you sound like a dick, then we’re in the same club. I said almost the exact same thing to imarunner2012’s comment above. I’ll gladly read a long post or something not related to running if an author has already earned my attention with several well-written posts about the sport. At that point, I’m more interested in the person talking than the races themselves. So no, Glenn the Line of Fire, it’s not supercilious of you to say that. It’s just the way these things work. And I’m honored to have been that first addition — makes me really glad I signed up for the Derby 1/2 that year!

  11. Amy says:

    #1 Reason Why I Like Dan’s Blog: I took a creative writing class as a freshman in college with a professor who is a (apparently successful) published author of the “young adult” genre. One time I got my short story back, and I had been docked points for each word that she thought was impractical for everyday usage. So, when I read your posts and I come across a particularly “over-thesaurus’d,” word, I feel slightly more justified with my life and my B+ grade. Take that, Rosemary.

    But really, I appreciate that even though you don’t post frequently, you are very much “around” and I consider your recaps to be full valuable information, especially because you are in a similar-ish time bracket (I need to step up my game so it stays this way), and I get to learn about obscure races in obscure parts of the country.

    • Dan says:

      Well that was nice to read. Thanks! Though I’m definitely guilty of misusing words on occasion, so I’m sure your college professor might still take issue with me. But there’s an important distinction to be made here: the idea that words used in a story are inappropriate for everyday usage is silliness. Who speaks in conversation the way they would write a story? Very few of us, and those who do probably don’t get invited to parties with the cool kids.

      Seriously, I would have taken issue with that, though perhaps she can get away with it because the assignment was meant to fit in the YA genre, which isn’t famously verbose. Alas. Thanks for the comment though 🙂

  12. Laszlo says:

    In case anyone if looking for a perfect example how to overwhelm a race recap with “splits or time goals”, then look no further, I am right here. 🙂 I share those details with a reason: I try to describe and share with others the transformation I go through mid-race. In many cases that transition is probably does not make a fascinating story, but might be a helpful insight to someone who has not run more than 10 miles previously, but looking for tackling such challenge at some point in the future.

    There is not much I would not enjoy reading in any running related blog, but I really enjoy reading race recaps where the ups and downs are detailed for several reasons:
    1. To learn from other fellow runners’ experience dealing with the mid-race physical and mental ups and downs.
    2. If I plan to run a specific race, I would be interested in specific running experience on that same course, so a detailed race recap is what I see a very helpful ingredient in the race preparation.

    When I was kid and still living in Hungary, there was a very popular Hungarian cartoon where a fat bird (called “Gombóc Artúr”) was eating chocolate all the time. And when he was asked which kind of chocolate he likes to most, he always answered that he likes the square-shaped, the round-shaped, the milk chocolate, the dark chocolate, the one with nuts, etc.

    I my case, I like reading the following kind of running blog posts:
    short ones right to the point; long ones with colorful commentary; the ones without any photos; the ones with photos; the ones with detailed split analysis; etc…. 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Ha! Glad to see you enjoy the kitchen sink approach to running blogs. At least I know I’ll have a hard time disappointing you! I can’t consider myself the Gombóc Artúr of running because I’m very specific with what I write and read, but at least I can fulfill some of your interests. Thanks for your thoughts, Laszlo.

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