Rules for Racing

There’s a pretty unique blog out there put together by a few renegade running ladies called the Bad Angels.  The authors regularly contribute to the site with their own thoughts on running, training and racing, accumulated through years of hitting the pavement.  This wisdom is packaged in neat little “rules,” which range from conventional advice (rule #91 – Drink Water) to personal quirks for newcomers (rookie rule #11 – Get Inked).

In addition to these guidelines, they also provide race recaps, tons of running song recommendations and the occasional op-ed on the goings-on of the running community.

It’s a funny blog because running is seen as a simple concept.  You put one foot in front of the other, then you go fast enough to be airborne and that’s it.  You’re running.  You’re falling forward but catching yourself.  Simple enough, right?

That is, until you go hard.  It’s not until you dip your toe into the local racing community, until you sign up for a long-distance race and become completely inundated by everyone’s opinions on shoes, gear, race fees, efficient gaits, the legitimacy of Dean Karnazes and whether giving medals at 5ks diminishes the value of accomplishment that you realize how insane the sport is.  The point is, when you become a Runner with a capital R, things stop being so simple.  There are so many things to consider, which is why it’s helpful to have a blog that has 105 rules (and counting) for your reference.

Inspired by their structure, I decided to put together my own little list of “rules” but with my own personal twist.  Instead of producing a list of guidelines for becoming a successful runner, I wrote out my ten rules exclusively for racing.  While they aren’t applicable to everyone – in fact a few are admittedly superstitious – I think they can be helpful to any newcomers to the racing circuit.  But remember, these are just things I do.  If it helps, say “I, Dan Solera” before every rule to make it less of a command.  And so, here they are, in the order that they should be observed:

Dan Solera’s Rules for Racing

1. Don’t Look at This Year’s Medal

Many races these days are luring runners by email blasting their medal design before the event even happens.  While I have said on numerous occasions and make no attempts at hiding it, an awesome medal will get me to your race.  In my list of motivations, “zomg a medal with a duck on it” ranks much, much higher than “this would improve my overall health” and “finishing would bring great honor to my ancestors.”  But for some reason, I don’t want to see it before I actually earn it.

In other words, it’s totally okay – in fact, it’s necessary – to see medals from previous years so you get an idea of what to expect this time around.  However, if they post it on their website or email it to you or carry it in a golden sarcophagus to a mountain in the desert, don’t look at it, Indy!  You’ll enjoy it so much more when it’s a surprise at the finish line and all the Nazis are dead.

2. Show Up Stupidly Early

You don’t want to miss out on your corral start because you got in a 30-minute bathroom line 20 minutes before the race start; you don’t want to end up in the Z Corral because you ended up parking two miles away after everyone else took all the choice spots; and you certainly don’t want to spend the first two miles side-stepping charity walkers because you thought waking up at 4 AM wouldn’t be awesome sauce.  Trust me, show up early.

3. Line Up (Slightly) Slower Than Your Projected Pace

Every race is full of people who don’t obey the pace rules.  You line up next to the 7:30-pace sign and sure enough, there will be people running 9- or 10-minute miles next to you for the first mile.  There’s no panacea for this, it’s just an annoying reality that we have to face no matter how fast we run.  And let’s face it, lots of people running a 7:30 pace probably lined up with the 6-minute milers just because it feels badass to be near the start.  However, we can be part of the solution.  So what I recommend is picking a Corral or a pace sign just slightly slower than your goal pace, but when the gun goes off, run at your intended pace.  Better to be faster than the runners around you (and annoy the scrub n00bs you pass) than be slower (and annoy everyone else).

4. Sandbag Your Expectations

We all love to PR.  It feels great, it validates our efforts and we get to brag about it for a few days when people are dumb enough to ask.  However, unless you’re just starting out, you won’t PR every time.  In fact, the more you run, the less likely you’ll achieve a personal best as you become more of a Nordic god see your returns diminish.  While I consider myself an optimist, I put more stock in pragmatism than blind enthusiasm.  After all, your brain secretes more happy juice if you surpass your C-level times versus missing your A-level times, right?  I’m no brain surgeon, but I think I read that on the internet somewhere.

So when I line up to start, I sandbag my time goals.  Even if I’m feeling 100% with spring-loaded shoes and a hired thug with a nailbat ready to chase me, I’ll tell myself, “You know, I’d be happy if I finish in [SUPER FAST TIME minus several minutes].”  This doesn’t mean that I’ll run any less hard or put less effort into it.  I’ll still try my damndest to PR.  But if I don’t, it’s alright.  I’ll move on and sleep soundly that night with help from the Sandman.  And his bags.  Of sand.  I’m sure there was a better way to end this one.

5. Don’t Bring Energy Gels / Beans / Shots to Anything Less Than a 25K

Just don’t, you’ll embarrass yourself.

6. Duck to the Side of the Course if Walking During Aid Stations

To date, I have yet to finish anything longer than an 8k without walking at an aid station.  I’m not a big fan of pouring Gatorade down my shirt or into my nose, so I like to stop, walk, and make sure I do it right.  However, there are thousands of people behind me who might also want to do the same thing, which would turn the rushing parade of humanity into the foreigners-only line at LaGuardia (but without all the scared silence).  So to keep this from happening, I take my cup and keep running until the aid station ends.  At that point, I duck to the outside of the course, the “slow lane” if you will, and hydrate leisurely while Vivaldi plays in my head.

7. Don’t Run More Than Three Abreast

Unfortunately, that’s not a Total Recall reference.  Instead, it refers to the phenomenon that occurs when giant charity groups (you know who you are) decide to run four, five even twelve people across, making it awkward or impossible to pass them without sounding like a jackass.  Look, I get it, there’s a huge feeling of camaraderie involved in running with your charitable organization.  It’s not just you running, but your support network.  But not every race is the Chicago Marathon, where you have four lanes of space on either side.  Most races run on residential roads or bike paths and half-mooning around your altruistic posse isn’t easy.  So if I ever find myself running as part of a horizontal line of people, I either pull ahead or duck behind them to let other runners through.

8. Leave It All At the Finish

Whether it’s a 5k or a 50k, I will want to feel like death at the finish line.  Unfortunately, I very often reach this semi-mortem state earlier than that, but it serves to remind me that I am going as hard as I can.  Every now and then I’ll see people finish a race and then talk to their BFF without even panting.  Or they’ll have enough left to look bubbly and cute and bounce spritely through the finisher’s area because racing is supposed to be “fun” and “not make you a haggard mess.”

But not me.  I will look like a character from The Road at the end of every race.  If you were to plant a bug on me right before I cross the finish line, you’d hear what might sound like a caveman fist-fighting a buffalo.  If I ever ran for office, my opponent would handily defeat me with just one shot from MaratonFoto or brightroom and a sinister voiceover saying “Dan Solera looks like shit in this picture.  Do you want our country to look like shit too?  I’m Galactus and I approve this message.”

9. Don’t Celebrate Your Finish Unless It’s a PR

Remember, these rules aren’t for everyone.  Every race finish, no matter how fast or how long, is an achievement, an improvement over sitting  at home watching redneck hoarders auction off storage containers full of real housewives (or whatever the kids are watching these days).  I will never tell anyone to not openly celebrate a race finish, nor do I look down on anyone for being proud of finishing a race.  But my personal rule is that I don’t throw my arms over my head, air guitar “Sweet Child of Mine” or do the Dougie at the finish line unless I PR.  That’s just my rule.  All efforts shy of BEST EVAR earn a quiet, internal celebration.

10. Thank Every Volunteer

Volunteers are awesome.  They could have stayed home and made sweaters for their pugs but instead came out to hand paper cups to oily, snotty hands.  Or they’re out at intersections, holding their arms up to stop or direct traffic until their muscles atrophy.  Some are at the gear check tent, doing their best to find your bag, which looks exactly like the other 400 bags out there because the race organizers demand that you use their standard issue gear bags (which I will never understand).  Others are at food tents, watching as sweat-streaked runners touch three bagels before deciding what they really want is an orange and wondering why there aren’t any Purell stations on the course.  Or they’re at the finish line waiting for Galactus to get that picture of me he wanted before asking for his autograph watching people come close to voiding their bowels.

Collecting diseases may not be the most glamorous job, but they do it and they do it with a smile.  So I make sure to thank each one as I pass them.  Sure, towards the end of the race the usual “thanks for coming out” gets reduced to a heaving “TANKS” and maybe a weak thumbs-up (any more would trigger a 2008-recession-style run on my glycogen stores and at 6’4”, I’m too big to fail).  Put simply: thank volunteers because without them, race directors would have to hire people, races would cost ten times as much and the resulting hiring boom might get unemployment back down to 5% …

Bonus Rule: Wear Your Medal to Lunch, Maybe Dinner, but Then Please Stop

This one’s simple enough.

And so there you have it, my short set of rules for race etiquette.  By no means exhaustive, I think it covers most of the basic guidelines.  I’m sure if I sat down and really thought about it, I could make a longer list, but I’ve already stomped on the Bad Angels’ turf too much, so I’ll leave it at this.  For more rules, please visit the Rules for Running page and subscribe to them (especially if you’re from Chicago – they give the city lots of love).

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On Rosie and Rossi: Cheating in Modern Footraces

A brief examination of running’s most famous course-cutting allegations.

There is a popular aphorism in the running community that single-handedly describes our sport as intense, ridiculous, and simplistic: my sport is your sport’s punishment. Evoking memories of middle school P.E. when we’d realize to our shoulder-slumping chagrin that we’d be running the mile (or as we might call it today, a time trial), this saying reaches the core of what it means to be a runner.

We run, for long periods of time, through pain, for nothing more than to continue running.

It’s not something we do because we arrived late for practice or missed a shot. It’s not something that makes us groan or paint a bright morning into an otherwise somber gray. For many of us, it’s not the stick, but instead the carrot. We run because we enjoy it and its remarkable simplicity. Yes, it’s the foundation for most exercise regimens and a crucial component in many major sports. But lacing up and jostling our heart for a prolonged period of time can be its own reward, and as we stop our watches at the end of another quality workout, we can feel both refreshed and empowered. Those of us with an intense, perhaps unhealthy obsession with statistics will relish at how remarkably easy and satisfying it is to track and quantify our development in the sport, allowing the real, tangible results to speak for themselves.

These results are crucial for many runners. We want to see that we’re either improving or at least maintaining a good level of fitness. We can do this through emotion – from primal elation or the tricky process of measuring “feel” – or by measuring split times. However, the best way to do this, I believe, is through competition. And unlike almost every other sport out there, this is the arena where everyone comes together, from the top athletes in the world to the guy who lost a bet and everyone in between. The glorious stretch of road or trail that we all tread, writing with each step a new chapter in our lives, is a communal path, a shared experience.

So why would anyone want to tarnish the experience by cheating?

Unsurprisingly, there are many reasons, along with a handful of people who do it every year. At the professional level, elite athletes can gain unfair advantages from performance-enhancing substances or oxygenated blood. Organizations such as the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) do their best to crack down on these incidents and provide deterrents to their use. Athletes obviously have many incentives to use these banned substances, such as prize money, national pride and the thrill of winning. On occasion, giants fall, with the most examples in recent years being Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo and Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova. But there has been extensive reporting on this, and it is not what interests me.

I’m more intrigued by what motivates and ultimately causes the average person to cheat in the sport because it sounds so counterintuitive. Thanks to social media, the current running boom has made the sport a meaningful source of support and inspiration. It’s an activity that challenges you to race against thousands of like-minded people, but unless you’re a gifted athlete or a budding amateur, you are competing squarely against yourself. In a showdown against your own best efforts, what can you possibly gain by cheating?

When the average runner cheats, it’s rarely done through the use of performance-enhancing drugs or blood transfusions (and if it happens, the results may not arouse enough suspicion to ever make headlines). Instead, it is usually done by taking shortcuts on the course, or bypassing entire parts of it altogether by car or bike. The intent is obvious: to appear as though one has run the race without actually having to do so. Most of the time, runners are too busy focusing on their breathing and hydration, lost in a carousel of pump-up jams and motivational signs to notice if a nearby runner slips off or on the course. Since the camera crews and pacers are mostly focusing on the lead pack, there are few witnesses who can reliably demonstrate foul play in the thousands of runners behind.

The Unwitting Champion

The most notorious case of this transgression is Rosie Ruiz. Her infamous story, which quickly became a cautionary tale, is as relevant today as it was in 1980, when she accidentally won the Boston Marathon by sneaking into the course just ahead of the eventual winner, Canada’s Jacqueline Gareau. Ruiz not only crossed the finish line first in Boston by cheating, but it was later revealed that her qualifying race in New York City the year before was also a sham.

This incident has not only made her name synonymous with cheating, it has elevated her quite possibly to the ignominious honor of being the world’s most famous marathoner. Sure, a lot of us can name drop a handful of East African superstars and fluidly comment on Olympic hopefuls from many different nations. But the average person might only know Rosie because her story is so compelling, embarrassing and timeless. To date, the world has not received a confession or apology from Ruiz, who instead asserts as recently as 2000 that she ran the entire race. If “long-distance runners [see] themselves as purists of mind, body and soul” as Neil Amdur of the New York Times describes, what would motivate someone to not only brazenly cut the course, but lie about it to this day?

Some theorize that she cut the course in New York to impress her co-workers, who then went on to bankroll her Boston performance. Faced with having to repeat or improve on her false performance for her peers, she had no choice but to cut the course again. Social motivation, as we will discuss later, is indeed very influential. But though her story is fascinating, it is still shrouded in mystery. And of course, she is not alone.

After Rosie, Boston beefed up its checkpoint system, all but ensuring that a repeat performance like hers would be impossible, if not incredibly difficult. As we move closer to present day, we’ve seen races institute chips that record times as runners pass over various timing mats distributed throughout the course. Large races also feature photography stations, which are meant to provide runners with mementos of their hard-earned run, but also serve as photographic evidence that they did, in fact, run. Cutting the course today would mean orchestrating and executing a meticulous plan that involves starting the race on time, registering times at multiple checkpoints and posing for photographers, all while not actually running the full distance. Some have even suggested that because of the logistical plan involved, cheating a result at a major marathon might even be tougher than running the race itself.

And yet, it happens. With the advent of the internet and vigilante journalism, the running community has become a hive-mind of sleuths, investigating aberrations in race results nationwide. Such devout scrutiny has yielded numerous cheaters and more than one cult figure, none more famous than Michigan’s Kip Litton.

The Race and Runners That Never Existed

A dentist by trade, Litton sought to run a marathon in under three hours in every state, an incredibly ambitious and impressive goal by any stretch of the imagination. However, as chronicled in mesmerizing detail in a 2012 New Yorker feature, the enterprise eventually drew suspicion when Litton began placing very close to the podium without ever being seen on the course. He would start much later than the majority of the field, appear in different outfits across the same race, and cross the finish line in strange positions. Over time, the case against Litton became an obsession on the internet, with multiple amateur detectives collecting images, data points, and tidbits of anecdotal evidence to try and disprove or at least cast doubt on his finishing times. There was even one race, the West Wyoming Marathon, where he won the race outright. But thanks to the archival permanence of the internet, a few investigations began to pick away at what seemed like a house of cards.

The result has transformed Litton from another aspiring 50-states marathoner to a legend at best, the subject of a tireless blog at worst. Like Ruiz, Litton stands by his integrity to this day, offering explanations of questionable veracity to explain the bizarre circumstances that have made him the target of all these accusations. Whether you believe him or not depends on how easily you can swallow the conspiracy theorists out there who posit that he not only cheated in a large number of marathons, some of which, like the Boston Marathon, included photographers and timing checkpoints, but also fabricated the West Wyoming Marathon, its entire roster of participants, all while acting as its race director under a pseudonym.

It almost sounds like running a three-hour marathon would be easier.

What is certain is that Litton’s case is fascinating and ripe with peculiar details that beg investigation, none of which definitively prove any wrongdoing. But as tantalizing as it is to speculate about how Litton managed to avoid providing his critics a smoking gun, why he would be driven to cheat is just as intriguing. From the start, he chronicled his countrywide marathon exploits on worldrecordrun.com, a site that has since been re-appropriated to track Litton’s activities. The internet and social media have allowed runners to participate more deeply in the running community by sharing success stories, articles, tips and pictures of the running experience. With more participants every year, it may seem like running a marathon is no longer the singular life achievement that it used to be. Perhaps many of us, Litton included, want to reach that next level and have something to show for our added efforts. Worldrecordrun.com might have been just that – a public outlet for personal fulfillment and gratification. But when the grueling regimen required to run under three hours for the marathon in every state proved too much, a shortcut was needed.

The Burden of Performance

According to Jack J. Lesyk, PhD, the director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, “[people] who thrive on measurable achievements and the reactions of others – racking up titles, medals and accolades in the hopes of impressing friends and family – are more likely to cheat.” In this case, it could have been that Litton’s desire for praise and recognition was strong enough to override the “purity of mind” that is often associated with long distance running. He might have felt beholden to his public goal, enough to break the rules. Almost by definition, cheating discards matters of morality – if you’re going to cheat, you probably don’t care too much about right or wrong.

Dr. Maria Kavussanu from the University of Birmingham thinks differently. She suggests that framing a situation in terms of right and wrong before cheating has occurred has the potential to dissuade athletes against any malfeasance. Kavussanu published an article in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology that demonstrated that athletes, when asked to write a story about themselves that explicitly involved morality, were “significantly more likely to experience guilty feelings if they engaged in anti-social behavior during a game and therefore significantly less likely to engage in such behavior when compared to athletes in the control group.” The feasibility of scaling this initiative to combat cheating at the professional level remains to be discussed.

But I keep coming back to the maddening question of “why” by way of utility – what does someone actually gain from cheating? At the professional level, this isn’t really much of a question. An unfairly obtained competitive advantage is, as South African distance runner and confirmed doper Hezekiél Sepeng states, “a shortcut” (and the fact that this word literally describes how the average runner cheats in a marathon is not lost on me). This shortcut, meant to improve performance, can lead to higher earnings, greater visibility in the sport, bigger and more lucrative endorsements. If you’re an East African trying to escape poverty, a magical ointment could literally change your life.

If former World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound is to be believed, then there are five fundamental reasons why athletes cheat: to win at all costs, for financial gain, national pressures, individual pressure from coaches or sponsors, and the belief that they won’t get caught.

A middle-aged marathon enthusiast has virtually no shot of making an Olympic team or earning a significant payday by winning a major race. So of the five reasons above, I’d say only the first and the last apply to the average person, but with caveats. If the aim is to win at all costs, we confuse things a bit because the average person doesn’t “win” the race (hence lending some truth to the old saying, cheaters never win). If “winning” simply means “breaking a PR by any means necessary” then you have an unrepentant cheater whose motivations are simple but unexciting. If the average person isn’t aiming to win the race (unless they commit the same error as Ruiz, which a young woman in St Louis unwittingly did as recently as 2015), simply getting away with it is juvenile and again, uninspiring. Then there’s the third reason, which only applies if the “pressures” come not from coaches or one’s country, but from our peer groups and environment.

I won’t discard or even underestimate the heavy burden of social pressures. Despite how openly accepting and loving the running community is, fear of failure is a powerful motivator. It’s very difficult to walk away from a goal, especially if its progress has been carefully documented across social media networks and blogs. If friends and family are supporting us, the thought of letting them down might lead us into uncharted territory. Some of us have just the right combination of traits to make cheating more tempting. According to Maurice Schweitzer, expert on behavioral decision making at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, “a combination of personality traits particular to high-achievers and external pressures can lead to unscrupulous behavior.” One might wonder if high-achievers have also been conditioned to “come out on top,” which can exacerbate a fear of losing, or in this case, disappointing one’s peers or coming shy of expectations.

It is all compounded when we factor in the rise of social media. After all, our online avatars are merely representations of our real lives, manipulated and curated to showcase our best qualities. Some might say there’s just a veneer of truth to our digital selves, so aside from the minute chance that someone will put on their finest deerstalker and begin asking questions, what’s the harm in a little white lie? And does one fraud’s sense of self-worth justify the cost of installing additional timing mats? Recruiting more volunteers who can spot potential cheats? Hiring more photographers?

For some race directors, it’s not even worth the pain. “A lot of times, the race directors just don’t care,” says Josh Stern, owner of Split Second Timing. “They don’t want to have a scene.”

Regardless, these are still difficult questions to answer because they involve complex emotional conflicts. Unless we conduct exhaustive and psychologically taxing interviews on everyone with mildly suspicious checkpoint splits, we simply have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Since we don’t do this, we have to assume that cheating happens a little more often than we think. An investigation by Runner’s World suggests that in 2014, about 0.1% of the field at the New York Marathon, or roughly 50 people, were removed from the results page because of suspicious times. If the evidence is substantial, a race may even ban a runner outright.

Anyone who has trained hard for a race and come up short, either from injury or bad luck, knows how gut-wrenching it is to not achieve a big goal. We would never want to let down our support group or our charities, and we certainly don’t want to disappoint ourselves. For 0.1% of us, cheating may be a real option.

And yet, there is one very real, tangible and tempting reason for your average, everyday runner to break the rules and the course, and that is to earn a coveted Boston Qualifying Time. The ever-tightening standards of the world’s most prestigious marathon, coupled with a booming running community ready and willing to fill each and every spot, has made it increasingly challenging to stand at the starting line in Hopkington. Runners are faced with two options: train with all your effort and spirit to improve your marathon time, or maintain your current PR until age 65 (assuming the standard doesn’t get faster by then).

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article if there weren’t a third option. This brings us to the most recent target in the online community’s witch hunt: Mike Rossi.

Peaks and Valleys

Rossi reached middling levels of internet prominence when he took a stand against his children’s school principal, who reprimanded Rossi for their unexcused absence from school. Rossi had brought them to see him run the 2015 Boston Marathon as a learning experience and posted a defiant letter to the principal on Facebook. The letter and incident soon swept the internet and he quickly became a viral sensation worthy of television interviews and multiple Facebook Likes.

It wasn’t long before he became the next Kip Litton. Possibly motivated by Rossi’s pontificating tone in the letter, the feverish members of Letsrun.com were quick to pull up his running history and allege that his recent running times did not indicate that he could have qualified for Boston in the first place. What followed was a series of accusations leveled against Rossi so detailed and thoughtful that it defied belief. From finding previous race times archived at athlinks.com to contacting the LeHigh Valley Marathon where he earned the BQ in question, to actually cross-referencing each and every single individual who ran the race with professional race photography shots, the investigative effort was mind-boggling. Much like the Reddit community’s crowd-sourced efforts to (incorrectly) identify the 2013 Boston bombers, the famous race had once again sparked an internet collective into action. It was both a testament to the fierce loyalty of the running community and a disturbing reminder of the internet’s slithery, yet powerful tendrils.

Since the accusations were hurled at Rossi, nothing tangible has come of the ordeal. Both sides have lobbed the burden of proof back and forth, and the fight eventually migrated to Twitter, where Rossi received many vitriolic messages from strangers. Just when you thought the ordeal couldn’t get more hyperbolic, Letsrun.com offered up $100,000 to the embattled runner as prize money for reproducing a similar qualifying time, which has gone unclaimed. In hopes of lowering the bar, the website also offered $1,000 to Rossi’s charity of choice just for a confession. Rossi has vocally stood by his innocence, and neither the Boston nor the LeHigh Valley marathons have disqualified or nullified his results. As is the case with Kip Litton, it is surprisingly difficult to prove an act of cheating in a marathon when the evidence is only an absence of evidence. Without a picture of Rossi in a car at the time of the race or sneaking into the crowd, race organizers prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

And yet, why the outrage? If race directors don’t seem to care too much about it, why should anyone else?

In this particular case, Rossi’s accusers would say it’s less about someone’s sense of pride or fulfillment or a debate between right and wrong, but more about him wrongfully taking a spot at the Boston Marathon that should have gone to a runner who earned it. Getting into Boston gets tougher every year, independently of the qualifying standards, which are likely due for a revision soon. To qualify for the 2016 running, applicants had to run 2 minutes and 28 seconds faster than their standard to even register. This means I would have had to run a 3:02:32 last year to satisfy the BAA algorithm that sorts the lucky speedsters from those who just barely made the cut. Naturally, we have to ask ourselves if this will mean a corresponding increase in wrongdoing.

Run Honestly

Pride, ego, bullheadedness. There are many other selfish reasons to cheat through a marathon, either by cutting the course, or showing up just at the start and finish to register a time. But although the act is often overlooked and fails to register any meaningful effect on anyone’s life, it still denigrates the otherwise inspirational running event. I’m not saying that someone’s act of cheating devalues my honest marathon achievement, because I run against myself and my own expectations. But whenever a top athlete is exposed as a drug cheat, it casts a grey pall on the sport in general, tempting unwanted speculation to question everyone else, even if there has never been cause for suspicion. Part of what makes running so popular and confusing to outsiders is its raw honesty. Any breach in that honesty, no matter how trivial, chips away at the sport’s integrity.

Cheaters make headlines. Be it brazenly, habitually, seemingly by accident, questionably so, or done with premeditated intent, cheating happens and will continue to happen. Race directors can either invest in smarter chip-timing technology to lower the likelihood or keep things as they are, writing off the occasional course-cutter as collateral damage. There will always be those who choose shortcuts over the daunting task of battling through 26.2 miles with little else but grit and determination.

But ultimately, the rest of us have to respect the sport by honestly giving it only our very best. This means backing down in the face of serious injury, cutting our losses if the weather doesn’t cooperate, or simply accepting that everyone has bad days. We can’t give into that urge to “outsmart” the system or furtively circumvent the rules just to gain an artificial accomplishment, even if that means training just a little harder as an insurance policy against potential interlopers taking our prized spot on Patriot’s Day.

I remember participating in a Big Wheel race in Kindergarten. It was held in the parking lot of my school on a blustery day, my parents and sister watching from the sidelines. The distance was an afterthought – a quick thirty yard dash to a turnaround, then back to the starting line. Though I was only five or six, I had a distinct sense of pride about how fast I could go on my Big Wheel. I knew I would win that race, even though I had never really competed with my neighborhood friends.

Almost because I refused to lose, I spun the handlebars before the turnaround, cutting the distance by just enough to make it back to the finish line first. Though I was a wee lad with an undeveloped sense of justice, I was somewhat aware that I had broken the rules. If my nascent ideas of right and wrong weren’t guiding me, my parents laughing at the blatant course-cutting confirmed it. This being Kindergarten, I still received a trophy (though it’s possible that every child did).

I lost that prize not long afterward. It probably got swept away during a move or a seasonal purge of household items. But I know that if I had won the race honestly, I would have kept it and featured it prominently among my stuffed animals and Ninja Turtle action figures. It would have meant something to me. But since I cheated, it fell victim to the gales of time, blown away forever. But I still remember the event, I remember the decision, and I’m sure anyone who has ever cheated at a sporting event knows what they did, even if they keep it buried.

Because it’s one thing to admit wrongdoing, but another to injure a sport that only asks that you honor yourself by doing the best you can.

Heavenly Gaits: Running as a Religion

“Without constant renewal, what he had experienced at the monastery would vanish. Otherwise, for the rest of his life, he would awake in the morning with the same tendencies, the same desires, the same sins that he conquered only the day before. Only a return each day to the monastery would save him. Running, I told the reporter, is just such a monastery – a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” – George Sheehan, running author and guru

I try to keep this blog very focused. It is almost exclusively about running and rarely do I use it as a vessel to ruminate on life’s big questions, or to sort through personal issues. Unless those big questions arise during a footrace, I don’t let political leanings or any deep-held convictions enter this space in any direct, unequivocal way. I’ve often nudged certain viewpoints into posts with harmless disguises, but never with a provocative intent. If anything, I expose my worldview with more gusto in comments I leave on other blogs.

And yet, if all you know about me is what you’ve read here, you probably know a lot about what makes me tick. I like to run, I’m kind of fast, I love to use races as a stand-in for visiting friends and family and I often combine a big race with a chance to try the local cuisine. But what do I think of the social safety net? Do I have a stance on gun control? On federalism, foreign wars, the public school system or the Vatican? For the most part, I’ve stayed away from opening any floodgates because I know it can turn some people off. In many cases, big picture topics don’t really fit in a space largely reserved for describing the marathon experience. Plus, I want my running stories to speak for themselves. And yet I know this kind of thematic quarantine is unrealistic – sooner or later, you’ll get to really know someone. I’ve simply decided to avoid that here.

And then one day, toward the end of a long run, I followed an interesting thought. It led me through a thorny reverie and I came out the other side confused, frustrated, but intrigued. I took these lingering feelings and, over the last month, wrote and fastidiously re-wrote this post. We’re still talking about running, as I always will on this space, but with a new approach. To encourage a thoughtful discussion on the topic, we first have to journey back to my childhood.

Genesis

You see, I’m not exactly what you’d call a religious person. Not surprisingly, this is largely due to my upbringing. My father was always very critical of organized religion and my mother never had much of an opinion on the topic. Although her side of the family was equally ambivalent, his was a fascinating combination of conflicting views. My grandfather, who we called Lelo, was a Freemason who would sit with his arms crossed at mass and grumble, while my grandmother Lela was very pious and likely sat toward the front. As a child, whenever we would visit our native Costa Rica, I would spend most of my time at their house, as Lela was practically my best friend. I fondly recall playing piano in her living room while she would bring me strawberry milk in brightly colored, wide-lipped tin glasses.

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Thanks to her, I learned to read at a very young age, which made me very quick with a book in kindergarten. Every weekend, we would visit the cathedral in Alajuela and take a stroll through the park that served as its front yard. She would let me pick one tiliche (Costa Rican for “doohickey” or “plaything”) from one of the many merchants during these visits and I would spend the weekend playing with it. Every night we would pray together and I soon learned to recite Our Fathers and Hail Marys in Spanish. She was a very loving and kind woman, even as she slowly succumbed to breast cancer when I was just seven. I learned a lot from Lela, but despite her piety and the nightly blessings, I never bought into Catholicism. I was more interested in the cathedral’s cupola than the guy nailed to the cross beneath it.

Growing up, my family would go to church only for weddings and funerals. During these visits, I would be fascinated by the opulent and imposing architecture of cathedrals and churches, but I never achieved any spiritual resonance. I attended Sunday school very briefly, but I suspect that was just because my mom wanted me to spend less time in the basement playing video games. Around the same time, a friend invited me to an all-night lock-in at a Go-Kart and Video Game emporium in Atlanta, where you could drive all night and all the arcade games were free. I practically salivated at the invitation and could scarcely believe it. I was soon dismayed upon learning that we had to first listen to a series of sermons at his local church, sing popular songs with a religious spin (i.e., “Walk Like a Christian”) and discuss catechism in small groups before a single engine could be revved. But I put up with all of it for the chance to play Mortal Kombat and Daytona USA for hours without coughing up any hard-earned quarters.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I suspected that the whole thing was a deliberately orchestrated parable for the Christian experience.

As a teen, I had always described myself as “spiritual, non-religious,” as I had felt my fair share of sublime inspiration through the muses of art, laughter and loved ones. But even in college, where the vicissitudes of higher education, boundless freedom to explore and the incredible distance from home encourage many young people to soul search, I only went to mass once, and it was literally to “coincidentally” bump into a girl. Much to my delight, we ended up getting lunch together afterward. I didn’t believe that this fortuitous date was thanks to divine, cosmic influence but I was still far from hard-line atheism. My journal entries at the time, written during years fraught with anxiety about girls and finding a job, routinely invoke a higher power, usually in a supplicant, pleading tone. Whenever a friend would call himself an atheist, I would dismiss it as a juvenile act of teenage rebellion, similar to getting a nose piercing or a tattoo of your favorite band. Even to me, the word “atheist” had a certain sting to it. I didn’t subscribe to this religion or that one, but part of me bought into the idea of a supreme being. I blame this on movies, books, and joining a fraternity established in Virginia.

Call it cultural osmosis but the idea of God was too entrenched in the world around me to ignore.

Exodus

But then after graduation, out in the real world, I had a change of heart. Once out of the nurturing bubble of college, I began immersing myself in current events and didn’t like what I found. World affairs were being framed as a cosmic battle between religious forces; the Intelligent Design curriculum was weaseling its way into school classrooms; Islamic fundamentalists were stoking the fires of long-standing, internecine conflicts in the Middle East; the Vatican was being plagued with unspeakable scandals involving priests and minors; Scientology was reaching new heights of exposure and ignominy; and congressmen were citing Biblical scripture to justify legislation that would threaten women’s access to health services. On and on the list went. I voraciously read books on the topic, from confrontational atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to religious scholars Bart Ehrman, Reza Aslan and Noah Feldman, ultimately coming to the conclusion that we have one life to live, governed by chaos, and little else. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, I decided that it was an error “to think of any afterlife or any reincarnation we are bound for as more extraordinary than finding ourselves here in the first place.”

Religion had never played a large role in my life, so I decided to take the next step and make it official by identifying as an atheist.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

It wasn’t a life-altering epiphany but more a concrete establishment of lingering thoughts. As a child, I became obsessed with Battle of Olympus, a side-scrolling adventure game for the original Nintendo where the player parleys with the gods and fights monsters. It led me to a book by Bernard Evslin on the Greek myths, which I loved so much I finished it in just a few hours. I suspected that, at some point in time, these stories might have been canonical and revered as the true origins of the universe. I didn’t know anything at the time about Allah, Yahweh, Baal, Vishnu or Odin but I was fully immersed in the trials of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. So I asked my dad, what would happen to average Christians if they met Zeus upon dying? He answered stoically, I don’t know, but that’s a possibility.

So at a young age, I felt that the idea of a supreme being, just by virtue of having such a diverse array of options, was unlikely but not impossible. But once out of college, I began abandoning the idea completely and embracing the staggering privilege of being alive, as a human, in this day and age. I shed all belief in spirits, souls, the afterlife, even ghosts. I wasn’t faced with a traumatic event or made painfully aware of the bleakness of the world, as many critics of atheism attest. I simply decided that none of it made any sense to me. The world was real, physical, and our lives were the sum of an infinite weave of choices and random events. While some might think this is a cold view, I found it profoundly liberating and empowering. I was in control of my life, my attitudes and actions.

At almost exactly the same time, I began running.

It started with just a few runs a week, as if I were getting to know the congregation. But once I fully baptized myself in the sport, I had created a regimented structure that would govern many parts of my life. Even today, running has a huge say in how I devise my weekly, yearly, and even lifetime schedule (I’ve often told people that my lifelong goal is to be able to run ten miles at the drop of a hat, regardless of age). So once again, I found myself asking questions: did my rise in running happen as a consequence of abandoning the last vestige of faith? Had I replaced one with the other? And if so, how is the running culture similar to a religion?

The Gospel of Running

In the fall of 2011, I was at the ING New York City Marathon expo with my friend Baxter. As we navigated the many booths of exotic races and unusual goods, I was surprised to hear almost every language imaginable. The field was extraordinarily foreign, made apparent by the myriad colorful flags draped over svelte bodies. It was Baxter’s first experience at a marathon expo, which he very accurately compared to a stroll through Diagon Alley, the fictional commercial street in Harry Potter lore. As much as I laughed at the comparison, it was the first real indication that I was part of a peculiar community with its own customs, gatherings and language. He must have felt like a foreigner walking through a bazaar or attending the ritualistic mass of a cult.

A few years later, I made a list of similarities. There was certainly no shortage of people likening marathon runners to members of a cult, so I decided to ask myself the obvious question: are there enough similarities to call running a religion? Ken Chitwood, PhD and religious scholar, says that “in many ways, running is a new form of religious asceticism complete with its own ascetic disciplines, literature, fellowship, shrines, meditative practices and proselytizing prophets and priests.”

In the list below, I’ve taken a similar approach to the sport and gone a little beyond Chitwood’s scope to determine just how closely I could connect the two spheres of life.

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Disciples. A few booths away, surrounded by acolytes, I found the famous ultramarathoner and fitness advocate Dean Karnazes, whose fierce advocacy for fitness rivals his impressive feats of ultra-athleticism. He, along with expo staples Scott Jurek and Ryan Hall, are three of the sport’s many disciples, spreading the Gospel of Running from race to race (with Hall doing double duty by spreading the original Gospel in the process). There are many ultrarunners who point to super-athletes like Karnazes, Jurek and Pam Reed as having “converted” them to the sport.

Gods. But in addition to spreading the word, these figures and many others also represent the god-like core of running’s idols. We buy their books, eat their recipes, follow their programs, and cheer for them at competitions. Since we constantly squabble over who is supreme – some say it’s Gebrselassie, others vouch for Zátopek – perhaps it’s safe to say running is polytheistic. It also hurts tremendously when doping allegations surface and we learn that their superhuman status might have been unfairly achieved.

madison-outlineClothing. Much like Mormons have sacred temple garments and weekly churchgoers don their Sunday best, runners also drape themselves in curious garb when practicing. We eschew cotton in favor of moisture-wicking fabrics, we prefer our shorts to live up to their name, our forearms and calves are hugged by tight, brightly colored sleeves, and we equip ourselves with a variety of devices from heart rate monitors to GPS watches, fuel belts, and performance earbuds. Some trail runners shed almost all clothing save for shoes and shorts, the most notable of which is Tony Krupicka, who bears a slight resemblance to Christianity’s Jesus.

Rituals. Among the countless rituals runners perform (stretching, eating specific pre-run foods, post-run burgers), one towers above the rest. We spend our weekends, in the words of top American marathoner Shalane Flanagan, at the Church of Sunday Long Run. This grueling weekly task is an indispensable arrow in the runner’s quiver and is rarely skipped. We adhere to it with the strictest discipline, as if forgoing it would invoke the ire of our lactic threshold. It also forms the inner sanctum of our entire weekend plan, likely determining if we go out the night before and whether we’ll have enough energy for the rest of the day. Many people join running groups and meet the same friendly faces every Sunday, congregating in large, happy groups in parks and neighborhoods worldwide.

Medals and Beer, earned at the finish line

Medals and Beer, sacraments earned at the finish line

Sacrament. Every weekend, thousands of runners around the world receive blessing in the form of a finisher’s medal. In an act of transubstantiation, the trinket of metal, plastic, glass, clay or wood becomes more than just the sum of its materials the moment it is given to us. In those long seconds between heaves, the sweat-soaked award becomes an inseparable part of us as it swings below our chins and delicately bumps our frantic hearts. We wear it for the rest of the day like a rosary and some of us erect a monument in our homes so that all may see our dedication.

Prayer. The Islamic practice of salat requires that Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca. Christians routinely say grace before meals or at their bedside as a way to commune with god and keep in his good graces. If we frame the sport as a religion, then running itself is the act of praying. Anyone going through taper madness will testify that not running feels tantamount to apostasy, so many of us try to log miles as often as possible to stay close to the sport we love. Runners in the throes of their most intense weeks might start in the morning, rack up some miles during their lunch break, and end the day with an evening shake-off run. God is usually described as perfect, and by praying we get closer to him. With every run, we strive to achieve prime fitness, that elusive, “perfect” version of ourselves that will escort us to a new PR.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Diet. The Jewish laws of Kashrut govern what its adherents should not eat. Many Hindus do not eat beef out of respect for cows. Catholics are encouraged to avoid meat on Fridays and fast during the high holidays of Holy Week. Many runners, meanwhile, eat or snack ritualistically a set number of times per day and routinely lambast certain foods that everyone should avoid, such as anything deep fried or fat-free. A small sub-culture of runners also preaches the Gospel of veganism, some even finishing 100-mile races on a strict, fruitarian diet. In fact, it isn’t entirely off base to say that runners are more abstemious than serious followers of religious dogma.

Pilgrimage. Every year, many Costa Ricans walk to the Basílica de los Ángeles in Cartago to honor and give thanks to a black statue of the Virgin Mary in what is known as la romería (the pilgrimage). This happens all over the world, from Spain to Mexico and Mecca. Far beyond the obvious parallel of runners crossing long distances on foot, many choose to earn their place in the sport’s most prominent and prestigious pilgrimage: that of qualifying for and ultimately racing the Boston Marathon. Like a pilgrim kissing a sacred statue, many runners reach the blue and yellow finish line on Boylston Street with equal fervor, earning a runner’s high than no other race can impart.

Many argue that trail running allows a closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Many argue that trail running allows a much closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Movements. Like most major faiths, running as an activity, sport and hobby exists in many different forms. Beyond the separation of road and track, there are trail runners who seldom touch asphalt, road runners that keep their fleet feet on flat pavement, weekend warriors who participate in non-chip timed fun runs, Hashers, Mud Runners, Obstacle Racers and Tough Mudders. All of these running incarnations come with their own creeds, temples and adherents, each no less effusive about the sport than the rest. Though no group openly disparages the others, it is not uncommon to hear trailheads bemoan the harshness of asphalt, or roadrunners vent their frustrations at seeing their times plunge in dense woods.

Up until now, I’ve stuck largely to comparisons that outline the daily habits or customs of runners and how they stack up as a religion. It has been what I consider a playful list, one that wouldn’t be out of place in Buzzfeed or Mashable. However, there are key characteristics that elevate the conversation and they deal with the personal and controversial elements that unearth the convictions beneath each topic.

The Flock

2012-0304 little-rock-marathonRunners are often vilified or at least chastised because they tend to speak at length about their sport. So it makes sense that when two runners bump into each other, they gab endlessly about their shoes, the most recent race they ran and favorite drills until everyone around them has moved to another table. As a community, we are a rich, international tapestry of athletes from all walks of life with millions of telling origin stories. We find common ground and become instant friends just by name dropping a unique race and even welcome strangers into our homes exclusively because they know the hardship of running 26.2 miles.

But this community can become an echo chamber. If anyone says running is bad for your knees, we rally against them with a collective scoff. Every time someone gives us that concerned look as we ice our joints on the couch for the third time in a month, we shrug it off and assure them it’s nothing to worry about. Whenever a scientist publishes a study suggesting that running marathons may be damaging to our hearts, we brandish our foam rollers and march as a garrison, declaring that the research methods and samples must be flawed. By surrounding ourselves with like-minded followers, we inoculate ourselves against criticism, especially since exercise is rarely frowned upon.

Religion has a similar stickiness. When people are surrounded by others of the same faith, they are less likely to question their beliefs. Unlike movies, music or even political leanings, religion has been imbued with a sacred aura that often prevents people from engaging in debate because belief and faith become so doggedly connected to one’s sense of self. Furthermore, opponents of organized religion worry that the many worldwide charities run by religious groups shield the overall movement from criticism or outright condemnation. But when that faith structure informs and even dictates its adherents’ thoughts on public policy, education, other religions and the world at large, the results aren’t always great. This can lead to otherwise friendly people harboring hateful opinions about topics like gay marriage, the building of a mosque, evolution or premarital sex.

For many of us, running is a fixed part of our personality. We stick to it through injury and illness, and go to great lengths to avoid DNFs or DNSs. We all remember how deep the explosions felt at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. It felt as if our entire community and culture had been irreparably wounded. So if anything negative comes to light about it, we take it very personally. For us, the sport goes beyond hobby or a means to achieve good fitness; it informs others about our best qualities and values.

But if science were to unequivocally prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that running is deleterious to our health, how many of us would immediately stop?

Suffering

If we run hard enough, there will come a time in any race of any distance, where we will be in pain. Our bodies scream at us to stop but training and determination keep us going, pushing through the anguish, closer to the finish. In longer races, even walking feels like a slow march to the grave as every ounce of energy has escaped our pores and been absorbed by the grass. For many of us, suffering is a crucial component of the sport. It’s the measurement of effort, improvement, and in less tangible ways, the indication that we’re living life on the fringes of our abilities. When our bodies begin to fail us, many of us can’t just stop. It’s not an option we’ve agreed to. So we continue bludgeoning our toes and squeezing the air out of our lungs until we reach the finish line’s sweet, merciful release.

Why do we do this?

Why do we do this?

The superficial comparison should be apparent: the race represents our lives and heaven is the open bar with our friends just past the finish line. But what I want to tease out is a little more unnerving: that of reward through suffering. This is pervasive in many religions and it doesn’t just apply to the most fundamental or ascetic groups. Christians are encouraged to confess their sins, to unload the mounting transgressions they’ve accumulated and carry with them. Even those who live kind, generous lives aren’t exempt as many interpretations of the Bible state that all Christians since the fall of Adam are born sinful. We are told that prior to the original sin, the world was a bountiful, perfect paradise, contrary to the one we inhabit today. The Gospel according to Matthew contains the famous phrase, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth,” which is an effective, yet insidious way of placating the indigent masses of the first century into happily bearing their burdens until their recompense in the afterlife.

As I’ve stated, the concept of salvation through suffering is key to the running experience. We trust that our pain is leading somewhere. Dean Karnazes agrees. “People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture,” he says, “though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.’ Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner.” This sounds very similar to Patheos‘ description of Islam as a faith that teaches “the endurance of suffering with hope and faith.”

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

No race that I’ve ever run has had a moving finish line, so we know that each step is one closer to deliverance. But spectators perched near the end of any long-distance who have witnessed the assembly line of grimaces should wonder why anyone puts themselves through this. Surely there must be better ways to find gratification and higher meaning in the world than by willing subjugation to a series of trials meant to break you down.

Chitwood posits that “to run is to overcome suffering for the sake of the prize. Thus, for many, to run is to flee from death itself.” Like most of what we do, running is a means to stave off that final breath, or at least fend off the preventable diseases that can accelerate the process. But the opposite interpretation suggests something more thought-provoking yet macabre: perhaps endurance athletes push themselves to the breaking point precisely because they want to reach that liminal gap between life and death and catch a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable. Maybe in order to live, we have to straddle that dangerous line by approaching or even taunting death.

Faith

Whenever you have a direct, honest discussion about religion with anyone, you eventually, to borrow a running term, hit a wall. That fortified obstacle is either made of faith or doubt, two materials heavier than cast iron and deeper than bedrock. Although there is much common ground to be found between atheists and believers in the grand scheme of things, inevitably there is a moment where the two strands of thought diverge and progress becomes slow. That moment involves faith, or complete belief in something, sometimes against odds or evidence. The reason most conversations stop has to do with the equally ponderous tasks of convincing a believer to abandon faith and imploring a skeptic to embrace belief.

Faith and the echo chamber of our peers march in stride, as our loyal support group rallies behind us to bolster our beliefs and drown out the voices of dissent. This makes it easy to willingly accept the evidence or lack thereof for something, shielding us from the outside to preserve our feelings. The reason most conversations about religion ultimately break down, either between religious groups or with non-believers, is because the entire concept is built upon faith and belief, neither of which can be proven. What is it about the Bible, a book written by hundreds of people over as many years, that makes it the infallible word of God? Who is to say that Allah is the “true” god if Horus and Ra have been around far longer? Despite the questionable authorship and chronology, many people simply believe.

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

But runners aren’t immune to the willing avoidance of reason. In fact, we encounter it in every race we run. Our bodies are built with feedback mechanisms that inform us when our systems are failing. When our legs are flooded with lactic acid or our lungs feel like they’re been crushed, our brains implore us to stop. But we’ve learned to block out those signals, push through and even embrace the pain. The mantras we repeat convince us that this crucible will all be worth it when we’re sipping a craft beer at the finish line.

We’re told to have faith in our training, to simply believe that tapering will lead to stronger legs and a better performance. In most races past mile 20, we are seldom certain of how our legs will hold up. At that point, especially for first-timers, it (almost) becomes a pure exercise in faith. We don’t ever see our legs getting stronger or more energy efficient, but if all goes well, we are sometimes treated to performances that exceed our wildest expectations, often feeling like magic. Of course, this magic has been studied. Science has shown that endurance training leads to an increase in mitochondria in our muscle cells, which bolsters the body’s efficiency in consuming oxygen and improves performance.

But for a host of other reasons (weather, a poor dinner choice, last-minute illness), it doesn’t always work out. And when it all goes to hell and we end up crawling to the finish line with our hearts pounding in our hollow heads, our entire view of running having crushed us, how many of us abandon the sport?

Very few of us. In fact, we do the opposite and find ways to turn even the most grueling and ego-bruising experience into a lesson. Like anyone faced with a tragedy in their lives, rather than gaze skywards with rage, we say that running works in mysterious ways, and set our sights on the next race. We never condemn the sport itself as being irrational and rarely entertain the sacrilegious idea that humans shouldn’t be running long distances.

Mea culpa, we mutter, respect the distance, we offer, and return to our daily acts of penitence.

Why?

To be human is to be social, to gather in groups and have shared experiences. “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, but to be with each other,” agrees Christopher McDougall, author of the bestselling book Born to Run. We all want to be part of a group, to have a support network. We find this in friends and family, co-workers and the buzzing masses of people that peregrinate alongside us through busy city streets.

Masses at

Masses at “mass”

Although I don’t go to church on Sundays, I understand why the weekly ritual attracts untold masses. For many it is a safe place of quiet contemplation; a gathering of like-minded people who want to improve their lives by enjoying each other’s company and paying tribute to a supreme being. For others, it’s a place to seek answers. Life is full of turmoil and chaos beyond our understanding, and the beautiful verses and parables of sacred texts might offer consolation during difficult times.

But running, unlike a communal trip to a church or even the local pub, offers us a very unusual personal connection. We spend most of our days in climate-controlled environments, sitting or moving slowly. Polished and well-dressed, we project an ideal and confident version of ourselves. But at mile 24, everyone regardless of talent or speed looks like death. We’re stripped down to our barest elements: flesh, sweat and sometimes blood. Running – or any sport for that matter – elevates our routine so we’re part of something greater. It’s a celebration of the human body and the marvelous feats it can accomplish. It makes us feel like we’re truly living. As we stand at the starting line, we can feel the current of nervous energy flowing through each jittery participant. Hours later, as we approach the finish line, stripped of elegance and poise, we know every step we took to get there was all ours, earned through initiative, dedication and perseverance.

In many ways, the tribute we pay is to ourselves.

And when it’s over, we do it all again. We ask how we could have improved, what kind of drills we should incorporate into the next training cycle, and whether we’d be comfortable running even farther. Seen this way, running has a lot in common with reincarnation. A quick search of running blogs will return many examples of runners who have, in a way, become “reborn.” The reasons for their transformations vary from a desire to lose weight, overcome illness or abandon a sedentary lifestyle. Over time, they literally become different people with new bodies, schedules, and outlooks. In times of stress or great anguish, many people and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous turn to a higher power for guidance and structure. Running it seems can also provide a similar outlet for self-improvement. There are even several popular running groups that hedge their bets by combining the two.

On that note, I’d be remiss to not mention that, independently of religious affiliation, many people experience this elevation of routine as a spiritual transformation, or as George Sheehan calls it, a “psychological and spiritual renewal.” Though I’ve encountered similar transcendental moments, I frame the experience in biological terms. Once past our limits and into the great unknowns of achievement, our brains aren’t being fed the necessary ingredients for proper cogitation. The clamp on our chest and the ever-mounting burn in our legs combine to blur the world around us and expose our deepest, most base instincts and feelings. This mental state can make us feel like we’ve broken through a barrier, perhaps to a divine plane. For Rachel Toor, author and professor, the experience is profoundly spiritual. She believes “trail running is as close to church-going as I can get. Because you do not stand still to behold the sublime, but move through it, limbs hailing and exulting all there is in the world and whatever lies beyond.”

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience.

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience. For some, it is the experience.

The internet has even coined an official running religion called Runnism, which advocates “inner peace, a sense of belonging, fulfillment and a deeper meaning in life.” In a nutshell, they’ve encapsulated the deeper parallels between a life dedicated to the pursuit of fulfillment through running and one based on apocryphal books written two thousand years ago. The results are similar, so why not worship running?

It is very likely that all of these parallels can apply across all sports. Anyone with enough dedication to something will invite such comparisons; I just happen to be a runner. But unlike religions, who compete to provide the answers to life’s great questions, we don’t say that running is inherently better than basketball or that it will provide more happiness. We don’t wage war against CrossFit or disallow swimmers from participating in weekend 5ks. Though our core mythology involves the legendary death of Pheidippides, our sport doesn’t have a bloody history of armed conflict. Our flock, though a bit unhinged, is inclusive of all people regardless of origin, abilities or personality. It keeps us moving, inspires us and can offer a path to fulfillment if we desire one.

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn't difficult to

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn’t difficult to “rise above” the race into a meditative state.

New studies, including a very recent publication in Nature, suggest that the ability to run allowed our species to split from our ancestral simian cousins, paving the winding path to the beings we are today. If we’re searching for whatever created us, we might not have to look too far past our ability to walk upright and cover great distances. If bipedal locomotion is such a staple of what it literally means to be human, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to be active and make the most of our bodies?

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this truly breathtaking, but it’s worth repeating. The most sacred texts of the world’s largest religions describe the origins of our species and universe in grandiose, often colorful ways. But if you want a concrete, tangible answer for why we are the way we are, you might hear echoes of it with each fluid stride.

So you can see why I was confused and a little frustrated at the end of my contemplative long run. I had based a lot of my worldview on a holistic rejection of organized religion because of what I considered pernicious and atavistic qualities that had no purpose in my life. As I began connecting the dots, it seemed that I might have instead found a different outlet for whatever human impulse drives people to join a church, if such an inclination exists. But rather than follow a religion, which for most people is a decision almost entirely dictated by their parents, I chose to become a runner.

I will never claim that running is immune to criticism, nor do I believe it is the purest expression of the human experience. But then again, neither is anything else, not even art, sex or religion. That’s up to each of us to determine. Early in life, I was given an intimate look into the religious experience. As I grew older, it failed to persuade me so I subconsciously found an alternate source of personal fulfillment. Rather than work for a rewarding afterlife, running makes me feel great now and potentially in my twilight years. But it is not my reason for being, nor does it promise me anything for my efforts. It is only one way of many to enjoy the privilege of being a human for the brief, yet wondrous flicker of time we have.

I can’t say with any real certainty that deities don’t watch over us in realms beyond our imaginations. But in the absence of that knowledge, surrounded by the few truths I do know about myself and what fills me with gratification, I happily follow the path of the runner.

Special thanks to Mike for reading this article in its earliest form and for providing insight and editorial guidance.

Marathons, Selective Memory and runskin Giveaway

Marathons, Selective Memory and runskin Giveaway
Why runners are very eager to forget the pain

Mile 23 of the New York City Marathon, mile 25 of the Ice Age Trail 50k, mile 19 of the Tupelo Marathon and for some reason, mile 22 of all three Chicago Marathons.

Those are the dots on the race map where everything began to fall apart.  As I crested the hilltops of the Kettle Moraine Nordic Loop just this past May, I distinctly remember reaching mile 25 and thinking, this is the part you always forget about running long distances.  This part right here, where everything hurts, where even a walking break feels like imminent collapse.  My legs hurt, my shoulders ache, I can’t seem to keep my head up and my stomach keeps sending acid bubbles into my throat.  Why, why do I run these events if there’s always a part where the fun stops and all I have left is a slow march to the end with a dead-eyed stare?
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Hurting in Little Rock

Hurting in Little Rock

But then two weeks after the race, as I related the story of the race to a co-worker, I found myself saying only good things.  I talked about how beautiful the weather was, how the forest felt completely alive all around me.  I mentioned that running on pine straw was like gliding over clouds and that it felt liberating to hear nothing except the soft landing of my shoes on dirt.  All talk about the moment where you feel like you’re dragging a cart full of sand behind you was summarized with a pithy remark about how “it was tough towards the end,” an aside that amounted to very little over the course of my eulogy.  I even found myself talking about how much fun it was and even considered doing it again next year.

At that point, the homunculus of my short-term memory dug his fingers into my shoulders and shook me while asking what the hell was wrong with me.  In that bizarre moment of reflection, confronted by the inescapable fact that long-distance races are seldom easy, I came to a subtle realization.

It’s not that I forget those moments of hardship, I willfully block them out.  And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’m not the only one.  In fact, it’s a predictable pattern amongst marathon runners, made most apparent in those, like me, who decide to write about their experiences.  I’ve read countless stories about enthusiastic runners beat down to a quivering pulp at mile 22, who find a way to harness what’s left of their humanity and make it to the finish line.  They celebrate their accomplishment, douse cold water on their salt quarry legs and hang up their racing shoes for a scant couple of weeks before looking ahead to the next racing season.

An anthropologist from Mars would look at this and ask itself, did these myopic athletes already forget the paragraphs they just wrote devoted to the latter miles and how much they hurt?

I would put a reassuring hand on my extra-planetary colleague’s shoulder and explain that long distance runners make up an odd collection of athletic protoplasm that doesn’t always line up with the tenets of reason and moderation.  They sign up for events knowing they will be challenging, and though they prepare for them accordingly, often find themselves at a point during the big event where, to put it in scientific terms, everything just blows.  Virtually none of them get paid to do it, so it must be for personal enjoyment or accomplishment.  But in those last miles, with searing leg muscles and choked lungs, a marathoner’s pallid grimace doesn’t quite brim with elation.

My friend Jay after his first Leadville attempt, dead as can be

My friend Jay after his first Leadville attempt, not an ounce of energy left

But the more time passes, the more we remember things differently.  The farther removed we are from the event itself, the less tied we are to the all-encompassing, visceral experience of pain.  As I sat under the white tent at the Ice Age finishing area, my mind was on my legs, my stomach and my head.  As I held a forkful of sausage to my chin, I realized that I was in a mixed state of exhaustion and delirium.  I was so caught up in a state of near shock that I couldn’t eat or relax.  But far away from that place, in the comfort of an air conditioned office, I was choosing to ignore the pain in favor of bigger and better challenges.

We parse through the experience and pick out the good, sorting out the crippling muscle fatigue and tossing it in the mental waste basket.  Even those of us who write about it attempt to merely remember what it was like and put that experience to paper.  But it’s simply that: a representation, an approximation that doesn’t truly remind us of what it was like.  Plus, many of us would rather use those struggling moments as precursors to the forthcoming, often inevitable wave of triumph.  And yet, perhaps our willingness to move on or the tendency to expurgate our recollection of the race is crucial for the active participation in the sport.

This toying with our memory is something that non-runners can relate to as well.  While I can’t handle any sort of heat in my food, I know many people who relish in eating the culinary equivalent of napalm.  They most likely regret it during (and after) the meal, but it won’t stop them from returning to Jake Melnick’s for another plate of their XXX Hot Wings.  Similarly, bungee jumping or extreme roller coasters produce very intense, often uncomfortable feelings in the pit of our stomachs.  But I’m pressed to find anyone who stopped riding Top Thrill Dragster because they actively remember what it felt like for their stomach to drop.  This doesn’t even have to be a physical reaction: many of us have faced emotionally draining breakups and have still found a way to get back out there and meet new people.  I’ll even go ahead and say that childbirth fits into this scheme.  A friend of mine wrote to me recently about selective memory, noting that “that’s how [his wife] is with these pregnancies.  She’s always talking about the next one and downplaying how sick she was weeks 5-18.”  That is an actual quote from a real friend of mine.

We all have an idea, a phantom memory of what these experiences felt like.  But it’s not until we’re back in the hot seat that it all hits home.  This tendency to play around with our selective memory is interesting because it affects how we behave within the sport.  But outside of it, I believe it’s a strange but essential part of being human.

Mile 10 of the 2010 Miami HALF Marathon and I was already wishing for an easy out

Mile 10 of the 2010 Miami HALF Marathon and I was already wishing for an easy out

Imagine if you remembered everything as it happened, with every excruciating detail available for instant access and replay.  You’d go insane.  A few years ago I read the autobiography of Jill Price, a woman with “the most remarkable memory known to science.”  Though not a perfect book, I was fascinated by the fact that she could recall, word-for-word, every conversation from her life, down to the date and facial expressions of her interlocutors.  While our first impression is to think of all the powers we’d have and how many arguments we’d win, it’s soon clear that her amazing skill has been a heavy burden on her, not only causing many arguments in her younger years, but also providing an endless cavalcade of painful memories faithfully recreated down to the last detail.

She specifically notes that once she remembers an event or an exchange, the entire recollection rushes into her like a flood and she is almost powerless to escape it.  If she were a marathoner, she’d probably want to stop the recall just before the bonk.  I know I probably would.

Given such the power to instantly remember what it felt like at mile 23 of my first marathon, it would have taken a lot more courage to sign up for another one.  But the farther away I was from it, the more I was left with just the pleasant details: seeing Steph and my mom at the finish line, my smile reflected on every volunteer, the fleece sweater that I wore all day as a finisher’s prize.  And so it goes for every race I’ve run since.

After the New Orleans Marathon

After the New Orleans Marathon

Does that make us natural optimists?  Do we insist that each marathon was worth it, no matter how crookedly we finished or how badly we hurt the day after?  There is definitely something to be said about the boundless positivity that characterizes the running community.  Aside from the occasional running snob, nobody will ever mock or actively downplay anyone’s finishing time or dissuade others from joining in the fun.  Is it possible that this zeal is contagious enough to affect our memories?

In fact, there might be an actual physiological reason for all of this.  After all, many scientists have noted that “marathon running is one of the most stressful activities in which normal, neurologically intact humans engage.”  Many have anecdotally noted that the body reacts to running a marathon in the same way it would after getting hit by a car. So maybe running long distances has a legitimate effect on our cognitive abilities.  Is it possible that we’re not just willfully omitting the ugly parts but actually forgetting them?

A 2009 Columbia University study suggested that marathoning may have a negative effect on explicit memory.  During a marathon, runners produce a large amount of the hormone cortisol, which is usually seen in cases of heightened stress.  Studies have shown that high amounts of cortisol can lead to deficits in explicit memory or quick, short-term recall.  The results of the Columbia experiment suggested many things, but among them that marathoners had lower command over their explicit memory after the race than the non-marathon control group did.  They were less able to repeat short lists and exhibited some trouble with word recollection.  I found myself thinking of my own marathon experiences especially as a blogger.  While running each event, I have to make a very conscious effort to remember key details for my write-up. Without a notepad or a recorder, I have to rely strictly on memory, which isn’t as easy as simply recalling what I did over the weekend.  The increased amount of cortisol might be responsible for that.

Regardless, we keep running and signing up for events knowing full well they will not always treat us like a lady.  No matter how ebulliently we recall our most recent marathons, there were undoubtedly moments during the race where we wished it were over.  Even T-Rex Runner, a self-proclaimed fun runner who makes the most out of every marathon by truly enjoying each mile, often wishes that the standard marathon distance were shortened to 22 miles.  Everyone, from the teeth-gritting diehard to the recreational back-of-the-packer eventually reaches a point where everything just hurts.

And yet we keep going, see the finishing banner like a beacon and pull ourselves over the line.  Some of us shake it off, others limp and a select few even collapse.  But the vast majority of us will find ourselves favoring the good parts of the event when it comes time to sign up for the next one.  Some of us may choose to forget parts of the course deliberately, write them out of the story altogether, bowdlerizing our memory to just the nice parts that made it such a source of confidence in the first place.  And that’s perfectly fine – it would be far too grueling to contemplate new challenges if all we think about is the inevitable hardship.

That said, there is plenty of room to recognize and even fondly remember that hardship.  You can’t reach the peak without climbing the mountain first and just like we’ve seen on countless signs held by loving supporters, if it were easy, everybody would do it.  And so, though it might not be the focal point of our experiences, we must remember every part of the race, the good and the bad, in order to truly respect and pay tribute to the jagged peaks that loom ahead.

runskin Marine Corps Marathon car sticker

runskin Marine Corps Marathon car sticker

This brings me to the giveaway.  I was contacted by the owner of the Austin-based company runskin for a giveaway.  Their product line includes apparel, decals, stickers and iPhone cases, all with a running theme.  There are plenty of companies out there making running apparel, but what separates runskin is that their product line is primarily focused on the design of actual race courses.  Their products feature both famous marathon coursers (Chicago, New York, Boston) and lesser known ones (Portland, Napa Valley, Twin Cities) drawn with a straight line like they would be on official course maps.  As someone who loves to study race layouts and can identify several of them on geometry alone, I was instantly a fan.

I loved the idea as soon as I saw it.  What better way to remember every single part of a marathon – the highs and the lows – than with the physical bread crumb trail drawn out?

I was thrilled that my most recent post (“Are We Running in a Bubble?”) generated a lot of detailed and substantial comments, so I’d like to invite all readers to participate in this post as well, but this time with a bonus.  In ten days I will draw a random number based on the number of comments received and that commenter will receive a code worth $40 in runskin products.  Additionally, if you comment and tweet / repost / share this article with others, you will be in the running for one of five codes for $20 in merchandise.

And with that, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What goes through your mind as you hit that dreaded wall?  What do you think gets lost in translation when it comes time to remember the experience?  Is a marathon without that fierce pain “less worthy” than an easy one?  Do you think marathoners (or people in general) benefit from having this selective memory?

runskin Chicago Marathon phone skin

runskin Chicago Marathon phone skin

A few rules and disclaimers:

1. I am not being paid for this.  The guys at runskin reached out to me to help spread the word about a great product and I decided to help out.
2. Please include your email address or website when posting so I know how to reach you.
3. Ideally, I’d like comments to include relevant thoughts on this post.
4. I will count additional comments from the same author as long as they further the discussion.
5. Though you are eligible for both giveaways, you can only win one prize.  If the winner of the larger code is also chosen for one of the five codes earned by sharing this post, I will choose the comment immediately following as the winner of the latter.
6. If the number drawn is a comment I authored, the winner will be the commenter to whom I was responding.