Øyvind Førland Standal
Running has been a popular leisure time activity for a long time. Recently, there has been an upsurge in the interest in barefoot and minimalist running. Greatly aided by Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to run, the idea of natural running has become popularized. Anything proclaimed to be “natural” and something human beings are “born to” will by default raise the suspicion and interest of socio-cultural scholars. So what then would be more natural than a socio-cultural examination of endurance running?
Endurance running is edited by William Bridel, Pirkko Markula and Jim Denison. The editors have brought together a starting line-up of 22 authors, the majority of whom are working at North American institutions. The book contains 16 chapters, which are divided into three sections, Running beginnings, Running because and Running bodies. The first part examines various histories of different distance events and the increased participation in endurance running. Next, “Running because” explores, in the words of the editors “the ‘whys’ of why run or why running”, but aim to “go beyond celebratory accounts of running” (p. 11). The final section about running bodies explore the meaning and experiences of participation in various aspects of endurance events. The book examines a variety of topics from different theoretical perspectives, although mostly the authors rely on post-modern or post-structuralist perspectives.
One of the central questions raised by the book is what endurance is and what it means to endure. The traditional, athletic understanding of endurance as middle and long distance running is explored by David Howe in his ethnography of coaching middle distance runners. Howe argues that the training regime he has studied (and been a part of as a coach cum ethnographer) instils an embodied habitual agency in the athletes, which makes them able to improvise during competitions. The training regimes does not, according to Howe’s analysis, produce Foucauldian, docile bodies, but rather athletes who are able to trust and know their own bodies. In the same area, but on a different note, Mills and Denison examines four ground-breaking athletic coaches and questions whether these coaches really were as innovate as they are considered to be. They all developed their training regimes with “the handbrake of modernity on” (p. 59), the authors contend. Mills and Denison therefore ask the readers to imagine what if workouts were inspired by something else than “science, discipline, and hard work” (p. 59.). In other words, what if elite athletes developed endurance in a completely new way. In my mind this is a chapter that shows the strength of the socio-cultural perspective, because it allows the authors to ask surprising and counterintuitive questions, such as what if elite-endurance training is not based on science. I can also imagine that this is one of the places in the book where more natural sciences oriented readers would simply be put off, because for them it is unthinkable that training should not be based on science.
Theresa Walton-Fisset’s chapter about the athlete Lopez Lomong casts the notion of endurance in a different light. Walton-Fisset traces Lomong’s life history from growing up in Sudan, where he was kidnapped by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – an organization infamous for kidnapping children and using them as soldiers. He was however able to escape from SPLA. After growing up in a refugee-camp, Lomong was relocated to the United States where he eventually went on to represent the US in the Olympic 1 500 meter event. This powerful chapter can lead us “to consider endurance more broadly in how Lomong lived and survived his many dislocations and adaptations” (p. 141).Seen from my perspective, some of the chapters in the book are prone to make the opposite mistake, namely reading, for instance, neoliberal discourses into every study object.
Lomong might be considered an inspirational hero, and in another chapter, Danielle Peers examines three Canadian endurance athletes with disabilities who are considered “inspirational”. The quotation marks are used intentionally, because Peers deconstructs the stories about these three individuals who set out to race across Canada (Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo) or wheel over 40 000 km across 34 countries (Rick Hansen). Peers contends that what we see in these “inspirational stories” is an enduring ableism. Drawing on super-crip theory, Peers argues that by seemingly overcoming their disabilities, the stories told about these athletes are sending the message that ordinary people experiencing disability must simply overcome their disability, otherwise they are underachievers: the “seemingly positive inspirational stories can negatively impact the life chances and social movements of people experiencing disability” (p. 148). Elaborating on the super-crip critique, Peers further undertakes a genealogical analysis of these “inspirational heroes” showing how the media treatment of these endurance athletes was tied to Canadian settler colonialism, nationalism, eugenics and neoliberalism.
One of the issues that strikes me in reading this book is the tension between individual experiences and wider social discourses and forces. The phenomenological perspective – which is my own preferred theoretical position – is often criticized for being universalist and unable to deal with issues such as power and oppression. Seen from my perspective, some of the chapters in the book are prone to make the opposite mistake, namely reading, for instance, neoliberal discourses into every study object. At certain moments in my reading I wondered how the author(s) got from the empirical material to his/her conclusion. Examples are Hanold’s conclusion that “ultrarunning endurance becomes a maker of the ideal citizen … who makes choices that results in success and satisfies individual desires” (p. 193) or Weedon’s chapter about mud-running’s “striking resonance with the social Darwinist doctrine” (p. 45). Although I follow Weedon’s line of reasoning about the similarities of mud-running to social Darwinism, there are also differences between the mud-running industry and social-Darwinism that are not considered (e.g. the eugenic tendencies in social Darwinism). Similarly, with Hanold I would say that even though the majority of the participants in ultrarunning are white, heterosexual men, it seems far-fetched to conclude that ultrarunning “contribute to the conceptual subordination of other identities as capable of flexible citizenry” (p. 194).
This might of course be a matter of theoretical inclination. From my phenomenological perspective, I find that at some point individual experiences are silenced and overlooked because of a theoretical ambition to connect these experiences to historical movements or contemporary discourses. Others might see it differently. However, it might also be more than simply my own perspective. There are authors in the book who address this impasse. Richard Pringle, writing from a post-structural perspective, suggests that “running should not be thought of as a practice for selected identities … but simply as an affective practice done by the bodies that run” (p. 108). Also, Perrier and Bridel conclude that endurance “is simultaneously an individual pursuit and a socio-cultural phenomenon. But even in making such a statement, we realize that we continue to reproduce the disciplinary boundaries that have been created between the individual (psychology) and the context (sociology)” (p. 208). They therefore ask, where do we go from here?
In conclusion, the book is an interesting survey of endurance and endurance running from socio-cultural perspectives. Although I have criticized a few of the chapters (and I must stress that these are the exceptions rather than the rule), the book offers much insight into running as a cultural phenomenon. The book is interesting because it offers a scholarly contribution to a contemporary, socio-cultural practice, which for the most part is dominated by natural scientific perspectives that tend to quantify running into durations, intensities and frequencies.
Copyright © Øyvind Førland Standal 2016
|Table of Content
Part 1: Running Beginnings
Part 2: Running Because
Part 3: Running Bodies