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How running became the city’s collective obsession

The Running Cult

Last year I turned 30, broke up with my long-term boyfriend and moved into a tiny apartment for one. The domestic vision I’d had for my future—marriage, a semi-detached fixer-upper, kids with endearingly arcane names, homemade pie—dissolved overnight. When I tried to reformulate a picture of my future, alone, my imagination failed. Usually when I’m lonely or stressed out, I run. I’ve been running non-competitively for 10 years. It eases my anxieties more effectively than anything else I’ve tried: psychoanalysis, yoga, eBay buying sprees, binges on HBO series, even anti-depressants. When I run, for one blissful unmeasured hour, my brain stops spinning.

But after the breakup, I was having trouble getting out the door. I’d stare at my bare feet dangling off the edge of the bed, with the intention of putting on my socks and shoes, and find a reason to crawl back under the covers and watch another episode of Friday Night Lights. My running shoes went six months without feeling the warmth of human feet, during which time the ills normally staved off by running crept back into my life: insomnia, anxiety, the loose-fitting pants I store in the back of my closet.

It was during my hiatus from running that everyone I knew seemed to take up the sport. If you head out to High Park or the Beach boardwalk on a Sunday afternoon, or just look out your window right now, you’ll see them—gaggles of breathless runners chatting away or bopping headphoned heads, playing an unspoken game of one-upmanship that’s partly athletic and partly aesthetic. Or maybe you are one of them—an excessively hydrated, neon-clad, chisel-calved urbanite with a marathon on your mind and a bounce in your step (but not too much bounce, lest you strain your knees).

Friends of mine who once jogged casually a couple of times a week were suddenly amateur marathoners, and they were all too eager to tell me about it. At cocktail parties they’d regale me with the triumph of their latest barefoot race, extol the benefits of deep massage foam rollers for aching muscles and show me the settings on their new GPS watches (one friend carries hers in her purse, just in case she needs to fit in a run, or a conversation about a run). I had never talked about running because if you are a non-runner, you don’t want to hear someone prattle on about her cardiovascular supremacy; it’s like listening to vegans talking meat ethics at a barbecue. Obviously things had changed.

Acquaintances started pelting me with well-intentioned imperatives: “You should join a running group,” or “You have to sign up for a race,” or “The sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line is amaaaaazing.” Their descriptions of the marathon experience rang with the reverence of new converts. Supporters will lionize you with Magic Markered signs, I was told, strangers will shout your name at the top of their lungs (it’s written on the bib you wear on your chest for this purpose), volunteers will bestow medals upon you, and your friends will marvel at your will power. It’ll change your life, they promised.

  • Chris Sanger

    I’m a big believer in barefoot running, but I haven’t been able to find much that looks good at the bar/coffeeshop/whatever so I’m making my own, plust %100 of the profit is set to go to the East Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. Check ‘em out!

  • meh

    Hah, it’s so true about the narcissism. It seems like everyone is craving that pat on the back. I get a constant stream of times, photos, and blah, blah, blahs about their latest runs and races on twitter and facebook. Enough already!

  • ExRun

    Timely article, and nicely read.

    You describe one of the facile aspects of the running community I’ve seen take over from the 80′s and 90′s when running was something people did, like swimming and hiking. People did it in a big way or a small way, but the obsession in personal reinvention was never there. I always saw people become who they were over time, good or bad, so I’m not sure why the focus on short term massive transitions. Running long distances is very ill-suited to that kind of transformation.

    I come from the “inside” – a long time elite level track and cross country competitor for well over a decade – I enjoyed red-lining as a norm, but I can’t for the life of me get excited participating in the sport as it has become.

    For the record far too may people run marathons!

    That 10k you ran should have been your limit for the first couple of years…it would ensure you had an element fun while remaining physically capable of walking to work after the race day. And you don’t require much gear…just a low level commitment to be active. Light running here and there will do…your body would respond in kind by getting stronger at it’s own pace.

    Good luck. Seek out the running clubs, not the running clinics. Far more patience, better coaching (Toronto Olympic Club has lots of Olympic Calibre coaching), and the camraderie is genuine.

    And no Lululemon ;)