The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

This here patch of a newly nebulous world

Toward the end of February, as what is now a crisis of uncertain but still-growing magnitude was still at worst an abstraction for most of us in these gloriously United States (remember these races?), I was doing a twilight 30-minute run and thinking about some ancient interview with a runner-on-the-street type in the wake of the Boston Marathon, probably on WBZ out of Boston in the 1990s. I don't know why my memory apparatus seized on this nugget, but in it, the ebullient, endorphin-powered subject was going on about how running is different from other sports because the pros line up with the rabble and so everyone is literally racing them, sort of. This is a common and longstanding observation, pre-dating the "second running boom" of the early 1990s characterized in large part by the emergence of intentional walk breaks in marathons.

But this reality has taken on enormous gravity in the age of social media, in particular in a sport that arguably has no real professional locus and in which user-generated content on sites like the Letsrun forum, a smattering of podcasts and blogs, and Twitter essentially serve as the media. And in recapitulating the evolution of both the public arm of the sport and society in general over the last 20 years, I realized that a significant chunk of what I will call my own confusion over the way some observers have chosen to cover professional running is a precise and inevitable consequence of this reality, the commingling of elite and everyday, blog-equipped human presences.

I actually stopped on my run for a second, across Colorado Avenue from the now-deserted particle-physics and astrophysics complex and the photovoltaic cell array behind it (standing near all of which makes me feel wicked smart) to consider the sum of these things. Some of the opinions I have perceived as purposefully intrusive bedevilments are the calls for justice, attention or both (mostly attention) from the sorts of people whose voices were until recently completely external to professional sports, by orientation if not always literally. By this I mean I have been surprised to see professional running, or at least road racing, treated the way it's been in the mass media, which amounts to a demand for reforms that make very little sense to anyone interested in running as a competitive pursuit. And at times, I have tended to conflate benign feel-good stories about arguably unwilling participants with screeds in the same publications about how some patently illogical stance should be adopted as sort of a test-case in the sports world as semi-blind payback for genuine injustices showered on a specific half of the population. As a result, I've sought out these stories not just expecting but seeking reasons to shoot them down.

It took me a while to figure out that the aforementioned nonexistent pro-amateur boundary is why road racing is, like as not, the perfect laboratory for blending niche social reforms with athletic competitions. If you're not an Olympian, you can tell almost exactly how short of that level down to the tenth of a percent. It's not a big leap from there to "This class of runner is arguably knocking on the door of elite" and then to "this particular arguably almost-elite runner makes a good vehicle for a prickly social-justice column." And from there, it's all but assured that most opinion columns about professional running in the mainstream media are actually about the author's life and excellence and aspirations and convictions, with high-level running more of a recurrent and lazy theme and present only so the author can personally connect himself or herself to it.

Again, I am well aware that many major outlets have adopted a HuffPo-style, unpaid- or low-paid-columnist model, and that no one serious about running believes that this kind of self-immolating blather either reflects a typical world-class runner's opinion or elevates the profile of the sport. Most of what I have seen from longstanding observers and non-ax-grinders of both sexes contrasts with the glop I keep dipping my face in just to see of the scent of piss from five feet away is my imagination, and it rarely turns out to be. As a result, I actively support these nobler efforts when this option if offered. It's like two cups of coffee a month to become an elite-level Patreon supporter.

There's another thing I've been slow to pick up on. While it's just as well that magazines and their associated websites are no longer most people's main source of running-related information and inspiration, those of us who were writing for them when the Internet was still mostly Usenet jokers are continually aware of the differences between now and then. One of the most obvious is writers' recently evolved insistence on becoming parts of their own stories, in some cases being willing to look proudly foolish in the process. And had I been born two decades later and emerged into early adulthood with the same basic aspirations, I suspect I would have done the same thing.

20, even 15 years ago, space was at more of a premium and magazines would only put out stuff were primarily interested in, at least if they were paying for it: Training articles, pro interviews and results, gear reviews and occasionally something resembling humor columns. The phenomenon of "Meet these 5 runners who are almost sort of sniffing at greatness despite the horrors of a dwindling inheritance, including me" didn't arrive until the running media became subsumed by blogs, social media and, most jarring of all, free space in major publications for flailing activist-narcissists who lie almost as freely the Trump administration if it means getting a significant byline.

Not long ago one of these outlets ran a story about someone who was hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials. The author's response to missing by eight minutes was the stated realization that the impossible is in fact possible, and an unfurling of the dubious ways in which the same author has served as a running influencer. Not so long ago, this would have been met with near-universal derisive laughter (and most people I know still find these pieces unintentionally self-immolating) but now everything is about how you're basically great if you squeeze your eyes shut and click the heels of your Nikes together three times and try to remember whether anyone you know has even been to Kansas lately.

With few exceptions, I don't see any of this behavior as intentionally destructive, and in the end it's not up to me to decide whether running, or sports in general, make good substrate for some of the things I see them being used for.

In any case, we all have more urgent concerns now.

In the first real wave of reality, after shutdowns went from recommendations to mandates and lots of jobs immediately vanished, I counted myself as fortunate, because not only have I consciously prioritized buffering myself as best as possible against the unforeseen for the last several years, and have only one-and-a-half mouths to stuff, but I also do almost all of my work for an online media company, an industry that in theory would be comparatively immune. That was a lot of fucking commas for one sentence.

This attitude was some combination of bland delusion and cynical acceptance, because as humdrum as my life is, the rest of what I had planned for 2020 pretty much disappeared within a week or so.

In January, I got my mom tickets for her first trip to Colorado, which would have been this week. But later that month, she broke her knee in a dog-park mishap, so that was already out, I then decided I would use the ticket to see a relatives in Virginia, including one for probably the last time, but that's out. I am still hoping our entire nuclear family (plus the rug rats) will get together as planned in D.C. this summer, and I was supposed to go to London in the fall too. I know none of this is on the scale of scrambling to meet basic needs, but added together they're sort of the reasons I have for existing.

On March 20, I got my first e-mail since the outbreak from said media company, assuring us contractors it would be business as usual. One week later, they said they would be suspending their Sciencing operations in three days. That left me about 72 hours to finish what I had already claimed; there would be no penalty for dumping any or all of it, but staring at my screen, I imagined every abandoned title as the equivalent of setting a certain amount of cash on fire. Not entirely irrational or necessary, but I imagine the sort of mentality that allowed me to put unlikely amounts of energy into running fueled the writing binge I was able to complete, mostly with tabs open to various critical skirmishes with Internet loons. (I can't look at sports stats anymore.) Starting in late January and ending on March 30, I cranked out close to $14,000 in writing work for one company in a ten-week period. This was unusual, but I thought I was saving so that I could slack off and take a bunch of trips for the rest of the year, not so I could better weather a pandemic. It is also oddly congruent with the biggest mileage bender I ever perpetrated, close to 140 miles a week for 10 weeks at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002. The running was harder.

My own experience includes lots of parts that would be convenient to forget, but one thing I was forced to learn thanks to repeatedly making very bad decisions is that ordinary people (and I qualify, despite a cherished habit of impulsive, righteous and over-wrought screeds) can be extremely resourceful when their backs are truly against the wall and there is no one but perhaps the arm of a faceless system to rely on. I am watching the different reactions of different friends and correlating them almost automatically with how much real adversity they have faced. Hopefully, people in these disparate groups can learn lessons from each other. I know one formerly homeless person who will be running the damn city soon if she keeps breathing fire down the city's neck, but that is another tale.

Maybe more than anything else I still sometimes marvel at my own ability to take a hard pass on perfect opportunities to self-destruct. I'm doing about the same hour of running a day as before and sticking to the guidelines I'm supposed to. I'm enjoying the warming weather and trying not to view it as a paradox. When I can, I spend time around quality people who are looking more to persist than resist in terms of how local and global events are reshaping all of our lives. I trade small favors with people in a time when simple transactions mean more. In all, it's nothing different from what I've been doing for the past several years, not without notable but tolerable disruptions to my serenity (mostly of my own making), and I'm glad I was able to get my act together before something like this happened because I cringe at imagining where I'd be now otherwise.

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