The Xena Files

Last post I talked about the marathon boom, and how it’s being driven by women Not coincidentally, I think, within the marathon community there has been a controversy about the boom, and whether or not the “slow” runners (those who take anywhere from four to seven hours to finish the race, thus running from a 10-minute to a sixteen-minute mile pace) really count as serious runners (a sixteen-minute pace is, after all, as slow as or slower than walking). See the New York Times article about the controversy: Faster runners believe that running a marathon entails running a marathon–running the entire length at a fast pace, racing rather than merely participating.  Those in the slower group argue that participation is the point, and that speed is beside the point.  They run just to finish, and to have a good time.  As marathon numbers have swelled, primarily driven by the slower runners, the more competitive runners feel like their efforts are demeaned by those who participate but, for instance, stop to have lunch along the route, and that the marathon has become a social event rather than an athletic competition.  From the competitor’s perspective, the idea that “anyone can run a marathon” detracts from their distinctiveness as serious athletes.

An historical perspective that the debate has not incorporated suggests that these two conflicting attitudes, the competitive and the participatory, have a long cultural history that earlier split along gendered lines due to the gender role expectations of the early twentieth century.  According to historian Susan K. Cahn, in the U.S. in the 1920’s, women physical educators advocated an inclusive, participatory model of sport where the object was not to win, but enjoy oneself and better one’s health through participation.  This was a deliberate counter to the competitive sport model practiced by male athletic leaders, for whom winning was the bottom line  Of course there were women who were very competitive, and men who just wanted to participate, but the dominant attitude was that competition was for “real” athletes, while those who participated were wanna-be athletes at best.  This historical perspective raises interesting questions today:  what counts as athleticism?  Is participation enough?  Is sport a democratic, inclusive institution, or one based on the principles of competition, which necessarily involves exclusion?  Both?

I would argue that there is a third alternative we might consider as well.  While the competitive model of sport involves an internal focus while training, concentration on one’s breathing, pace, heart rate, etc., based around improving one’s performance, and the participatory model tends to involve an external focus, concentration on one’s surroundings or companions and enjoying the activity, there is an approach to sport than incorporates both of these ideas and that has links to the idea of sport as a form of spiritual practice.  I’ll call this the immersive model of sport–one in which sport is approached as a vehicle through which, as Professor Shirl James Hoffman puts it in the foreword to Sport and Spirituality, we “shape our spirits and create alternative realities and states of consciousness” (xi).  Sport experienced as an immersive practice can involve competition–training hard to perform your best–but it can also involve the joy of sheer participation, an appreciation of the body in movement, a way to step out of the ordinary frenzy of our daily lives filled with the barrage of things to get done and instead experience pure absorption into the activity itself, and a suspension of all other distractions.  Known as a “flow” state, this mode of sports participation can incorporate the best of both the competitive and participatory models, and avoid some of their pitfalls.  I’ll elaborate on this model of sport participation in my next post.

I am truly, truly happy again for the first time in years. Back where I should be, where everything about my body feels right. Running, running, and running some more.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this, and in the United States (as well as worldwide), we are experiencing another running boom. The first was in the 1970s, when people took to the roads in large numbers for the first time, and they are running in much larger numbers today. In 2008, 425,000 people finished a marathon, and marathons have become big business—travel destinations, boons for the economies of the cities and towns that host them. Participation is up from 25,000 people who finished a marathon in 1976:

Year Estimated U.S. Marathon Finisher Total

1976 25,000
1980 143,000
1990 224,000
1995 293,000
2000 353,000
2004 386,000
2005 395,000
2006 410,000
2007 412,000
2008 425,000 (record total)

And that’s just the marathon—half marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks attract hundreds of thousands of others. So why a running boom, why now? I’ve got some ideas about this I’ll explore in future posts, along with the debate about how slow is too slow for a marathon time and whether the marathon should be primarily a competitive or participatory event. For a recent article exploring this issue, see the New York Times, This debate is part of a long history of such debates in the United States, whose sport governing bodies and sport educators have been divided on the question since the early twentieth century. Gender, and a claimed divide between male and female athletes, has been a major part of this debate—men are associated with the competitive model of sport, women with the participatory. This divide persists to some extent to this day, and I will be exploring the implications of this, along with the question of why certain sports are popular at certain times, and how this influences our body ideals. I’ll talk a bit about my own training, too, and its relation to my own ideas and feeling about bodies and gender.

My background: when I was younger, I was fast. I held the Arizona high school state record in the 1600 meters for 17 years I went to the University of Arizona on a track and cross-country scholarship, where I was competitive my freshman year, but so overtrained, injured, and burned out by my sophomore year I was ordered by my doctor to stop. I stopped competing, kept running on my own, but more slowly, and took up weight training, progressing over the years to competitive power lifting and specializing in the bench press, where I was ranked 11th in the U.S. in my weight class for a lift of 235. My body, as you might imagine, was completely transformed, from a skinny, slightly muscular 120 pounds to a dense, extremely muscular 150 pounds.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but what I haven’t written was how unnatural it felt to be like that, what a Frankenstein’s monster I experienced that body to be. At one point I was so stiff I couldn’t turn my head to the side, and it hurt so much to run and I had to do it so slowly that I stopped altogether. When I discovered that the closest I could come to touching my toes was to barely touch the tops of my knees, I knew I had to do something about this and took up ashtanga yoga—an intense, demanding form of practice that follows the same forms each time and takes anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours to complete: Ashtanga changed my morphology again, and after six years I was down to 135 and the creaking cement that had been my chest and shoulders was finally starting to crack.

Then came the mid-life crisis moment, for me the occasion of my 45th birthday last September. In July I decided that I was tired of worrying about aging and the wrinkles on my face, and I was going to do something about it. In the (il)logic of my world, this meant dropping back down to my college weight and body fat percentage (120 pounds and 12 percent), and I bought one of those diet and exercise journals where you record each calorie you ingest and each you burn, along with the relative percentage of carbohydrates to proteins and fats. That did it, and by my birthday I was down to 123 and 11.7 percent. So I’m giving myself a break on that last three pounds.

What I didn’t expect was that at this lighter weight, running felt good again. I started back slowly at first, running only once a week, a six miler on Sundays. By August I’d added some track work, and by November was up to a ten miler on Mondays, a six miler on Fridays, and at least four miles on each of two other days, meanwhile maintaining my ashtanga practice. By December, I’d gotten a Polar heart rate monitor, and was completely, utterly hooked, back in the that running world I’d lived in from 1979-1983, except with a lot more technology attached. With a HRM you can measure not only your heart rate, distance and calories, but your speed, cadence, altitude changes, and pretty much anything else you might like to know. By January, I’d signed up for a marathon in June, another in October that is 26.2 miles straight up hill the entire way and climbs 6,000 feet, and had started to look forward to my runs the way you look forward to whatever activity it is that you love the most, at home in my body in a way I’d never been.  Insane by most standards of sanity, clearly.

What are the implications of this changing body, changing activity slate, changing mind? For me, for you? How is the way we experience our bodies in physical activity a function of gender? What are your current physical training regimes, your backgrounds? I will explore these issues in future posts, and welcome your comments on any of these issues.