Monday, September 15, 2008

Running as social activity

Long distance running is a solitary pursuit. It suits people who are solemn and serious and like to spend a lot of time alone.

I suppose that's the usual view of it, or at any rate the view I used to have about it. It didn't stop me from taking up long distance running, as I pretty much see those as positive things, but I've discovered it's only a part of the picture.

The most obvious manifestations of the social nature of running are the mass marathons. The biggest ones draw tens of thousands of runners, and even the small, local event I took part in the weekend had 2500 participants. Add to this the friends and family members that show up to cheer for the runners and you have a big crowd, and a big event. And in the events, there are the locker room chats and mass warm-ups, the nervous jokes on the starting line and of course the comparisons of experiences afterwards.

Of course, there are now many online forums (fora?) and services for runners that create communities of runners. People share training tips, experiences, race information and just hang out. The proliferation of GPS-trackers and other performance monitors has created a new family of services, where you can keep track of your training online. All the data gathered during your run, your heart rates, speed, course, cadence etc. are logged to an online journal that you can then share with others. And people find others to run with, which is convenient for keeping your motivation up between races.

The feeling of community stretches beyond all boundaries. Running is hugely popular and there are runners everywhere. And when you meet, your shared identity transcends all the differences. This became very clear when I was running in Sapporo, where I otherwise felt very alien, and then came across this other dude who was jogging. There was this quick "hi there" when we passed each other, but there was also this moment of connection that I hadn't felt in days. We both knew what we were going through and was we were about at that moment.

So most importantly, there's the experience of running together, and that's of course amplified when running together with a horde of people. As you push through the kilometres you are inadvertently syncing your pace and even your steps with those running around you. And syncing steps has pretty much the same function as dancing or playing music together. Pushing the boundaries of your endurance together with others is a strongly meaningful experience.

The field of social psychology was in a way started by observations that cyclists would go faster when there was an audience - record times were seldom broken in practice, but often in races. This social facilitation (and it's opposite, social inhibition) was later studied in experimental manner, and the tradition still lives on in much of social psychology (study of social anxiety, groupthink, team dynamics etc.) .

I do enjoy the quiet me-time I get on a long run, though.

1 comment:

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