The Finishing Kick: The Mind of the Runner

By December 1, 2007Running Times Magazine

Is there a runner’s worldview?

By Rachel Toor
As featured in the December 2007 issue of Running Times Magazine

Here’s an odd argument for a running magazine: Does it make sense to speak of the mind of the runner? The runner’s worldview? The runner’s lifestyle? Does it make sense, even, to talk about the runner’s body type?

Not to me.

Essentialist outlooks are common. It’s not hard to find someone to argue that men and women are fundamentally different, that dogs and cats can’t get along because of the way they are. There’s a story from the movie “The Crying Game” about a scorpion who convinces a frog to let him hitch a ride on his back, even though the frog is afraid the scorpion will bite him. When the scorpion bites the frog, and they’re both about to die, the frog asks why he did it. The scorpion says he couldn’t help it — it was in his nature. This is the argument of essentialism. I don’t buy it.

Not wanting to think about life — and people — in ways that reduce and flatten into generalities is one of the reasons we read great literature. Things are interesting in their specificity.

I do not believe that there is such a thing as a runner’s worldview. In the first place, that would beg agreement about who gets to be called a runner. I won’t rehearse the stale arguments here about joggers, “Gallo-walkers,” whether Marion Jones or multisport races should be featured in a running magazine, but I will stop to wonder who gets to decide who gets to count. There are many different ways of running. To me, they are all valid.

If you start looking at the reasons people run, the diversity becomes even greater. In college I found my best excuse for not running from a friend who paraphrased Dorothy Parker’s crack about how it’s better to have written than to write. I don’t do things I don’t like to do. But there are plenty of runners who prefer the way they feel after the run is over. There are runners who don’t like to race; runners who never wear a watch; those who run only in the company of others; those who go only by themselves. Some devour each issue of Race Results Weekly and plenty couldn’t name one elite marathoner or Olympian of any year at any distance. Some run only on the track, some only the trails.

Many lace up their shoes out of fear of fat, many because they believe it’s good for them. Are these people not real runners? Do they share a worldview with those who think that if you can’t run a marathon in under three hours you shouldn’t be allowed to buy running shoes? If you’re not cachectic and wearing a race shirt and impossibly tiny shorts all the time, do you not look like a runner?

My own relationship to running has changed over the years. From starting out as a way to spend time with my dog and boyfriend, I discovered the painful bliss of a hard workout, the fun anxiety of racing, the kick of winning, and am now coping with the fact that I’m never going to get any faster.

When Jesse Jackson declared that black people should have an identity descriptor not about skin color but about national origins, many people wondered how he got be the one to speak for African-Americans. Who speaks for women? Can we assume that every New Yorker shares a worldview? Are these big groups monolithic enough to have spokespeople? Who speaks for runners? Who can posit a worldview that could be claimed and shared by the nearly 400,000 people who completed marathons in 2006? How much do their ideas and values about running have in common with those who run 5Ks or don’t race at all?

I love meeting other runners; I recognize something in them (just as I recognize something in people who choose to have rats as pets). But one of the things I most appreciate is how different runners are. Diversity cuts across every measure — race, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, body type, personal history, profession, marital status — and each of these goes into shaping a person’s life, a worldview. For me, running is not definitional. It is something I do, rather than what I am. That’s a good thing because it means that if it turns out I can no longer do it, there’s not as much at stake.

But while there may not be a runner’s worldview, there is certainly a need for a magazine — or magazines — about running. Watching a big marathon is a remarkable experience. Depending on your vantage, you can spot individual runners, sure, but you also see the way in which we all come together as an organism, moving in unison, sharing a common passion, if not a common goal.

I don’t tend to wear race T-shirts (usually they’re too big or too ugly), don’t have jewelry that announces 26.2 in gold, don’t have an On-On bumper sticker on my car. I do, however, wear a watch that sits like a giant tumor on my thin wrist. I wear my watch for many reasons: utility, love (I love my watch), fashion (it is ugly, and plastic, and I wear it even with little black dresses). It announces me, makes me recognizable to members of my tribe. Meeting fellow runners in non-running circumstances can be both enjoyable and affirming. We do, after all, share much.

Life is only as interesting as the tales we tell. Knowing the same stories does not make for a very lively conversation. I believe there are many running lives, many running bodies. I celebrate the differences.

I love running, and I love runners — in all their particular peculiarities. There’s plenty of room in this big world for all of us, with our many and varied worldviews.