Numbers and Running

Running is obsessed with numbers: distance run, elevation climbed or descended; minutes and seconds used up to complete X-event, age of runner, position finished – according to age-group, gender and whether one is or isn’t a professional or serious competitor. Chris, a friend who I run with, endorsed our coach for being ‘a numbers guy’. That is, Sam bases his training methods on sound, legitimate and well-tested training methods. Later in the training session, he talked about a different set of numbers: he gave an anecdote of fellow amateur athletes he trained with, who had thousands of followers on Instagram. Their Instagram success was greater than their athletic prowess.


It wasn’t always like this. The Olympics in the olden days had inconsistent distances for their running events. And, in the satire by the late and saintly John Clarke, The Games, the shambolic organising committee make the great faux pas of having a not-quite 100meters 100meter race. I swapped stories with Chris about how fellow runners have taken pride in achieving personal best times for 10km or half-marathon events when the tracks have been found out to be short of the correct distance. At such moments, the inexactitude is forgotten and provides the less-than-honest runner with a moment of satisfaction. Modern sports are characterised by a uniformity of performance space, an obsession with records and specialisation.

During a half-marathon a few years back, I overtook a runner and heard him complaining: ‘the signs are wrong. We’ve already done 13km.’ We had just passed the 12km mark. The funny thing was though, we had taken a wrong turn at the start of the race, owing to confusion at the front, and then, like the veritable sheep that we were, we all took the wrong turn. So, even though we’d all end up doing the wrong distance (too long), at least we had all been equally inconvenienced. What would matter in the end, would not be our ‘half-marathon’ times, but how we were placed. Never having competed against our fellow competitors though, the results were a general guide at best.

Many runners wear watches which track their pace, speed, distance and heart rate. While running, the watches will vibrate and make some kind of noise to indicate when they have finished another kilometre. The runner often looks at the watch to make sure that he or she is running at the appropriate pace. Adjustments are made in part by how the runner is feeling and the information provided by the watch. Perhaps it is possible to suggest that the more accomplished the runner, the closer the match between ‘watch-information’ and ‘gut feeling’ is. Upon signing up for races, runners nominate their expected finishing time as this determines where they’ll be grouped in the starting line-up. Sometimes, runners will need to show evidence of having completed a certain race within a certain time to qualify for a certain starting position. The buzzing, high-tech GPS watches may also create a discord with the information that is provided to runners during the race: often-times runners’ watches buzz out-of-sync with the markings on the side of the road.

The standard 400m athletics track diminishes the need for GPS watches. The runner should, after all, be running along standard, exact and precise distances. Yet the conditions of the track, and what the track is made of, enhance a runner’s performances. A 5km time on track should be faster than a 5km road race: which is played out on a irregular circuit and on a harder surface. A springy track makes running easier: the clear demarcations of distances also provides runners with opportunities to better time their sprints or their final pushes before reaching the finish line. My running coach in Leiden said to me, ‘as, they say in the classics, “there is always room on the inside”.’ Such advice bellying the presumption that overtaking happens only the outside lanes. For geographer, John Bale, it is the athletics track that best exemplifies the modern-sport urge to remove any natural element from the field of play.

A runner can also use other runners of approximate ability around him or her to measure his or her performance. There is an advantage of running in a group. Being in amongst others can shelter one from the wind. Following another runner’s pace is easier than making one’s own pace. Falling into the pace of another runner takes away some of the effort of running. Yet, this too can be problematic: trying to stick with a group that is too fast for one’s ability, quickly shatters the runner’s ambition of achieving a personal best time. Running in a group is also one of the primary moments in which ‘gamesmanship’ takes place between athletes. Some runners shirk the responsibility of leading the pack – choosing instead to remain protected within the inner part of the pack. This breaks the unspoken bond of ‘sportsmanship’ between athletes (amateur or elite).

Kipchoge1Running as a ‘time-sport’ in its purest form was articulated by the corporate sports giant, Nike, recently, in their project: Breaking2. The project’s target was simple: have some athletes run a marathon below 2hours. Nike designed some shoes specifically for the runners; the runners raced with teams of pacer throughout the full-distance (save for perhaps the last 100m); a laser-beam tracked in front of the lead group to indicate their ideal position. (Video: Breaking2) I found something squeamish about this event: it was as if Nike (it could have been any other corporate sports company) were turning these runners into entirely predictable, breathing machines. By its own measurement the project failed: the sub-2hour marathon wasn’t broken. Eliud Kipchoge finished 25seconds over the mark. Although I found the project somewhat squeamish, at the same time I found some pleasure in watching Kipchoge’s beautiful stride and poise. This could be the sports paradigm of the future: where championships, games, and leagues disappear and instead, are replaced by corporate sporting events for invited athletes only.

It’s a long way from this sense of running, articulated in Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: “it’s a treat being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do or that there’s a shop to break and enter a bit back from the next street. Sometimes I think that I’ve never been so free as during that couple of hours when I’m trotting up the path out of the gates and turning by that bare-faced, big-bellied oak tree at the lane’s end. Everything’s dead, but good, because it’s dead before coming alive, not dead after being alive.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 4.59.14 pmNumbers and running. It seems if we want to be runners we have to subscribe to the tyranny of numbers and technology. Contemporary long-distance running competitions mix the professionals with the amateurs. And, in the huge city marathons, the elite runners could almost run the full-marathon course twice before the last runner crosses the line. In the numbering, quantifying and corporatising of amateur sports, the weekend warrior and regular runner frequetly mistakes him or herself to be elite. Amateurism shifts from the ideal of Sillitoe’s narrator, into the corporate wet-dreams of Nike and sub-2-hour fetishisation. When running is overwhelmed with numbers, its art and corporeal pleasures are diminished.


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