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Running with My Tribe: The Communal Nature of the Marathon

Posted on November 07 2010

Runners participating in the 2005 New York Cit...

Image via Wikipedia

I just finished reading an excellent article by Christopher McDougall on the New York Times Well Blog. In the article, McDougall discusses how he initially turned down Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman’s invitation to run the 2011 New York City Marathon with him. McDougall writes that he had always viewed mega-marathons as overly commercial, and that the runners all too often seemed self-absorbed and too obsessed with personal goals. He goes on in the article to describe how his opinions have changed, and how the significance of a marathon lies in the fact that it is essentially a communal party celebrating our human drive to run. He changed his mind, and now will be running the New York City Marathon tomorrow morning with his friend.

I sit here myself writing this the day before running a marathon myself, only mine, the Manchester City Marathon in NH, will be a far smaller scale event than the one McDougall will be running in NYC. Nonetheless, I will be running an event that will be a celebration of months of hard and often lonely work by those participating. The payoff to this hard work is that we get to run 26.2 miles, a seemingly titanic distance, and we get to do it together. Regardless of the size of the individual race, each marathon is at its essence a communal event, a giant celebration of both individual and shared perseverance, and it is largely for this reason that I am so drawn to them.

Extending this a bit further, I view running in many ways to be as tribal an activity now as it was back in the days when our ancestors first begin to run long distances on two feet. Current hypotheses coming out of research labs like Dr. Lieberman’s at Harvard suggest that our initial impetus to run far was to be able to effectively hunt without sophisticated weaponry. In his article, McDougall emphasizes that the hunt was an inherently communal or tribal event – groups of hunters likely prepared and worked together to bring food back to the tribe, and a successful hunt was likely an event to celebrate.

Nowadays few of us run to chase animals – rather, we run to chase personal goals, to test the limits of our bodies, to support our friends and family, and to celebrate life. However, the analogy of a tribal hunt is a very appropriate one. We runners belong to tribes. Some of us belong to running clubs or teams. Some of us run for charity groups. Others, like me, belong to virtual running “tribes” like those on websites like dailymile or Twitter. What all of these groups have in common, though, is that we use them as venues to run together, either virtually or in the real world. We support each other as we log lonely miles out on the road, we run races together, and we celebrate each other’s individual accomplishments. My “tribes” are what keep me motivated to get out there and continue to log miles, and push myself to ever loftier goals. My “tribes” make me a better runner, and a better person. Running is about the community, and that is something that I truly believe.

Running tribes can also be defined by the type of racing that they do. There are the ultra runners, the elite runners, marathoners, 5K runners, those who care about performance and time, and those who run just for fun and enjoyment. Some of us do all of these things, and the common thread that joins us is that we all love to run. We are driven to run despite our differing styles and/or motivations. Personally, I get tired of people complaining that such and such and such style of racing is wrong and doesn’t represent the sport well. The only type of runner I don’t respect is one who puts others down because of their ability or motivations. It’s sad, but there are people like this out there, and at least one has commented on this blog (he put me down for having a 10K time slower than Paula Radcliff did during her pregnancy – the comment was pathetic and offensive on so many levels…).

Nowhere was the tribal nature of running made more apparent to me than in the lead-up to and running of my last marathon, the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon in Hampton, NH. Smuttynose was the first marathon I ran where I had a large group of friends, many of whom I had never met in person, who would also be running the race. We shared the ups and downs of our training in the lead-up to marathon day, we met before the race and shared our expectations, and we were waiting for each other at the finish line to cheer each other in. Just like the tribal hunts of old, we celebrated with food and drink afterward, only instead of sitting around a fire, we sought shelter from the cold in the beer tent. Smuttynose will be one of my most cherished running experiences, and not simply because it was the race that let me join the tribe of runner’s who have qualified for Boston. It will be memorable because I ran it with a tribe of friends, and that is ultimately what makes this sport so special.

Smutty Crew

Me (front and center) celebrating a race-well-run with part of my “tribe.”

Finally, a note on commercialism. I have run races that are highly commercial (hard to beat the Disney Marathon for that), and races that don’t even have expos (Smuttynose), and to be honest, the commercialism of some road races doesn’t really bother me. Perhaps it’s because I’m inherently an admitted gear junkie, but I actually view gear and the companies that produce it to be part of the fun of running. Yes they are ultimately out to make money, and yes I question the value of some of the products produced (a frequent topic of discussion on this blog!), but I have interacted with people at many of these companies, both large and small ones, and never have I felt that corporate greed was the prime motivator for what they do (granted, I’m not talking to CEO’s). Most of them are runners, and I genuinely believe that most people at these companies have the runner’s best interest at heart.

In many ways, gearing up for a race is as much a tribal activity as any other. We runner’s like to follow our pre-race rituals – we have the pasta dinner the night before, and the same breakfast before every marathon. After careful consideration, we lay out our clothes, shoes, and other gear the evening before the race. On race day, we choose things that make us feel powerful or fast, and I personally believe in the psychological benefits that this can confer – is me choosing to wear fluorescent orange arm warmers and shoes with “flames” on the sides so different than my ancestors who painted their face or bodies prior to a hunt or heading into battle? After the race, we celebrate with a ceremonial medal and the oft-seen mylar blanket – both of which distinguish us as successful participants in the “hunt.” And on the evening after the race, instead of painting pictures of the event on a cave wall, we spend time on-line or at dinner recounting tales of the day, sharing our experiences, and congratulating each other on a job well done.

Tomorrow I start the next chapter in my running life. My plan is to run the Manchester City Marathon not for myself, but to help others reach their goals. My plan is to help a friend pace the 3:40 time group, and to be honest, I am very much looking forward to it. I’ll credit reading McDougall’s article for pushing me to make this decision – just as he changed his mind about running in NYC, I changed my mind about what this race would be about. Tomorrow will be a celebration of the joy I get from running, and it will be a celebration that I will share with every other person out on the road, no matter how long it takes them to finish the race. I will probably be unabashedly commercial, recognizing my on-line “tribe” by wearing my dailymile T-shirt and other logo-riddled running gear. And after the race I will celebrate, both in Manchester and on-line with those running that much bigger race in NYC. I thank McDougall for helping me to make this decision, I wish him good luck, and I hope that he has a wonderful race – we will be running together in spirit. We are both runners, and together with thousands of other fellow members of our tribe, we will be recreating the activity that joins us together with our ancestors. To everybody running tomorrow, may you have a successful “hunt,” may you celebrate heartily, and I look forward to hearing your stories!

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