I’ve done a lot of running over the past three years, and I’ve made seven observations about the endearing traits of running culture. I may not be enough of a champion to get paid when I run, but I am accomplished enough to share nondescript ramblings with others on the internet with relative impunity, so long as I preface the whole shebang with the phrase “I am not an expert.”
Disclaimer: NSFW language ahead.
1st Observation: Rationales for Running Are Unclear
So why run at all? Ask most runners and their answers range from “I’m crazy,” to “I have no clue.” With an asterisk, I lean towards “because it feels good”, but note that this is not 100% ingenuous. I feel good about 30% of the time I run; the other 70% is okay too, but that’s because I am a somewhat of a sadomasochist.
To be fair, our ancestors ran as a way-of-life: if you didn’t run, you didn’t eat, so it could be that runners refuse to deny their primeval food-gathering instincts. That argument should theoretically hold strong today: “Want to eat that donut? You’d better run for it!”
Of note to my fellow male runners: let’s be honest, we’re not doing this for the physique. Our skinny arms, droopy shoulders, and bench-press allergic chest coupled with our perfectly sculpted abdominals isn’t winning us any covers of GQ magazine. Runner’s World magazine does not count.
So if food doesn’t realistically motivate us to run, then there has to be some other, more compelling reason right?
Two words: finisher medals (because finishing is just as good as placing). And I’ve got a growing tin box of them, ready to whip out in the event my future grandkids think their decrepit grandfather was good at nothing. Surprise, your pop-pop was good at finishing races before 74% of other competitors! They’ll likely roll their eyes over the piles of non-descript, unknown local races that a maximum of 30 other runners ran, but hopefully they won’t figure out that last bit.
San Francisco to Sacramento is just under 90 miles. I don’t know what circuit in my brain makes me think running a distance of a similar length will be at all pleasurable. My experiences have told me that this will not be true. Either way, said tin of medals will probably include a finisher buckle or two from races that are unreasonably long, i.e., anything greater than 50 miles. Non-runners would likely argue that anything greater than one mile is unreasonably long.
2nd Observation: Training is a Non-linear Experience
So now I’ve got some goals (finisher medals). Let’s recap my last three years of training and what it’s done to help me obtain them:
What’s training? I commit to running 3–4 miles every 2–3 days, give or take 2–3 days, with the occasional, annual, 8–10 miler thrown in for good measure. Out of sheer convenience (laziness), I stick to the same, two loops close to my apartment for most of the year. I become a pro at managing Oakland’s Lake Merritt pedestrian-avoidance schema.
My physical therapist coaxes me into swinging heavy, Russian-designed metal balls, called “Kettlebells,” between my legs, proclaiming that it will be good for my core-slash-gluteus-maximus strength; her obscenely fit physique does not make me question her one iota that she is 100% correct. I promptly buy two on Amazon. They make for great conversational pieces sitting underneath my coat rack.
Goodbye tech job, hello yoga. I convince myself that pursuing flexibility of body and mind is a good career move, and commit to a bruising schedule of yoga 4–5 times per week. Somehow this will help my running, right?
I’m still training-by-gut, but spatter $55 half-marathon registrations throughout my calendar to bribe me to train at longer distances. I glance over the fact that I’m paying someone else to encourage me to run, but hey, at least I’m not donating other people’s money to help raise awareness for some obscure cause that affects exactly one person.
Two marathons into the year and my IT band makes a sound like an untuned E-string of a rarely played acoustic guitar (thud); I must be doing something wrong. After a month of living a non-runner’s life, I decide to get my gait analyzed. Similar to my half-marathon registration bribes, I ponder the implications of having someone film me running on a treadmill, standing on two legs, squatting on one leg, and then subsequently telling me that I’m not kicking my legs far back enough, all for $300. After a couple weeks of changing my running style, my IT band is now somehow tuned to A.
Two years of disorganized running is enough, and I start blocking off time on my calendar. I go from being aloof about scheduling training runs, to using algebra to calculate ideal distribution of distances, to throwing that all out the window and paying someone else to do it for me.
I get a coach — whom I’ll call ‘Planks’ for the purposes of this essay — who turns out to be one of the sweetest persons on Earth, which seems kind of counterintuitive given my aforementioned sadomasochism, but it works. She reintroduces me to the notion of sprinting around an oval, bringing back suppressed memories of pre/post-race vomiting at high school track meets. These too, oddly work wonders for my training.
My $55 half-marathon registration motivators now transition to $145 marathon registration motivators, but the math just doesn’t add up; shouldn’t double the distance be double the price? Oddly enough, 50 kilometer trail-based races go for $85, because runners are much more pragmatic about running and going full Jack Shephard in the woods. Race organizers seem to have lots of $5 bills lying around.
3rd Observation: There is Oh-So-Much Jargon
The best way to summarize running culture is the idiom created around it, often encouraging non-runners to say that runners are “such nerds,” thus keeping an implied status quo of runners versus non-runners intact. As with most technical speak, acronyms are common, and running has some choice ones, such as PR (course personal record), GAP (grade adjusted pace), and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Shoes are also key to running jargon, with my favorites being: zero-drop, cadence, maximal running, stability shoes, and pronation. I defy you to find a runner who can accurately define what any of these mean.
From time to time, you may hear the mythological term “a runner’s high” (emphasis on the a). Some proclaim its existence to be reserved for those with only the purest of running hearts, while others (non-runners, hello) deny its existence altogether, thinking runners have marketed out the word pain in place of high. Again, runner vs. non-runner status quo remains in place.
Finally, no runspeak would be complete without the proverbial set of name drops. It’s not surprising to be riding with a shuttle full of 90-pound bodies on the way to a race’s trailhead and hear the sounds of a fellow runner listing the 33 pro athletes who frequent the shoe store she works in, such as Scott Jurek, Magdalena Boulet, or Anna Frost. On a long enough shuttle ride, someone will mention the mythical Kilian Jornet, almost as if out of thin (literally altitude) air, and how he inspired them to run their fastest race yet, but almost died in the process.
4th Observation: A Runner’s Strava Profile is Akin to a Dating Profile
My analytical mind obsesses about data and analytics, so fitness tracking applications like Strava make fitness all the more fun yet simultaneously depressing: Strava is the center of an active runner’s life. Aside from adding a wealth of new language to the runner’s vernacular, it also, if used properly, can make you feel FOMO in the way only athletes can feel FOMO, especially if you follow enough real athletes. A third of my friends live in Boulder, and the zig-zag of red lines on green Google maps in my activity feed evokes a feeling of jealously that I can’t quite put into words.
There are these things on Strava called segments, where any jabroney can create a custom section of runnable road or trail and name it something barely descriptive or mildly funny, to which all other runners who’ve raced that section can be effectively compared against. Most segment champs are Segway champs, because they’re not fooling anyone (you did not run the Lake Merritt loop in ten minutes, jerk). Planks, my coach, happens to be a USATF champion runner, making it easy to keep my own segment bragging to a minimum, since she runs the same ones I do, only faster and with far less effort. I swear she has cybernetic legs.
Strava tells me that since my (s)training began in 2013 and I’ve logged a meager 1,700 miles, but I’m sure I’ve only enjoyed about 500 of those (remember the 70–30 rule?). Using an unnecessarily detailed spreadsheet that takes into account all my registrations, gear, and time spent, that comes out to about $8 for 7–8 minutes of running per mile. That doesn’t seem too bad, and definitely a steal compared to a similarly priced movie ticket for one viewing of Fantastic Four.
My inner vanity does proudly proclaim that this year I’ve run my fastest marathon to date in about 3 hours and 30-ish minutes but it’s still 25 minutes shy of qualifying for the holy grail of marathons in Boston, so it’s back to the death spiral of depression until I can hit a qualifying time at my next marathon, or wait until I’m about age 60 when the requirements aren’t nearly as demanding.
Sidenote: more interesting personal Strava statistics revolve around the perimeter of Lake Merritt, which is about 5 kilometers long: as of this writing, I’ve ran loops around the lake exactly 60 times, 30 times clockwise, 30 times counter-clockwise. I am so fucking good. If you plot the times of those loops since 2013, it’s a crazily linear improvement: the slope of the trendline is generally between 4–8 seconds of improvement per mile on each subsequent run. By my estimates, I’ll be running one minute miles in 60 more attempts.
5th Observation: Pain is Used as a Reward System
Other than shoes, runners do love their pain and will wear it like a badge of honor; running does tend to encourage my own pain-inflicting tendencies. You really can’t appreciate the sport without painstakingly (pun) documenting your pain.
Tendinitis (TEN-DEE-NIGHT-IS when?)
Long, sinewy fibers, known as tissue, connect muscle to various part of bone. If you’ve deboned a chicken leg before cooking, you’ve noted the tough, thin pieces of white, stringy material that you struggle to rip out with your fingers but can’t quite get an actual grip on, continually slipping said piece of chicken out of your hands, which then inadvertently causes you to punch yourself in the forehead. Basically, you’ve got the same stuff inside of you, ensuring that your muscles don’t easily slip off. On certain, agonizingly frequent occasions, these bits of tissue will get inflamed, swollen, irritated etc.: that’s tendinitis. Much to my chagrin, I get a case of this about once per year in at least one of my feet, usually somewhere “on the topsies”. The cause, I’ve heard many times over, is overtraining. My tendency (pun) to run a certain way (pronation, and I won’t bore you with the details of what that is) are significant contributors to this.
Iliotibial Band Syndrome or ITBS (ILL-LEE-OH-TEE-BEE-AL, for the ill-est of tibials)
Similar to the tendons that connect muscle on your foot to bone, a very long band of tissue runs down the side of your pelvis, down your thigh, and connects to your tibia. Mine happens to stick out like it wants to be seen, which in turn looks like a skin-colored racing stripe. Sometimes this tight band of fiber gets a little too tight, causing ITBS.
This particular syndrome manifests itself in different ways, mostly in uncomfortable tightness running down the band, but in more painful cases, it can feel like knee pain — it’s one of your body’s fun little pranks/psych-outs making you think you have knee issues — but it’s actually the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of tissue performing a choker hold on your knee.
Overtraining, as usual, FTW here. I’ve been instructed by my physical therapist that rolling out the sides of my leg on a hard foam roller over and over and over again is the preferred preventative measure, but the cure (pain) seems more painful than the symptom (pain), which is actually fine by me.
Shin Splints aka Periostitis (PEREE-OH-STY-TIS and notPERIO’S-TIT-IS)
This tends to be a catch all term for issues dealing with lower leg pain; a runner could have a broken tibia and will still say “Yeah, I’ve got a bad case of shin splints today!” My own shin splint issues tend to be a bit more like something called Periostitis, which I usually get in my posterior (inner) tibia muscle, especially on my unfortunately longer left leg. What shouldn’t come as surprise by now is that overuse and overtraining are the leading cause of this kind of injury. Compression socks seem to help, and I tend to walk around wearing one my left leg, achieving the hipster, asymmetrical look.
Gastrointestinal Stress (GAS-TRO-IN-TEST-IN-AL aka testing your gas)
Some comedians call this “runner’s trots”, and you’ve probably heard numerous horror stories about someone shitting their pants in the middle of a race. Running puts a lot of stress on your digestive system, not just because of all those calories you are burning, but also due to the pure physical stress of things jostling around down there in your internal food sac, including the partially digested $25 plate Frutti Di Mare you may have had because you thought it would be a good idea to carbo-load the night before.
Folliculitis (FALL-ICK-YOU-LIE-TIS aka F-U-itis)
Folliculitis is a bacterial infection that can happen anywhere on your body, but made worse by any sort of friction introduced into the affected area of skin. The actual cause of this condition is actually unknown to me (hot tubs). Since 2015 is the year my thighs decided to explode to cantaloupe-sized diameters, my thigh gap has disappeared and now I have to deal with the repercussions, of which there are a rash (pun) few. If ever there was a reasonable pro to having a thigh gap, this particular condition is it.
Other than the pain of having ingrown hairs get infected down there on a daily basis, there is the vanity play; this condition makes me look like I have thigh herpes. Granted, I don’t have too many visitors glancing at this nether region of my body, but when I do, I feel the urge to preface that “No, it’s not an STD, and no, you can’t get it by coming into contact with it. I think.” If I were dating, this would probably be the sort of thing I include on my Tinder profile (Please note I do not have thigh herpes). My trips to the beach tend to involve strategic placement of towels and hands.
I’ve recently switched to a delightfully self-conscious-making lycra short, and while I feel a little bit on display, what with the genitalia definition, it will hopefully stave off any friction that might be aggravating this condition.
Blisters (There is no bliss here, my friend)
In other friction-related running conditions, blisters are the high watermark of post-race conversation; it’s fun to compare them with your runner friends! Your feet and toes, much like your thighs, apparently don’t like being constantly rubbed against each other or your shoes, and your skin, like some sick joke, responds by creating welts filled with clear, almost viscous liquid, ready to squirt like a water fountain when pricked. Allegedly if you run enough, your blisters become callous, but those can wear out too, starting the viscous (pun) cycle all over again. I prefer to avoid this scenario by wearing toe socks. Somewhat related, no-sock wearers are the ultimate sadists of modern running society.
Note: if you must prick an active blister, you can duct tape them shut, staving off any pain you might have until later, when you have to pull off said duct tape.
6th Observation: You Can Spend Money to Make Up for Athletic Inability
Thankfully, running is a sport of relative simplicity in terms of the gear involved, making it easy to live on a middle class (aka poor person’s) budget.
Shoes are the single most important piece of equipment you can buy, and the one thing fellow runners will be more than happy to talk your ear off about. This isn’t something you should skimp on, as poor shoes tend to be one of the leading causes of previously mentioned running injuries, aka talking points.
As any shoe brand’s marketing rep will tell you, a good rule-of-thumb is to replace your shoes between the 300–400 mile mark, but you can save money by proclaiming that you’re slowly transitioning to a minimal sole, thereby wowing your runner friends with your hipness, and then proceeding to run those puppies to nubs all the way to barefoot soles, achieving the ultimate in runner hipster status.
My own go-to shoes are two pairs of the brand Hoka One Ones. These things make you feel like you’re running on top of stale marshmallows. The shoe’s notable feature is its thick-ass cushioning and it’s thick-as heck without being too squishy. A word of warning though: these are the ugliest shoes ever, kind of like platforms from the 1970s, but at least they make you feelpretty afterward.
Shoes aside, let’s talk about Injinji toe-socks, which are essentially socks for Vibram FiveFinger nerds; I’m thankful that no one can see that I’m wearing them. Since my toes don’t rub against each other when I wear these, my blisters have become a distant memory. Something to keep in mind when wearing socks like these, though, especially if you wear thicker ones, is that they widen your footprint, potentially making an already snug, likely narrow shoe, cramped like a BART train to San Francisco at 8:12am.
For the most part, I’m not a stickler for running apparel, but I do regularly wear one of six pairs of North Face’s Better Than Naked 5-inch shorts. While I agree that they are “better than naked”, why someone would want to run naked is beyond me, given all the jiggling involved, male or female. The F-U-itis issues that I mentioned earlier may cause me to abandon these beloved shorts altogether as I move to a more snug pair of 80s lycra shorts, sans pastels.
Once you learn that you don’t have to carry your own water on race day, you’re golden. That’s some pro-style shit, especially when you realize that during a race volunteers are essentially chauffeuring stuff to you for free, and you don’t even have to clean up the mess you made after trying to shove that full Dixie Cup of H2O into your mouth, successfully getting about half an ounce of sweet hydration until the next aid station about 5 kilometers away. Unless you have personal staff on retainer to set up aid stations for long training runs, however, hydration packs are an okay compromise. I’m a big fan of Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra Set vest for long trail training runs, as you can essentially wear the thing without an undershirt; if North Face sold the same thing, they would likely brand it the Better Than Naked Hydration Vest.
Most runners experience a steady evolution of their fitness watch brand loyalty and consumerism, and it goes something like this:
Level 1: Nothing
Level 2: Fitbit or Casio
Level 3: Nike SportWatch or Apple Watch
Level 4: Garmin Forerunner or Polar M
Level 5: Garmin Fenix or Suunto Ambit
Level 6: Nothing
There’s a corollary to Level 6, where most pro-level athletes are, and that’s if you have a relevant sponsor, you’re probably going to want to use their shit if you want to keep getting the monetary benefit, but for all intents and purposes, pros don’t need to carry around one of these things.
Most runners usually get stuck somewhere between Level 2 and 3. A buddy tells me that in certain parts of Boulder, Colorado, your dating life is essentially over if you’re caught wearing anything less than a Level 5 watch. I know that sounds a bit snobby, but it’s unfortunately true.
I like to think of runner’s nutrition as KISSS: Keep Intake Simple with Salt and Sugar.
There are these things called salt pills, which are highly recommended for any running activity longer than one hour. When you move, you sweat, and when you sweat, you sweat tears of sodium. On a hot enough day, you can lose about three Big Mac’s worth of salt in an hour, and without it, dehydration isn’t far behind. Think of our ‘ol buddy NaCl as the ultimate in body fluid regulation.
Clif Bar has an affinity for leaving consonants out of their product names, and they don’t disappoint with Shot Bloks, my default race nutrition, which invoke a personally distorted feeling of childhood nostalgia for the gummy worms they closely resemble in texture and flavor. However, let the record show that they are nothing like gummy worms. Eating one of these every 15 minutes during a long trail race ensures a gradual transition from nostalgia to nausea, but hey, at least I’m not choking on that granola bar from Aid Station No.5, as I’ve remembered that hard, crunchy, or solid foods are the devil when you’re moving at more than four miles per hour. I’ve resorted to eating the damn things as an occasional snack, creating a Pavlovian-like push to get me to go out for the run my calendar app has been barking at me to do for the last 15 minutes.
People like GU packs too, I just don’t like having to deal with my gag reflex when I’m already inflicting a significant amount personal nausea. If you must eat one, I find the chocolate flavored kind is the least offensive to my taste buds, and akin to those Jello pudding cups you ate when you were a kid, just not as gross.
I’m sure there’s some running commandant that states: “thou shalt shroud your legs in ice after a run.” Half my freezer is a cornucopia of differently sized and differently shaped cold packs, designed to coddle my legs and feet in sub-zero temperatures. My coach later informs me that a bucketful of ice also has similar, and cheaper, leg-form fitting properties. Hey at least I’m saving water, right?
Seventh Observation: Apparently People Read Books About Running
Get enough running friends, and so too will follow the endless recommendations of books to read. Here’s a quick one sentence reviews of some notable ones I’ve read recently:
Born to Run: So we can run barefoot (on trails)?
Run or Die: Yeah, die.
Ready to Run: You too can be ready to run in 12 easy steps.
Fast Girl: Manic-depressiveness and elite running are quite a mix.
Of course, you’re reading this article, which will no doubt be known as required reading for future generations of runners.
One Bonus Observation
Despite the absurdity of it, for some reason I genuinely love running in ways I just can’t put into words, and that’s all that really matters. If you’re lucky to find a thing you love, you should do it, and make a habit of mocking it from time-to-time.
This post original appeared on Medium