Promoting showmanship-activism is an editorial choice. Platforming liars is unethical and immoral.
The misuse of media authority is what really needs canceling.
For a sport in which the outcome of any competition hinges on hard data — times, distances and places, in some combination — distance running has come to boast a lot of bullshit. Aside from those in it mainly for the racing or the exercise, running attracts a lot of creative, insecure dreamers with ample spare time and a yen for being noticed. I don’t mean predictable, mostly innocuous showboats who lead the first quarter-mile of major road races in Speedos and George Bush masks, but deeply unsavory loudmouths who demand power and lasting influence. The number of formal support roles in the sport such as coaching, counseling and physical therapy is limited, and, sadly for the insecure dreamers, associated with proper qualifications, long work hours, and low public profiles. As a result, people without much leg speed or basic endurance, or any interest in or ideas about how to improve these things in themselves or others, have begun finding other ways to leave their marks.
Illustration courtesy of Paul Lachine.
As soon as everyday yahoos figured out that in road races, they technically share a platform with the best runners in the world, a non-negligible percentage of them decided to make hay of this, especially once the Internet came along. Who says only fast people in footraces deserve attention? In fact, why not “celebrate” every entrant who clogs the streets all day and struggles to finish, because waddlers are “athletes” too — even and perhaps especially if they’re miserable, aggressive members of society? (Latoya Shauntay Snell is your current Runner’s World cover model, by the way.) You can see the marketing symbiosis in place here, and it’s largely what pulled so many people into marathons starting in the 1990s, when it would have been better for all concerned except for the producers of mass-marathons if the targets had maybe learned to enjoy and appreciate running itself first.
I was recently asked to participate in what I believe is a popular podcast in its niche, with content that appears to overlap here and there with serious running. The host told me that every time he reads one of my posts, it brings him joy. When I asked him to elaborate, he declined to give details other than my willingness to say that the emperor has no clothes. He wouldn’t even say what he wanted to ask me about, offering only the idea that I’d benefit from the added exposure while his listeners would be entertained — a win-win. He assured me that experience had told him that an off-the-cuff interview style was the way to go. All of this pointed unpretentiously toward setting up a spectacle of random babbling with someone seen as enough of a loose cannon to ensure a few uproarious lines, no matter what else was said. Once I got past being dumbfounded at the sheer nakedness of his motivation, somewhere in our polite exchange, I tried to explain that generating noise in the running world just for the sake of competing with other noises is precisely one of the things I’m vocally not a fan of. The fact that some of the clamor seems harmless enough is no reason for me to feed into it. But why bother? Despite what to me would be giving up an hour of my day to something like a doctor’s appointment, I couldn’t get him to yield one bit on the “So what will we talk about?” issue; we weren’t even having a real conversation.
From this genial but fruitless exchange, I tried to extract some insights. The host said I’m the only one willing to speak the truth, or something. I’m not sure how bold it is to express opinions I’m confident the majority of runners hold, even if practically every media outlet not starting with “Let’s” offering any running coverage has fallen into the control of dishonest or lazy editors or flat-out publicity-whores and pain-vampires whose writing and thought processes are those of a middle-schooler. It’s not a popular idea to heap public scorn on race directors in an effort to cancel them in a flurry of shifting, dishonest accusations. (I’ve changed my mind about Chris Chavez; he’s just another self-interested prick who can barely write understandable sentences.) It’s not a popular or remotely logical idea to simultaneously embrace “body positivity” and condemn the merest mention of appearance or athletic physiology by an announcer. It’s not a popular idea to have a gibbering, profiteering, gaslighting liar who has a hard time breaking seven hours — seven! — for a marathon road event on the cover of the most prominent running magazine in the U.S., and, counting its overseas brands, the world. So why don’t more people who find these things disturbing and talk about sports as a profession or side job offer their own jabs?
It’s hard for me to fully appreciate the very environment I am commenting on, because podcasts are a major part of it and it’s hard to get one going unless you already have a media platform. This apparently means a lot of mutual linking (a term I haven’t even thought of since about 2005) between podcasters and reliance on people up the chain to help get your voice out. This in turn can mean having to be publicly discreet in ways that may cause inner turmoil. Some of these personalities have been sending me good ideas, and I’m not yet even halfway through the electronic pile. So I get the idea of a serving as a vessel whose words others can own or disown at their convenience — it’s not new and cable-news networks largely survive on it, and it’s the only thing that explains why a blustering clown like Jordan Peterson has been invited anywhere.
But I won’t be a part of incoherent salvos. While it should be clear enough that I have no bridges to burn and no reason to exercise any kind of a filter — and I again stress that this is different from stirring up needless bullshit — I’m not here to blindly entertain. I just have a very low tolerance for ugly behavior and a keen desire to express it. And, yeah, it can be fun, because I almost can’t think of a better set-up for me than someone who has no apparent brain or journalistic integrity holding a position of editorial importance at The New York Times. The idea that even a blogger is above reproach for foisting garbage on the public is long dead, so if someone is going to sit on her ass in Manhattan and be paid handsomely to churn out endless mounds of disruptive bullshit, she accepts criticism as part of the gig, at least implicitly (in the modern lowbrow tradition, Lindsay Crouse likes to delete tweets that don’t play well).
I appreciate at a surface level that the podcast host who extended an invitation likes what I wrote here, and that he thinks he’d be doing me a favor. And if having people on and just shooting the breeze gets him the traffic he desires, great. I can only guess his heart is in the same general place as mine, with indirect evidence of this being our shared appreciation of the Ultrarunner Podcast site. (I admit that I listen to few podcasts, but just the work Mr. Schranz puts into his daily link roundup and the questions he invites about them is enough for me.) But even though I don’t require a script or advance knowledge of specific questions, it’s hard for me to feel as if I’m part of good story-telling without some kind of shared framework. I’m tempted to say “I know most people feel this way,” but maybe they don’t. Maybe the idea is to gain attention first and refine your messages in accordance with that attention second. If so, it’s not that different from the print periodical world, the Fox News/MSNBC/CNN model, the talk radio world, or the unholy nonstop fuckspree of Internet “news.” But I like the traditional PBS/NPR style better, just with more cursing. I mean, it’s okay to not only have a point but explore it more systematically than “Yeah, those guys can suck it!”
Every podcast I enjoy has some kind of format and fulfills some kind of advance promise. On the other hand, while some people like the way I write, others feel it could be improved without the profanity and dribble-on sentences. Whatever. Being an imperfect story-teller is one thing. Systematically promoting falsehoods, however, is not just bad writing or bad journalism, but immoral. I make zero apologies for any grief I bring to anyone who intentionally creates or advances a damaging falsehood, as all such people are weasels by definition. Journalists and editorial writers posting as journalists who partake in the game are even worse — they’re cowards, heels, and intellectual perverts.
Narcissist-runners and fake activists may liven up magazines and newsletters, but in the end they’re all about personal gain and pissing into the coffee pot. And more often than not, either through limitless dimwit-vigor or a lack of discursive sophistication, they’re happy to tell you this about themselves, like Donald Trump.
“Inclusivity” is a buzzword in running right now, but as a corollary of basic human nature, it echoes faintly at best of genuine fairness. Instead, it suggests that everyone with a bib number and a half-assed reason to scream has a right to a money or publicity scam. And if the shouting this exploits rightful anger about some long-entrenched “ism” — and thanks chiefly to piles of shit like Harvey Weinstein, Trump, and members of various U.S. police forces, it’s become trendy for upper-class people all across America to pretend to care about these — all the better, no matter the human costs or the blow needlessly delivered to the sport itself. In their view, they not only reserve the right to operate cancellation campaigns over nothing, they get to ignore any criticism on principle, and even use undisguised liars and cheaters in the supposed service of improving the running world. They put unscientific, even ludicrous bullshit about intersex and transgender athletes on blast while somehow trying to claim the scientific and moral high ground, and rather than engage thinking people who balk at this, they shut them out. As I will continue to emphasize, they’re secular religious zealots. In the present climate, rather than experience appropriate pushback for this bullshit, the mutual rewards have been plentiful — if attention is the chief currency of concern, anyway. I’m hoping this changes soon, but if not, it’s their bullshit circus now.
There is no cause just enough to justify character smears founded on lies. Everyone who does this is automatically a piece of shit, and I am happy to stand up and say so, to anyone, anywhere, at any cost.
Some of the targets of my criticism here know that they’re involved in this and don’t care; they just want to get noticed and get paid, and most won’t even be running, or waddling, anymore in a few years, to the extent they do this anyway. Others are probably troubled by at least some of their own behavior, but remain more motivated by what they see as mostly positive feedback from their efforts after going through the proper channels to negate or minimize my input.
Maybe 2021 will be a year in which people with sizable platforms figure out that it’s possible to promote social justice and not only be truthful, but rely on truthful narratives. Maybe they’ll grasp that promoting the presence of testicles in girls’ and women’s races, or pretending they aren’t there, is not compatible with advancing anything but the most insane and self-immolating concept of girls’ and women’s running. I doubt it — it’s more likely that I’ll be unironically be called an old, white, privileged sexist and racist, with none of my or related views challenged. But maybe some of the redeemable observers will even learn to stop taking rank, lifelong posers like Crouse — intent on turning a 2:53+ marathon into a sub-2:45:00 through the sheer power of goggle-eyed, dismally stupid yelling from an unearned perch — seriously.
Otherwise, every actor in the play is just making it plain they want their share of the meat before it spoils. They’re too late for that anyway, but I think from their perspective it would better to withdraw some of the rot than throw more of it into the sun for the buzzards like me to fret and pick over. What they’re doing is not sustainable, because while bullshit sells, it’s never the same bullshit for long, and it never leaves its vendors unscathed.
I’m using the loaded word “insecure” here not as a pejorative but simply to describe a person experiencing conflict between the real self and the imagined self. I have many such moments of conflict. In fact, “creative, insecure dreamers with a lot of spare time” describes me pretty well. But other than displeasure with people I see hammering away at what’s left of running as a publicly digestible concept, I’ve never wanted to be noticed just because I can. Even if someone gave me a convincing plan for how I could monetize raising my public profile, I’d be strictly against it if I knew the overall added costs weighed in favor of the status quo.
I’m also lumping random noisemakers, newsletter-generators, established website operators, podcasters, and people in the employ of actual media companies under the single heading of “storyteller.”