The Laz Lake indignation zombie

Start the cancellation and boycott circus, then watch as the arc of the falling dominoes starts swinging your way.

One strong sign of a dead issue is the observation that the issue has not moved, eaten, or even breathed for several weeks or more. Though thoroughly caked in funk and stank, certain such issues can nevertheless regain the appearance of life if animated by an outside force. The result of such interventions, predictably, is a kind of zombie — something that is only causing a ruckus because certain misguided people keep reciting the same incantations at the worst times, preventing the poor beast from dying in earnest until some brave warrior on AMC fires a flaming titanium dildo (often mischaracterized as a platinum vibrator) through the left side of its already badly dented head from the barrel of a Howitzer.

If it’s not already obvious, I know little about how zombies are actually formed, and less about how they are permanently killed. But I do know what they are, idea-wise. The claim that tax cuts for the wealthy “trickle down” to the shit-eater classes is a great example, credited to Paul Krugman, of a political zombie. In running, the “quality over quantity” debate is a blend of category error and, by my reckoning, Ritalin-propelled zombie. The latest Fast Women newsletter contains a bearded zombie, and in the context of our little running world — rendered all the more news-starved owing to its largely virtual nature — it’s a doozy.

Alison Wade reports that last week, Courtney Dauwalter became the second straight female winner of the U.S. edition of a race called the Big Dog Backyard Ultra, held in a place apparently named for the occasion (Bell Buckle, Tennessee). A backyard ultra — and guess who learned something today? — is not just something held on small loops, but a particular ultratastic thing: Entrants repeatedly complete the same 4.167-mile loop within one hour, resting if they have the time, until only one person remains. The weird distance is accounted for by the fact that someone who hangs in for 24 laps, or one day, will complete 100 miles in less than one turn of the globe. (To me, this is kind of admirable even if the last handful of competitors in “The Long Walk” held 4 MPH, maybe even 4.167, for more than five consecutive days, starting on the Maine-Canada border and ending with a few rifle reports on Interstate 95 near Waltham, Massachusetts, or possibly Danvers. That contest was held in the 1970s future, making unclear whether it has become a historical event yet, so good luck finding details online. But I read about it in an honest-to-goodness paperback book as a teenager.)

It’s a good thing for horror fans that women have won the most recent versions of this race, because this opened the portal for the bearded zombie to swagger on in, albeit knock-kneed and clad only in a badly fraying Speedo and therefore scraping its unkempt, kick-marked scrotum on the splintery doorframe on the way through:

I was disappointed that other than Amelia Boone wearing a “Say Their Names” tattoo that I mentioned last week and Ben Chan’s posts (see previous link), there was little or no discussion of the controversy created by race director Gary Cantrell (Runner’s World) last summer, when he censored posts about racism and social justice in a Facebook group linked to one of his events.

There was indeed controversy over Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell’s decision to disallow posts about racism and social justice (and, according to Cantrell, any sort of politically tinged chatter) on his event page. But this controversy was created entirely by other people — Ben Chan and anyone who wrote or posted about Cantrell’s decision in a negative or questioning way. This claim itself isn’t controversial; if you asked any one of these actors, they would probably agree that creating controversy was precisely the point, as they all went to great lengths to perpetrate and document their confrontations and discussions with Cantrell. But in wording things the way she did here, Wade essentially charges Cantrell with a crime and tells him the running world still awaits his detailed defense.

Now, the reason I’m calling this a zombie isn’t that I side with Cantrell and think whole thing should be settled on that basis, and that people around the world should stop pushing boundaries when they meet the slightest resistance. The reason is given by Wade herself: The controversy died a natural death. Wade expresses disappointment that more people didn’t react in the boisterous way she hoped, but seems to not accept that this is possibly — even probably — because the majority of runners don’t see Cantrell as a bad person for not changing his standard to accommodate a zeitgeist, or at a minimum are willing to respect his “not on my site, please” stance. In fact, there may even be people who find Cantrell’s stance personally odious, but still enjoy his what I am told are well-organized and well-managed competitive running events; and failing even this, maybe people exist who hate both his persona and his events, yet don’t feel the need to torpedo his entire operation thanks to one nettlesome rule or presumed personality trait. (If I pressed a button right now that eliminated every loud critic of Nike who has continued to buy or make use any of its products, right down to the NXN series it stages every…well, most autumns, USATF would soon have to recruit from the CrossFit crowd to fill the U.S. Olympic Trials fields. And I’m not saying those critics are wrong.)

Now for Wade’s not-yet-but-could-become recommendations.

I’ve been thinking about what I would have liked to see instead of how things played out, and I imagine various extremes. There’s boycotting. There’s showing up WNBA-style, in protest, or the more subtle statement, like Boone’s tattoo. Participants could discuss conflicting feelings on their social media accounts and in post-race interviews. When publications write about the race, they could, at the very least, include a line mentioning the controversy. Fans could be more vocal about any mixed feelings they have in following the race, and those who are boycotting as a fan or participant could say so. But the way things played out last week, it felt as if Cantrell had been given a pass and most of the running community had moved on, assuming they ever paused to reflect in the first place.

The summation of these ideas, if put into practice and widely adopted, would be to force Cantrell and everyone else in the running biz to accommodate wide-open social-justice discussions on their own Internet pages, and ultimately on-site, or face the prospect of extinction. After all, Cantrell stated for the record that he agrees 100 percent with Black Lives Matter, but this plainly isn’t enough for some critics. They need all available discussion space open for chatter, including his.

It’s hard to see what the zealots want here other than one of two outcomes: A forced admission from Gary Cantrell that he is in fact a closet racist, or a public woke moment where he happily joins the mob that’s been trying to cancel him all along.

But on the matter of real or suspected imperfection in the world of running businesses, what about an apparel company that inexplicably grants a mid-pack yammering serial bandit “professional” status alongside a sub-15:00 5K runner, punishes its own affiliates for questioning this move, and never offers a single mea culpa in the aftermath? Should that kind of unfiltered clowning around with the sport also lead to a boycott, no matter how free of black eyes the entity is otherwise?

In the late spring of 2017, when I was apparently too busy regretting having just run the Bolder Boulder and plotting my last significant running injury to follow much news, the women’s apparel company Oiselle promoted someone named Kelly Roberts to the status of “professional.” As Mario Fraioli wrote in his Morning Shakeout newsletter that week, this out-of-nowhere announcement put Roberts in the same internal category as Kara Goucher, Lauren Fleshman and Stephanie Bruce. You’ve probably heard of those three, but if you’ve heard of Roberts, it’s probably not because of her times. And if you have, and it is, then you know those times didn’t and don’t match up with those of Goucher et al. At the time, her magnum opus was a 1:42-something for a half-marathon, if my minimal research is accurate.

The CEO of Oiselle, Sally Bergesen, protects her tweets, as is standard for anyone who’s the public face of a large business enterprise, so clicking on the link to her Twitter announcement about Roberts in Mario’s article sheds no light on why Roberts was promoted from a brand ambassador or the like to pro status, and the tweet on the other side of the privacy wall has probably since been deleted anyway. (Oiselle seems to offer a sort of pyramid-style scheme, wherein people can pay for $100 “Volee” memberships that fund “emerging elites,” etc. This is what I mean by “brand ambassador”; if I’m misusing that, or am wrong about the general business model, it’s not important here.) And Mario, though he almost had to have had some idea of Roberts’ running performances, opted to omit mention of them; I can’t say for sure, but I doubt Bergesen’s tweet contained this information, either.

Bergesen’s explanation to Mario himself about Roberts’ new status was an absolute masterpiece of hypnotic bafflegab, something the world’s most sophisticated Boardroom Furby might say if you slammed it against the wall when it was a little low on batteries. She managed to make “She’s slow, but that’s not the point” sound like a recounting of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. I say this with genuine respect.

As always, Mario’s piece was artfully rendered and diplomatic to the utmost; much of the reason I Patreonize him is that he manages to find grace in even the ugliest situations, and views these as stepping stones to a better running world, a capacity I lack and usually don’t strive for unless passively guilted into it now and then. This is why the post he linked to by Derek Murphy of MarathonInvestigations.com at the bottom of the article came as such a jolt; after many paragraphs of Mario’s perfectly balanced cappuccino froth, a visitor to Murphy’s piece perhaps expects a trip to the verbal equivalent of a wide, quiet forest path, not a version of Chuck E. Cheese where they lace the mozzarella with Molly and the kids play in cages with sawed-off pool cues instead of colorful feather-weight balls. (That’s not a pan of Murphy’s writing, just a nod to how flagrantly absurd and nasty his subjects can be.)

This series of eye-opening paragraphs was, in fact, the second of four posts Murphy would write about Roberts in the first two weeks of June 2017. You can take what you want from the whole batch if you choose to explore them, but if you accept my summary instead, this is basically the tale of a previously anonymous showboat who, through bloviation and bullying disguised as “I am who I am, so suck it” feministic bravado, has parlayed a series of antics and excuses for those antics — some fairly dark — into sponsorships, a spot on the cover of Women’s Running, and other swag, all under the auspices of “body positivity.” What material losses she may have suffered along the way appear to have been replaced by commensurate gains, but that’s a guess.

To digress one more level further from Laz Lake: Rather than try to dredge up an appropriate definition of “body positivity,” I must take a moment to reflect on the popularity of the term, and on the fact that Women’s Running titled that same July 2017 issue “THE BODY ISSUE,” and that Bergesen, in her not-at-all-smart-anymore Furby mode, claimed the day after the publication of Mario’s article that Roberts’ body-acceptance was the very reason for her upgrade and made her feel better about her body, and that Roberts’ entire current-day shtick revolves around continual, defiant references to her own body. Is anyone else confused as to why naming an issue of a magazine called Women’s Running “THE BODY ISSUE” and trying to shut down references to female athletes’ bodies, on the surface competing strategies, are in fact gambits being promulgated by people in the same crowd at the same time? I’m not blind or devoid of empathy; I understand the discomfort some people undergo being seen exercising by others, no matter what they’re wearing. But I also grasp that you can’t constantly push fashion and fitness and, in some cases, soft-core porn all in the same product, then retweet a popular running yuckster’s ill-advised social belch that completely contradicts supporting “body positivity” and expect to be taken seriously throughout. (I guess the answer to “When is body positivity allowed to exist?” really depends on whether you’re trying to sell subscriptions or tights, or whether you want to augment your 30-ish male wokeness cred. The level of indignation from retired pro runners on this topic, on the other hand, usually seems to depend on how openly they despise their former employers.)

Anyway, you can learn from Murphy’s posts that Roberts was caught in a number of lies, after which she vehemently went after the messengers, offered post-hoc rationales and justifications for her behaviors to those who would elevate her standing in return, and, almost two and half years after the initial kerfuffle, showed she had devolved into even more of a piece of work, rallying her hordes against Murphy last fall in blaming him for the then-recent suicide death of an unusually notorious marathon cheat from Los Angeles.

I’m not sure how or why Ms. Roberts’ relationship with Oiselle came to an end, but it must have been kept quiet. In her current iteration, Roberts is basically a professional asshat, having moved on from her pot-stirring with no apparent remorse and recording a 3:37 marathon last fall. She has version 1,001 of a strong-runner-chicks-ish online presence, rife with philosophical bon mots like “fuck dieting.” You can find her website — and the story of the millionth first person ever to discover the joys of exercise as a sedentary young adult — on your own, if you want to see an intentionally obnoxious person crow about achieving notoriety for a “hot guys with selfies” stunt and throw in the usual buzzwords about empowerment and inclusivity.

All of this easy sloganism would perhaps be less nauseating without the knowledge of what Roberts has done, how little a price she’s paid, and, most of all, how unapologetic she evidently feels about it all. People are extraordinarily good at excusing their own transgressions these days, and “I was weak and vulnerable” seems to be a curious favorite among those who boast about their vim and courage the rest of the time.

Besides Roberts’ own lack of remorse is a second bothersome thing: One of the people who questioned her pro contract, Aysha Mirza, was dropped from Oiselle for “bullying” immediately after her questions began. Those questions were well justified; Roberts’ resume at the time included the 1:42 half-marathon, purchasing a number on Craigslist, banditing races, and being brash. If you do choose to do a deep dive into the whole mess, you’ll see that Roberts herself is a proud bully, using the heft of her deluded following to try to intimidate people like Murphy into silence. Maybe Bergesen couldn’t know that at the time, but she might have taken stock of Roberts’ plainly deflective responses when it came to her banditing races. You can predict with a high level of accuracy that relentless bullshitters like these will turn out to spit poison at anyone with the temerity to call them on their moral lapses, which rarely abate altogether.

In any case, today, the link to Roberts’ Oiselle page is dead, and I suspect Mirza and others within Oiselle who questioned these matters in real time never got an apology.

And hey, “body positivity” is great. (Is there any other answer?) But it’s kind of like the presidential race every four years: Is this really what rose to the top? Brands can and usually so find “body positive” runners who aren’t also proud assholes on the side, or even front and center. Oiselle had clear warning signs about what they were dealing with; Women’s Running had already posted Roberts’ “Sorry not sorry” months earlier, and even without the benefit of hindsight, that one should have been an easy corporate call.

But how to adjudicate this, now? Should people treat Oiselle and Women’s Running as ill-begotten or negative forces in running because of their roles in promoting the name and face of a still-steamrolling gasbag? Honestly, the more I look at what she pulled just with Derek Murphy, the woman is a fucking disgrace. I know what it’s like to be dragged through the mud for telling the truth about dirty-assed liars, all of whom maintain the same general strategy. At least my own haters are too insane and devoid of messaging capability to command significant followings. (Roberts now has 6,000-some Twitter followers, which is more then ten times the number I ever had or wanted, but, as I understand it, a dogshit number for an “influencer” — a term that should itself be boycotted, censored, deleted, suspended, blocked, banned, filtered, banished, reported and removed.)

What this was, simply, was a mistake on the parts of Bergesen and the editors of Women’s Running. I can appreciate what Bergesen was trying to accomplish and why she rolled the dice, and also why she seems to have declined to explain how she and Roberts parted ways, which could probably only have been managed by leaving a visible scar even given Bergesen’s manifest verbal dexterity. And in Roberts, WR had found someone with a lot of the qualities it rightly wanted to promote, leading them, it appears, to ignore a little more of the baggage than they ought’ve. (Ought’ve? The hell? I’ll leave it.)

Did anyone learn any valuable lessons? Influencers and progressive business leaders are big on revealing what they learn from their mistakes, with those mistakes often credited to someone or something else nowadays (“I had no choice, the bib was too expensive”). Not here! Not Roberts, obviously, other than maybe believing that she can run from the stink of her own rancid effluvia for the rest of her life and clear a profit in the bargain. Bergesen? Well, she learned to protect her tweets at some point, though perhaps this is unrelated. Mirza probably learned that honest questions earn you a kick in the twat and out the company door (not the same portal that previously admitted a zombie, above) when social-justice concerns lead an obviously bright person to pick an obviously wrong person for a highly visible corporate role. Okay, this diatribe is past being at all helpful, and there’s no heat in this house until late morning, what this supposedly did for J.K. Rowling’s literary career notwithstanding.

My feeling is that most people find Oiselle to be a significantly positive force in running, and if that sounds murky, it’s because I honestly don’t have any more information than that. And, recently, I mentioned some great work being done by Cindy Kuzma for Women’s Running on the subject of women coaches. I think they both screwed up here in the same way an NFL franchise that takes on a known man-child of a Pro Bowl wide receiver or something; the allure of the potential benefit just outpaced the estimated risk — and in the end, there are always more wide receivers out there.

Oh, and since I still have at least a few rounds left in the magazine, I’ll return one last time — I swear! — to the zombie du jour. It also bears mentioning that, to my knowledge, none of the aforementioned activists, plus a few I’ve mentioned here recently but won’t now, were on board with BLM — now a seven-year-old invention — until the events of this summer. I realize that this, in general, is a shady way to a undercut an argument; after all, everyone who is part of a social movement was not a part of it at some earlier point (especially those whose activism consists entirely of blind retweets), and part of any movement is getting others to agree, often by strong means, that the end product will be a more enjoyable and equitable society for all of its members. And things have felt kind of tipping-point-ish, although that’s been the case for about five years now. But perhaps the people now insisting that everyone else needs to tune into the same frequency might consider how recently and under what circumstances their own inner transformation occurred, and whether it’s really fair to punish people for not wanting to play by brand-new rules — even those who feel much of the same urgency the activists do about the social matters in question, but have prevailing business or other concerns that the activists really ought to respect, or at least not come at with a fascist blade.

I truly hope the Trump administration is handed its walking papers next week; I’m tired of his face, his noises, his inbred slimeball progeny, and the general hate of him. If I didn’t detest the influence of religion so much, I’d be less wary of Republicans, who would then just be Democratic grifters with a different cover story. I’d like to actually be able to forget who the U.S. President is for a while, absent a sharp blow to the head or the inhalation of too much bus exhaust. But I do wonder about some of the possible consequences of a Democratic sweep. The phenomenon I’ve described here and previously — of censorious behavior not just by “the left” but by members of the left media or its equivalent — has not historically stood up well, at least when a state that has newly veered to the left is eager to practice it (and I view calling for boycotts as a manifestation of the same phenomenon); the monster always winds up eating its own. Although it might be premature to compare Joe Biden to either Leon Trotsky or Max Robespierre, or whoever is supposedly in charge of Venezuela at the moment, the historical precedents are in place for some really strange stuff. I used to think my friends on academic faculties, liberals all, were turning paranoid half a decade ago about the rush for power in their circles by people with extreme, and bad, ideas. I really do worry what kind of ugliness might result if the far-left crazies get their teeth into many policies. The idea that public intellectuals can be used by the state via the media to compel the mob to obey this or that is an old one — perhaps even a zombie. Its consequences are never good, unless breakdowns in civil society are your thing.

All if this appears to transcend the running world, but it would be nice if people who run could try to do two things today: 1) Not lie to the general public, especially in the name of what you see is a just cause; 2) Not seek to shut down or otherwise punish every form of public expression that doesn’t conform to your current vibe.