Shortly after last New Year’s Day, I began writing a post about significant changes to the running world over the past 20 years, hoping to come up with twenty such distinct and nontrivial observations without having to reach too far into my own ass to complete the list. January 1, 2000 — the incorrect but popularly accepted first day of the current millennium — was two weeks after my 30th birthday, a month and a half after my first sub-2:30:00 marathon, and not long after I’d started writing regularly for Running Times; I was also a first-year high-school coach in the process of being sucked unofficially into teaching for a while. It was not long before I started recording running performances that would stand as lifetime bests, which I produced mostly in two distinct periods when I was 31 and 34, and a couple of years before I moved away from New Hampshire “for good.” (Those who episodically binge-drink as if trying to kill a talking tapeworm cannot count on typical timing when it comes to life events, such as peak athletic prowess, and must always strike while the iron is hot. All of the truly useful things I did in my twenties and thirties could be compressed into a stultifying tearjerker-documentary less than an hour long, with over half of the included footage faked, X-rated, or both.)
Baystate Marathon, October 1999. Photo by Kevin Molloy.
I thought a year ago when I started the post that it was the cutest idea since either sliced shit or a national media environment designed to enrage rather than inform the public, pick one. 20 changes in 20 years…slap it together visualwise and you get…2020! That’s, like, now! Or was. But rather than exploit this clever and timely numerology, I left the post as a half-formed idea in a draft, back on Blogspot, knowing the year 2020 would last another 350-some-odd days anyway.
Maybe I should have gone for it in January after all; this is too easy now. Since March alone, according to a variety of sources I’d be insane to divulge for free, the sport of running has undergone more interruptions than in the two previous decades combined. The majority were the direct result of COVID-19, such as the cancellations of most major events, whereas others happened as an indirect consequence — lockdowns bred “virtual races” and demanded novel types of output and through-put from scrambling content-creators aplenty.
The examples I offer below aren’t of the “moments we’ll* never forget” type. They are transformations I have observed in norms, driven or facilitated by technological, cultural, or within-sport legislative shifts. You’ll see that in some cases, my attitude toward a given change is neutral, while in others it’s openly caustic; in some places. I’ll mention whether I was surprised or not, to the extent it’s honestly possible for me to know anymore what I expected of an entire subculture and sport that long ago. You’re free to challenge the validity of any of these, boisterously, for what little good that will do you. I’ll probably light your ass up good and insult your choice in music, too.
I am not including one-off events (e.g., the suspension of a prominent athlete) as themselves signifying any kind of change, unless they’re associated with the introduction of new policy; rather, these events are more often confluence of multiple instances of the aforementioned shifting norms — at the end of the post, I’ll continue mutilating a long-deceased equine with a familiar example.
Some of these noted changes, maybe most, are inter-related if not inter-dependent, and separating them into different categories was a matter of personal taxonomic discretion. Many are intended to take a grand, arcing swipe at an insincere or unapologetically mistaken someone or something, and to inflame them into fits of banning, blocking, deleting, reporting, and long, dolorous whaaaaambulance rides.
1) GPS or it didn’t happen. Right about the time I was running my last batch of decent races, in 2004-2005, almost every runner I knew with even a little disposable income was picking up a Garmin watch (I got a used one as a present). Not long after that emerged the capability to share one’s GPS data with others on a Web platform; today. “Strava” is used as a noun, adjective, verb and pet name, and people think you’re weird if you’re faster than they are yet keep your data to yourself, given that “everyone” has a training profile, even if they keep it private.
I say this with affection as well as an easily sexualized form of rage, because even before GPS, I was posting my own training on my website, uninvited, with a lower degree of accuracy and just the basics. That means that, while every yutz with Internet access now feels obligated to sign up for Strava, I had to go much further out of my way, creating my own “odometer” files and FTP-ing them to my site once a week or so. In the end, we’ll all burn in Hell for whatever forms our most ostentatious behavior assumed, but I’ll be in the bluer portions of the central roastery’s stinking-to-high-here flagship bonfire, as I had to do more than just download an app to broadcast all of the seven-minute miles I was accumulating at a startling rate.
2) The glorification of unabashed posers. Twenty years ago, someone whose writing and state of mind were both patently dilapidated would never have become a running columnist for a major media outlet. But even assuming they had, they would have been rightfully snickered at for trying to spin a failure into a win — not for failing but for dodging reality and changing the subject to themselves (in the nation’s longtime paper of record, no less). The same was true of lying about a running accomplishment for the purpose of elevating one’s own perceived standing; if you were, say, an everyday chucklehead claiming a new 30-second mile PR, and it turned out that you’d run it downhill and estimated the distance, people would have genially punched you in the genital region just to see if their fists met meaningful resistance before gliding taintward.
I did not see this one coming. I’ve always liked to see running as a place that punishes pretenders by its very structure; if you’re slower than you say you are, you can only hide this for so long. But had I foreseen Facebook et al., I may have gotten an idea of how the ass-waggling rabble (see #14) would seek to gain more control.
3) The digitalization of running media. I’m actually surprised that running magazines still exist in print form at all. It’s not a surprise to see magazines focusing on trail and ultra events apparently doing well, because the associated events have always tended to draw more thoughtful and, well, literate types than everyday road races do. The up-the-middle publications continuing to appear on supermarket and Barnes & Noble shelves have necessarily shifted toward embracing cultural zeitgeists while continuing to incorporate as much gear, pro-running, and training wisdom as they can without replicating what people can find for free, which isn’t easy.
There also now exist a number of outlets operating as some combination of weekly newsletter, podcast and website, structurally like this one and supported (or supportable) by reader contributions, but with far more of an obvious stake in establishing a business presence. One of these stands out to me as having a far more earnest mission than the rest, all but one of the ones I’ve seen represent a great deal of focused labor, whether or not I agree with everything that’s in there.
It looks like an essentially impossible task at this point to earn a meaningful, rent- or mortgage-paying living solely as a running content creator, especially while expressing everything you actually believe about the industry. Within such a small niche, I don’t know how anyone could maintain consistent sponsorship or a sizable reader base without eventually either feeling frustrated by an unwillingness to speak freely or pissing someone off enough to incur a real cost, especially the current exchange-of-ideas environment. But I do know who the people are I’m rooting for to pull it off.
4) An utterly confused, insincere brand of feminism. Olympic gold medals were awarded to Caster Semenya in the women’s 800 meters in 2012 and 2016. After the sport finally dealt, in a half-assed way, with what it had known since 2009 or earlier — that Semenya has testicles and for sports purposes is ineligible for women’s events — the reaction from no small number of “feminists” should have been stunning: No fair to Caster!
But we* have entered a time when some people believe it’s better to look like an advocate than look like someone with a brain. That’s really what this boils down to: A lot of people have convinced themselves that anyone who opposed Semenya’s inclusion in women’s running is a bigot, not just sexist but possibly racist, and in any case wielding unfair snap judgments that must be at the root of the “Hey, wait, ‘naturally elevated testosterone’ is a wrong characterization!” noise.
Perhaps because so many of these observers never competed at a meaningful level themselves, or no longer care because they’re older, or are otherwise unaffected by the outcome, they fail to see that this is a zero-sum game of sorts, and that by allowing natal boys to compete as girls, natal girls are being bumped from scoring and qualifying sports in major competitions. Title IX was created because girls cannot in fact compete with boys, and now it’s being chipped away at by a faction of zealots who are almost entirely female.
If nothing else, rather than rage-tweet every time Semenya loses another court decision, maybe folks should take a look at the scope of the realities involved?
5) Pro running in the U.S. is a de facto monopoly. No company should really have this much control over a sport’s national governing body, should it? Could you imagine if Nike or Mercedes-Benz could dictate the competitive complexion of the entire National Football League?
This isn’t a knock on anyone who runs for Nike or a claim that no one running for a different sponsor stands no chance. But we’ve* already seen how unabashedly slanted the playing field is, and other ugly examples exist.
6) Everyone must join. Whether it’s a club representing a local store, a local team, or simply your area code, it’s almost impossible to not belong to some kind of formal running organization these days. The notion of the solitary runner remains intact, as far as I’m concerned; I default to viewing people who goes to weekly fun-runs as exercising the “extrovert” portion of an otherwise generally introverted nature, possibly to get laid but otherwise inexplicably. If you approach social runs that include multiple random people in an automatically eager way, well, I don’t quite understand you yet, but this is probably because more “normal” people are running, even if the average lifetime in the sport of these types might be a lot shorter than the hapless old wackos who never disappear despite their ichor and boozy breath.
7) The erosion of the term “elite.” An entire insecure cohort of American dingbats has been working on this one since before they could consider the matter consciously. It looks like a lot of the jokes 20 years ago about ruining kids via SAT-score- and grade-inflation and the over-rewarding of trivial accomplishments had substance to them. I could accuse people my age of being bad parents, but I think that any generation emerging into a social-media-dominated environment was bound to turn out as this one has.
The epitome of this to me is a quantum jump in shoe technology giving runners anywhere from a 2 to a 5 percent time boost, the number of Olympic Marathon Team Trials qualifiers skyrocketing as a result, and the almost-elite clamoring for the powers that be to simply not account for the quantum leap — and attendant vast number of qualifiers — and leave the standards the same. There is a widespread lack of awareness among 2:45:00 marathoners of the talent gulf between themselves and women running 2:25:00, and some 2:20 men seem to think of themselves as sub-2:10:00 guys who have just had a long run of off-days.
The sponsorship of competitive bozos by various makers of things containing sugar is both a cause and a consequence of this, and almost deserves its own category.
9) An explosion of blogs, followed by their widespread eradication. I’m noting this one because it was a fad that came and went almost entirely between the years 2004, when I started my first blog, and maybe six or seven years later, when Facebook started to supplant the whole concept. We* could see the end coming when we’d* link posts to Facebook and people would leave comments on Facebook itself rather than engaging the blog platform. This was tragic not so much from the standpoint of blog traffic being hijacked, but because it was more evidence that social media was absorbing most of the pointless but fun functions of the rest of the user-generated Internet.
I can’t believe someone who looks as dumb in every public appearance and photograph as Mark Zuckerberg does is actually brilliant, at least in some ways. The same goes for Jack Dorsey, who looks not so much dull as like a set of beady, avaricious eyes perched over an unkempt, increasingly scraggly porn-bush (of either sex) from the 1970s. Another public figure I recently discovered has to be smart is Kayleigh McEnany, who has a law degree from Harvard. I didn’t judge her as a zero just because she lies constantly in the service of people I detest, and because her predecessor was, in fact, an imbecile; to me, she always looks more confused than angry. I struck out badly on that one, but the fact that she has a functioning mind only makes her seem more evil.
10) A shift from road races to other races. The yuppie love affair with marathons actually peaked some time ago in terms of numbers, and now, some of the folks formerly lining up for 5Ks or even half-marathons are involved with not just ultra and trail runs, but mud races, adventure races, obstacle races, Spartan races, and CrossFit.
It is easy to gain a different impression when attending a road race, because the energy level is completely different. The percentage of people who actually warm up rather than collect around the starting line is a lot lower. The number of people running with phones and electronics not connected to their wrists is far higher. None of this is surprising, but at one time there was a sharper line of demarcation between groups of people visibly preparing to run themselves nasty and groups of people who had just stepped outside the door of the local YMCA for an easy noontime three through the downtown mall.
11) Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. I can’t say for sure that in the 1980s, road-race participants were an inherently more honest bunch of people, even when dishonesty was more aligned with their own will and self-interest. But the evidence seems to support this. For one thing, a higher fraction of the population participating in an activity that slants toward oddball traits assures that the group as a whole will come to look more like society as a whole (reversion to the mean, or something similar in statistics). This has meant more people who take less pride in achieving something and more pride in presenting the appearance of having achieved it; almost every serious old-school runner is very hard on themselves, and that just doesn’t comport well with lying, at least in a way that inflates one’s own record.
The increase in participants meant more races, but inevitably, fewer spots in races people wanted to be seen running in, like the Boston Marathon and New York Marathon. Those have qualifying standards, and this has spurred more people to cheat to gain entry into those races. If the tireless work of Derek Murphy has put a dent in this tendency, there is no way to know, since no world exists that we* can observe in which Marathon Investigations doesn’t. But he sure does manage to keep busy, and, almost against his will, he’s expanded his coverage to include other forms of liars as well.
12) Internecine warfare. I would have been disappointed in the disphit war perpetrated against Laz Lake no matter its origins, but the fact that it came from within running makes it far more nefarious. None of those involved has uttered one word of apology despite Laz reporting death threats and I don’t expect this to happen even if the idiot who started this unravels altogether and winds up institutionalized.
This isn’t the only example. When Lindsay Crouse “exposed” an already suspended and long-maligned Alberto Salazar as a dirtbag coach and person, she did this in such a way as to portray every male coach as fundamentally incapable of coaching women, rather than focus on the story at hand. The associated video even takes aim at an earlier story about Cain — in The New York Times Magazine. It was also grotesque of the New York Times to run this in the opinion section rather than clean it up and commit it to a true news piece, something Crouse is fundamentally incapable of generating.
13) The loss of mystique. This may sound curious coming from someone who built a personal running website in 1998 (well, there was a dog on it too) just to spread his own version of noise around, but the immediacy of today’s running environment, and ability to extract thorough data about just about anyone who has raced in the past three decades, is a bit of a bummer. I liked showing up at races not knowing absolutely everything about who was on the line, including what they looked like. Now, most pro runners are considered reclusive unless they post two-thirds of their meals on Instagram, and we* know almost exactly how fit every runner is heading into a race, including just where on Earth they attained that fitness.
I think each of us has a tech-communications “sweet spot” corresponding roughly to both when we* grew up and how gregarious we* are in general. Someone 20 years younger than me probably finds welcoming the idea of having to wait a full day before seeing race results obtuse. Lots of Boomers, on the other hand, couldn’t care less if they see their or other people’s results enshrined on the Web at all.
14) A global battle for ass-supremacy. Every woman at a certain fitness level should understand that her ass looks 1) the same as it did the day before, excepting dermal abrasions and other surface changes, and 2) the same as every other influencer’s ass from the same cohort. Ladies, you really can stop now. There are at least 56.3 million individual photos of female runner-butts encased in some kind of form-fitting fabric on Instagram alone, spanning a remarkably narrow artistic and visual spectrum.
This says a lot about all of us* that we* already know, and like most basic things that drive people to get out of bed every day, it’s funny and sad at the same time.
15) The aerobic AV club. This is basically #6 above, rounding out the picture to affirm that anyone who doesn’t have at least one publicly accessible running profile is seen as suspicious. Even if you don’t want such a thing, Athlinks will helpfully create one for you, which you can then make private, another move that engenders suspicion among stalkers.
16) Moral fascism. This is pretty simple. Fat people, intersex people, transgender people and ethnic minorities are above reproach, especially when boasting these traits in combination. As a corollary, opinions can be dismissed strictly on the basis of age, sex and ethnicity as long as the person with the opinion is approximately my age, sex and ethnicity.
I won’t get into this one here since it will form much of the foundation of upcoming material. But if you want a hint as to where some of these yahoos are taking their cues from, it’s not just the usual suspects like Vox, explaining to at least a few astounded music-appreciators that Beethoven’s 5th is racist and classist, rather than, say, so beautiful that people shut up to listen to it and a well-known product of the composer’s battle against incipient deafness, and Vice, castigating white vegans for appropriating food; look no further than venerated Time Magazine, which is here to remind us* in one of the most 2020 articles ever that even Helen fucking Keller was an exemplar of white privilege.
17) Everyone wants a coach. Everyday adult runners used to follow schedules they dug up from a magazine, a book or online and use these to train for a specific race. Now, a larger portion of the population enlists the services of an online coach. As someone who knows a little about this, it’s a lot more about people wanting another set of eyes on what they know are iffy habits than specific wisdom, and they want to know why they’re being asked to do a given workout (a lot of such coach-hirers go on to coach others).
While I enjoy the friendships I have made over the years this way, I can’t compare the thrill to actually coaching a team. That’s no slight to any individual, as most of them have been on teams and understand the differences in commitment and variables. I do think it would be useful for anyone contemplating online coaching to have taken a stab at coaching a group or people first; this is kind of like being forced to learn a foreign language via sheer immersion rather than from, say, Rosetta Stone.
18) Anti-journalism “journalists.” In the past, people who wrote about running generally had no compulsion to fellate the famous. The whole nasty, craven phenomenon of “wokeness” fomented mainly by well-off white whiners also didn’t exist, so circa 2000, most of the anti-speech stuff was coming from the religious right. That’s no longer the case, as these days, any recriminatory word or gesture toward anyone from an oppressed group — even jerks who clearly have it coming no matter their color, sex or whatever — is disregarded as some kind of bigotry.
It’s also been interesting to watch some of the same people badly bungling the Semenya stories sucking up to the same women, mostly U.S. mid-distance superstars, who have been adversely affected by illegitimate entrants like Semenya their races. The only thing that permits this dualism is the combination of cluelessness and slavering on the part of those responsible.
19) Not-even-joggers being taken too seriously. It’s one thing to put an everyday runner on the cover of a running magazine; such folks are the people who read the magazines, after all. It’s another to seemingly grope for the absolute bottom of the competitive and behavioral barrel to do it. We* need to be serious about how slow a seven-hour marathon is, and how precarious it is to popularize someone who has to occasionally fib about cracking the vaunted 16-minute-per-mile barrier, before we* go on championing stuff that we’d* punish severely if our* own kids did any of it.
Would I be lauded, at my modest size and mostly non-Asian heritage, for taking up sumo wrestling and insulting everyone around until I found myself with lucrative sushi deals? Nope, because I don’t have a whole deck of race cards to play.
20) Most of all: Every direction in which my own running has gone, intentionally or otherwise, is clearly the best one for everyone, full stop. I used to run races, most at what was to me an honorable enough level of effort, and now I do not; I used to see a running world fronted by honorable enough leaders, and now I don’t. As a result, I’m inclined to think that anyone who’s unhappy with some aspect of road racing should just quit, kind of like switching from bellyaching incessantly about the news to realizing you can opt out without being ignorant of necessary things in your midst.
One obvious example of something that didn’t happen until more recently is narcissist-joggers posing as activists and using the shutdown as an opportunity to have all sorts of fun, the archetypal example being vandalizing the social-media page of a virtual race and then lying about it, with some of the purposefully unreliable remnants of the running media catalyzing and promulgating his bullshit over and over. Cancel culture and rampant self-promotion — the two malignant, intersecting offshoots of earnest social-justice efforts that bored millennials and Gen Z-ers masturbate to most feverishly — had their feet in the door of running before 2020, but that door was splintered over the past bunch of months, more in the manner of a hundred screeching, harried toddlers armed with punch awls and soiled diapers than via a SWAT-team-style authoritative breaching.
Whether it was bitching about nonexistent sexism in a race announcer’s call, grousing from ostensibly pro-women’s-running sources about testicles being banned from circling the track in women’s races, or complaining that not enough slow people are allowed to gum up the works for those gunning for Olympic berths, this was certainly a year for creating problems in the event no real ones could be found. It was a year, whether anyone wants to face it or not, in which the overwhelmingly anti-Trump running media, in showing its moral righteousness, adopted pretty much every shady tactic of the man they loathe in “fighting iniquity,” first and foremost that ugly, inbred clown’s incessant placing of himself at the center of the universe.
If anyone besides runners gave a rip about running, this stuff would gain no traction at all. Why do you think Chris Chavez homed in on running as a side job? He can’t come up with a new idea to save his life and doesn’t even pretend to face criticism, but because the environment (mostly Chavez himself) is both attention-starved and so presently welcoming of outright leftist nonsense, he doesn’t see any need to. Hopefully he’ll eventually grow tired of the whole subject of competitive cardio and take his sixth-grade-level cheerleader pieces to a pursuit better suited to his moral and literary bent, like youth fartlighting, and be replaced by real advocates and humanists like me. Some of that is meant in jest.
The factor driving almost all of the uglier changes to running is naked self-interest. Again, Crouse doesn’t hide this, she advertises it. Most of these neo-egoists lack the rhetorical refinement to mask their avaricious intentions, but others can somewhat convincingly frame their “ME! ME! ME!” outbursts as something else, mainly because so many readers are jealous of their ability to receive credit for no good reason whatsoever.
I suppose I could wind up on the wrong side of history after all of this, in addition to easily being tarred as an “-ist” of various kinds. But I will never change my stance on lying and smear-tactics having no place in anything (harmless showmanship can be accommodated), and I doubt history will, either.