In our recurring staple, the Athlete Journal, trail professionals give us a peek behind the curtain. What follows is an essay by professional runner and wisened thinker, Logan Williams. Logan writes with the wit of an attorney and the soul of a punk artist – and we truly hope you enjoy his musings on what space and shape culture has in the running community.
What is culture? More specifically, what is culture within running? These are two questions that have caused me to pause in the recent months.
At its core, the reason for my fixation on this topic stems from a myriad of conversations I have had with multiple figures within our running community. Throughout these conversations, each person proffered a different definition for what they thought culture was in regard to running. Each person also tendered a different view on the role of the athlete and brand, and how each could and should contribute to the “culture” within running.
This dichotomy jockeying within the answers and explanations from each person I spoke to left me perplexed. I was left scratching my head, wondering how so many people who share such a personal act could all have such wildly different views and opinions about what the core values and beliefs within the “running community” should be and are.
As I began to think about this point, I decided that the best place to start was at the most basic question, what is culture? My very simple Google search revealed the following definitions:
Culture as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is, “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as, “(a) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; (b) the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization; and (c) the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.”
As you can see based upon on those two definitions, the underlying current within the construct of culture is the idea of there being some shared “values” within some group of people. These definitions flat out bothered me as I tried to apply them to running and to my personal experience and history with running.
As a runner heavily influenced by music, with a particular emphasis on the punk/counterculture movement, running resonated with me because it was an act that could not be contained or defined by any group. The act of running was left to the definition and expression of the individual runner. The individual runner chose where, how, why, and when to run. It was a unique time carved out of the individual’s life to experience whatever “high” running brought them. Often this time correlates to sharing miles or even multiple runs a week with friends and other runners. However, at its core it remains a solitary act of choice, with each runner being there for a completely different reason.
It was these thoughts that prompted an interesting realization. What if we, as runners, have been trying too hard to define what these shared values are? What if we have been attempting for too long to try and conform to an ever changing, and undefinable set of individual values and ideas?
I think that personally, we have been trying too hard to set a standard upon which we then try to conform to when it pertains to running. In doing so, I came to realize that much like in music, we were supporting the troupe of “selling out.” We were giving up our individual story and perspective in the hope of being accepted by a community on the pretext that we were adhering to the standards set forth by our most vocal of members. However, in doing so we were losing our individual voice – and speaking from personal experience, when this happens we begin to lose our connection with running and the experience that it brings to each of us.
As I pondered this thought I began to wonder how we can define shared values within such an individualized and innately selfish sport? Then in a typical jump from the sound into the existential, I began to ask if we even should try? After what seemed like ages of thinking, I came to understand that, personally, the short answer is no. I think that we should not try to define these shared values and ideologies.
I think the culture within running is that there isn’t a traditional culture. Running is an act, a small moment in time that is experienced in isolation, but an act which can be shared within a group. It is an act that seemingly intertwines and connects people from all walks of life. It is in this connection that I think running has established its roots. To me the “culture” of running is the individual story of everyone that runs. The culture of running is the individual, an indefinable and unique being with a unique story. It is this individual story that should be celebrated and understood rather than conformed to. Running is the act and the medium that allows people from all walks of life to start a meaningful conversation about the story of those that they share the act with. Running is the myopic agent that leads to moments of deep and intense connection through the brush of the shared experience on an individual’s canvas.
In attempting to define the culture, and the values and ideas we all should share, we lose sight of the immense beauty and power of the individual. Instead, I proffer that we should just let running be what it always has been. A simple, rhythmic, escape into an altered state and expression of the individual self. We should celebrate all the stories that running brings together. We know that running, and if we decide competition, is the celebration of the hard work and dedication of an individual. Yet what if we celebrated those stories, the day in and day out trials, of every individual, all the time?
As running continues to grow in popularity we are seeing a more diverse and eclectic group of people choosing to run. In removing the idea of a defined culture and shifting the focus to the story of the individual, accepting that we are all different beings sharing an act, we can engage with each other in a more authentic and vulnerable way. If we stop trying to fit a mold and fit others that we meet into certain molds, maybe we can truly begin to celebrate the diverse and multifaceted well of individual stories that has and is shaping the act of running.
In closing, and by bastardizing the words of Patti Smith, running to me is like music or art, it is “freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom.” Let’s celebrate that freedom of the induvial story. As with anything, this idea has to stem from the individual self. I believe that if we can start this shift in what our understanding and perception of culture is, we as runners, can begin to approach our sport, and more importantly each other, with a little more grace and joy. Remembering that at the end of the day we are all just people trying to figure out the path of life that we are on, and that we are simply choosing to celebrate that individual path with the act of running, either alone or together.