A recent RunRepeat survey discovered that nearly a third of the runners surveyed (28.76%) started running during the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s more, and not surprisingly, newbie runners focused more on health and less on competition, which continues a several decades-long trend line in the sport/activity.
In this current, tumultuous age, competition seems increasingly out of fashion as the old binary of winning and losing (like male and female) has been deemed, by some, to be fundamentally unsound. Winners, it seems, require losers and competition creates separation and elitism.
While that is one way to look at it – as equality and freedom will always be at odds, even when defining equality as that of opportunity alone – competition was never meant to suggest such a starkly binary construction because healthy competition teaches invaluable life lessons, like how to win, how to lose, how to dig in, how to dig out. There’s a sentence that’s too damned long, but I’ll live with it, anyway.
Yet the trends that continue to reshape the essential nature of this sport/activity, and the country at large, for that matter, may reflect little more than the ever-restless pendulum swings of history.
As the Baby Boom generation ages out, the methods and means they experienced in their post-World War II youth of American abundance are now seen as ill-suited, even toxic, by the generations filling in from behind.
What’s that old line, “Rock ‘n’ Roll will never die”? Tell that to rap and hip-hop which replaced rock on the music charts more than a generation ago.
Running as A Thing rode in on the heels of the Sixties counterculture revolution when “Forget you, Mom and Dad. We don’t want your society. We want our own. We don’t want your money. We’re looking for something else,” completely altered the social landscape and created the Generation Gap.
In 1968 alone, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, campus protests, riots in the cities, Black Power and the Beatles White Album, along with the political assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., RFK, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers radicalized the youth generation years before Watergate completely sealed their distrust.
But as the Boomers emerged from the protected cocoons of their college campuses in the early Seventies, they came face-to-face with mounting responsibilities that still required an earning capacity. Finding themselves caught in the nether world between new responsibilities and continued rebellion, they discovered a new rabbit hole to fall into after seeing Frank Shorter win the gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich, Germany.
Instead of attending sit-ins in leather sandals, they rose to their feet in waffle-soled running shoes. Instead of changing society en masse, they sought to change themselves alone.
But because they were inspired by a racer, Frank Shorter, they took to competition as a means of expressing their rebellious nature while remaining outside the fence line of societal acceptance.
The very quirkiness of distance running provided a subtle, but important draw, too. No previous generation had ever done this sort of thing. Of course, no other generation had ever had the leisure time or disposable income to do this sort of thing, either.
Today’s generations have grown up in the wreckage of the Boomer generation, including witnessing the over-use injuries that came from the hard racing efforts during the Running Boom years and have said, just as the Boomers said to their Greatest Generation elders, “ No, thanks. We want to go our own way.”
Runners today are drawn more toward improved immune systems and peace of mind. As such, running is used as a decompression chamber rather than as another stress enhancer.
Maybe the competitive spirit has been dominant for so long, we have also become exhausted by it as a nation. Americans see the inequities of American commerce, with CEOs earning 320 times the average salaried workers’ wage, the super-rich avoid taxes altogether, and the government being sold to the highest bidder.
People have tired of coming up short in all their strivings because they see how the field has been tilted against them. The much-vaunted upward mobility that once defined the American experience has lost its ladder. Beyond the polarization of our politics, people have simply stopped judging, as with plus-sized body acceptance, despite obesity forming one of healthcare’s and Covid-19’s primary co-morbidities.
We see it, too, in the reduction of standardized SAT and ACT testing for college entry, increases in homeschooling, and social-advancement and minimum-grading systems in public schools – all of which, to be honest, have their pros and cons. It is there, as well, in both political party’s embrace of deficit spending, as if no bill will ever come due.
And recall a few years ago when, in order to get people to the finish line so they could collect on their charity donation commitments, a major race promotion company began bussing slower runners up the course to finish before city-imposed street cut-off times. Or when Hurricane Sandy forced the cancellation of the New York City Marathon in 2012 but entrants still wanted their finisher medals just the same because, “what the hell, I paid for the damn thing.”
Yes, overweening competition can lead to an unhealthy environment, too. We saw clear evidence in the rapacious 2008 Housing Bubble. But the striving of individuals in a free society is what created the greatest growth of capital in world history. One wonders, then, whether de-emphasizing the very thing that made us great is the answer just because at other times it might make us grate. Yet here we are as the rest of the world, think China, continues to push forward as it sees and seizes its opening.
We already knew from the Runpeat State of Running 2019 that while event entries increased by 57 percent over the previous 10 years, finishing times slowed dramatically between 1986 and 2018. Now the very idea of competing is losing favor.
Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray wrote an insightful article for Road Race Management this month outlining how 18 months of canceled racing due to Covid-19 has placed hard new demands on event organizers. Even events that have returned to in-person racing are seeing their fields shrink by 30 to 40% compared to pre-pandemic levels. And public services and volunteers are now coming at a premium, when available, at all.
In the final paragraph of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote: “Gatsby believed in the…orgiastic future that year by year, recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 when America as an ideal was still staking out its position as the repository for the world’s capacity for wonder in the presence of this kaleidoscopic continent.
Competition and striving built that continent, creating, yes, winners and losers alike. Competition doesn’t seem to be driving it as hard anymore. Today, it’s more about experiences. But even that boom seems on the wane as COVID keeps us apart and we beat less fervently against the current as time passes on.