Monday, September 9, 2013

Running Culture Re-Visited: Altruistic group identities and feminine fairy-winged resistance?

Symbol of elite sanction: The U.S. national flag is held aloft while the
national anthem is sung before race start. Photo: AR Kirwin
Instead of women looking like men, I found many female athletes
performing their femininity in miniskirts and even fairy wings.
Photo: ARK Kirwin
After a four year hiatus from long-distance running, I finished the half marathon of the inaugural Ventura Marathon yesterday. This was a combination 5K, Half and Full Marathon with nearly 2,500 runners: about thousand runners in the marathon, twice that many in the half marathon, about a little less than five hundred in the 5K fun run.  The Ventura marathon was also a USATF certified Boston qualifier so there were a lot of really fast runners there. The running field varied from lean and fast competitive runners who were building up their race resumes and/or trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon to beginning runners and people just trying to get fit or lose weight running in their first marathon or half marathon.  So much has changed in the running community in the past four years-- and so much is the same. It was like coming home to house filled with friendly strangers. Like Roy Rogers said, "A stranger is a friend I haven't met yet." I have always felt the same way about long distance runners at races. There were some new groups and trends at this race compared to races I competed in while I was younger in the Nineties and the races I studied in early years of the millennium. Here are the trends I found most noteworthy:

Ultra femininity appears to be the new trend eclipsing the androgynous/male athletic ideal at the race yesterday with women of all ages wearing skirts, skorts (athletic running apparel with an elastic short sewn inside an outer running skirt), tutus, and fairy wings. I even saw a very masculine man racing in a sparkled red tutu. Women runners were wearing more skorts and there were groups celebrating the ultra female runner:  Moms in Motion, Team Sparkle (both a group and a clothing company), and Glitter Gals.

Many runners were running for a cause, for a club or to
honor a loved one. Photo: AR Kirwin
Altruism as a valued ideal seems to be a growing trend in a traditionally individualistic sport. There was a marked increase of altruistic running groups and causes. Before I remember seeing the a few purple-shirted Team in Training runners at races who where raising money for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, now it seems almost everyone was racing for someone else. I saw a lot of people with matching shirts or running apparel and individuals running for a team or a cause. I saw a very fit marine running the marathon while holding a giant American flag and a MIA flag raising awareness for his missing comrades in war, I saw three young ladies running for their friend's 30th birthday (their friend sprained her ankle and couldn't run), I saw a big yellow lemonaid stand/water station raising awareness child cancer research and many others who were running for others.

In addition to the traditional high-carbohydrate and
easy-to-digest bagel and fruit snacks, there were
lot's of caffeinated products donated by
food companies seeking consumers
in the running community.
Photo: AR Kirwin
As for food, it was about the same with a few changes. There were lot's of carbohydrate-rich and easy to digest snacks waiting for runners after the race finish as usual: big trays of donated bagels, cookies, snack mix, pretzels, and chopped bananas, pineapples, and watermelon were waiting at the finish line. The newer evolution seems to be that there were more caffeinated items from race product sponsors: Clif Shot gels with various quantities (in milligrams) of caffeine and free bottles of Starbucks in various flavors for the race finishers. However, this is just one race out of literally dozens each month here in So-Cal. I think I need to get in better running shape and do more participant observation at more long-distance races. Who said field work had to be difficult, take you away from your loved ones for a year, or dangerous? As long as I don't get a running injury or hit by a car again (long story and I was road riding anyway), I will be okay.  Besides, long distance runners are an interesting community. They have their own embodied culture (with biocultural markers of their daily running practices and diet discernible down to their bones), hierarchical structures, markers of identity, value system(s), diet and foodways practices, rituals, pilgrimages, rites of passage, rebellions, and even spiritual beliefs. Someone should study their culture and I'm up for it. Even though I am no longer racing fit, it's time for me to "just do it" and get out there and do another race, meet more runners and learn more about their fascinating and oftentimes complex and contradictory cultures of Spartan inspiring training rituals, group identities,  and beer-drinking and feminine  fairy-winged resistance.  Hopefully, the next race I run as a participant observer, I will be in better shape.  My legs are killing me from yesterday's race. Ouch!


As is common when running long races, you strike up a conversation with another runner who is running about your speed on the race course. This is for a variety of reasons: typical race communitas, boredom, or a means of pain management while you look for things to distract your from your aching legs or digestion issues as you are pushing your body farther and/or faster longer than it wants to go.  I met a bunch of runners at this race who shared with me some interesting resources about their running clubs and some recent studies of runners' health and injury rates in general.  As usual, no one mentioned any cultural studies of runners. Please leave a comment if you know of any!

Stanford Runners Study:

"Running Slows the Aging Clock, Stanford Researchers Find" Annoucement published by Standford University. This is about their 6-year longitudinal cohort study of about 500 runners and 400 non-runners about health benefits of running in people over the age of 50.

"Predictors of physical disability after age 50: Six-year longitudinal study in a runners club and a university population" The peer-reviewed journal article in the Annals of Epidemiology

"Musculoskeletal Injury in the Masters Runners" University of Halifax study of runners competing in the Hood to Coast race, published 2006

Ultra Feminine Running Apparel Companies:

"Team Sparkle" mini skirts and fairy wings

"Glitter Gal" Sparkly mini skirts and headbands on Etsy

So-Cal Running Clubs*:

Moms in Motion

Vendurance Running Club Ventura runners and triathletes

Rincon Triathlon Club Ventura and Santa Barbara County Triathletes

Los Angeles Road Runners <-- are="" doing="" if="" in="" interested="" marathon="" next="" p="" race="" s="" this="" ventura="" website="" year="" you="">
*There are many more worthy running clubs in the area and in southern California in general. This list includes only the clubs of the members I met at the race yesterday.