Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Believer" Article Response

If you haven't seen it, writer Mark Oppenheimer decided to offer his brilliant insight to the mind of a high school male cross country runner in an article written for Believer magazine. Since his characterization was so off-the-mark (and, being entirely based on his own experiences, pulsating with arrogance) I decided to write a short response to the article. Any of you who know me personally know that "short response" does not compute with my brain. I emailed the response to the editor of the magazine, but I certainly don't expect anything to come of it (what use does a magazine not focused on running have for a rambling refutation of an article? I'm guessing it'll get put into the "file cabinet" with a basketball hoop fixed above the rim. . .) I decided to post it here. I tried to split it up a little better because its length isn't exactly blog-friendly, but anyone interested in reading the whole thing might be better served cutting and pasting it into a word file or something.

Link to Original Article:


Here it is:

Don't Speak For Me: A Response to Mark Oppenheimer's Projection of his Cross Country Experience

It isn't often that distance running is mentioned in a mainstream publication. Outside of our niche publications and the sequestered communities of people who hold court at running websites, the rest of the world doesn't seem to have much regard for distance running. While I won't presume to speak my fellow athletes and followers of the sport, I can say that, for me, this is not a problem. Endurance athletes will occasionally capture the public imagination, and, during the Olympics, polite homage will be paid to any gold medal winners before the public largely turns its eye away from distance running again. The polite acquiescence with which many of my fellow athletes regard being ignored by the public has led to the propagation of the stereotype that distance runners, and high school distance runners especially, are by and large a passive, lonely bunch. Mr. Oppenheimer, certainly, falls among the population of distance runners who came to the sport because they could not jump high enough to play basketball or sustain the agility necessary for the various ball sports. No one should be surprised, then, that Mr. Oppenheimer, in an attempt to give meaning to his own experience as a harrier, projects his own feelings and motivations into the hearts and minds of all runners in his essay “The Race That Is Not About Winning.”

With respect to Mr. Oppenheimer's feelings and memories, I insist on politely asking Mr. Oppenheimer to butt out of group psychology. Perhaps it was his experience that running is some personal struggle for identity that transcends sport and achieves some level of art with which mere victory cannot compare; perhaps Mr. Oppenheimer fears that a majority of runners had the same tepid and lonely thoughts define their careers as harriers as surely as it apparently defined his.
Unfortunately, no matter how many actors and books and mediums of creative outlet Mr. Oppenheimer cites, his thesis ultimately commits the logical fallacy that presumes one or a few cases can be used to draw a broader conclusion about every member of a population. While I'm sure there are runners who can identify with the life of the harrier as Mr. Oppenheimer defines it, I'm equally sure that there are many of us who do not. Ultimately, Mr. Oppenheimer settles for the easy way out; he insists on the stereotype as the frightened, cowardly loser running for something more significant than mere honors in a footrace.

I was compelled, then, to write this response not out of an emotional denial of Mr. Oppenheimer's conclusion, but a need to refuse to allow a fallacy of a conclusion to be perpetuated when there is a more complex truth that deserves to be heard. Yes, Mr. Oppenheimer has a point when he says that running lends itself to self-reflection It can be an incredibly lonely experience, and every runner I know can discuss a time when he felt lonely. The mistake, then, lies not in the observation but in the conclusion Mr. Oppenheimer draws from it. There is a dirty secret that unites a vast majority of high school cross country runners, but it isn't what Mr. Oppenheimer, or the press, or public opinion, or even a few runners themselves would have you believe. Despite what the press and the public believes, despite what a vocal minority of runners themselves insist, and despite what Mr. Oppenheimer posits in his essay, the secret is not that runners are at heart cowards, or otherwise useless athletically, or at heart loners with social anxiety.

The Dirty Secret of which I speak is perhaps only surprising in its absolute banality: male high school cross country runners are nothing more than a population sample of male high school students. Contrary to what so many want to believe, the truth of the matter is this: we are typical adolescents, which is to say we are as nonboringly average as any other high student.

I understand this is as hard a truth for many of my compatriots to accept as it is the general public. To the non-runner, it is inconceivable that any well-adjusted high school boy would choose to go out and run for six or seven or eight miles after school, only to end back where they began, merely sweatier for the journey. To the non-runner, it is inconceivable that, in an age where shorts ending above the knee are considered to be a sign of homosexuality, a sport whose nature encourages a shorter short preference in the name of comfort would not attract the most effeminate boys in school. Perhaps most unforgivably of all, though, is that running is not only a physically miserable experience, it is also the hallmark of the coward. A group of boys who would rather run away than fight must be effeminate, passive cowards desperately seeking acceptance.

It is a convenient narrative, revealing not only of the absurdities of assumptions people will make (exactly what is so latently homosexual about a partially-exposed quadricep muscle, but not, say, a bare bicep?) but also of Western values. Success in distance running is primarily dependent on two factors: the steady, unyielding application of effort over prolonged periods of time, and an ability to disregard challenges and discomfort while pursuing a goal. What could be less sexy than the lesson that success is more based on those two factors than the ability to pour one's “screaming machismo,” as Oppenheimer calls it, into short, glory-punctuated moments? It's true, cross-country races don't often present many flashy moments for the highlight reels.

More important than the highlight reel, though, is the Dirty Secret that high school runners are hardly different, as a group, than high school boys. I too ran cross country during high school, and I don't remember any of us being teenage anti-heroes more concerned with “beating their own 'personal best[s],'” than with beating our opponents, as Mr. Oppenheimer boldly insists. Like any group of competitive young adolescents, we wanted to beat the other teams we raced, whether our goal was to finish top 10 in the state or win the whole shebang. Mr. Oppenheimer unfortunately makes the same mistake so many Americans do: “beat” might carry connotations of an actual physical beating as much as it means a victory, but just because the physical connotation doesn't apply to running doesn't mean the victorious connotation is also invalid. Make no mistake about it: the runner holding the 16th position in a cross country race wants to overtake 15th as desperately as the runner-up strains to catch the winning runner in the final straight.
Unfortunately, many of those who aren't familiar with a racing career don't see the achievement in finishing 6th or 14th or 31st. One runner wins the race, and second place is also the first loser, yes? Ultimately such a reduction is just as convenient as Mr. Oppenheimer's hypothesis and just as absurd. Something even many runners don't want to admit is that sometimes, 25th place can be an excellent result. A runner who is pleased with 25th or 45th or 75th isn't a runner who has resigned himself to mediocrity or reduced to using only an internal metric as a yardstick for improvement. The runner who disgusts sportswriters by being thrilled with a 42nd finish is likely a runner who, in the same race last year, couldn't even muster up a finish inside the top 100. He is now better than almost sixty boys he could not beat a year ago. A year of training out in icy winds, driving rain, and the sticky humid heat of high summer has resulted in two classrooms full of boys who could not match one runner's fierce determination or competitive instinct. Who is Mr. Oppenheimer to say such a result is mediocre? Who is Mr. Oppenheimer to reduce the boy who makes a suicidal surge to drop a pack of pursuing runners with more than a mile of racing left to a coward because the brave and magnificent effort the athlete is making involves running instead of, say, a desperate last-minute shot from half-court.

This isn't to belittle other sports, of course. I just posit that the desperate buzzer-beater attempt or the no-time-on-the-clock fake punt is no more heroic—but no less heroic, either—than the boy heaving himself forward at the finish line, risking a mouthful of mud, to please-God-finish-one-place-higher. Just because Mr. Oppenheimer's cross country team didn't seem to seem to understand that while 40th place is not a winning position, it is still superior to 41st, which is better than 42nd, and so on ad infinitum doesn't mean that other, less self-pitying runners, do not. I know that my cross country team was full of adolescents who desperately wanted to be top-100 if they had finished 110th the week before, or top-50 if they had placed 60th, and so on.

When I joined the team as a sophomore, we were a group of teens from varied sports backgrounds. I had played soccer in the fall and run track in the spring before deciding I preferred running to soccer and made the switch to a full-time runner. Of my closest friends, we had a teammate who planned on leaving us in the spring for baseball before we convinced him to stay with us. Our captain, one of the most friendly and extroverted people I knew, wrestled in the winter and occasionally ran track in the spring, though he disliked running on the track, preferring the undulating terrain and unpredictable nature of cross country races. During the fall, we were united not by our sense of isolation, or our inability to have girlfriends, or our social anxiety, but our mutual affinity for running and our shared desire to win.

As impossible as it is for some of our number to accept, we weren't outcasts or noncompetitive spirits who viewed the races as tests of the spirit. To paraphrase John Parker, author of the cult running novel Once a Runner, we didn't saunter into the woods for crypto-religious reasons. We trained to win races. We trained to cover the ground faster than we thought we could, faster than anyone else we raced. It was as uncomplicated as the football team's ardor to win their games, or as any team's desire to win. We didn't do it while screaming like berserker warriors; we did it one mile at a time, methodically preparing our bodies for a contest of endurance, will, and courage.

We sure as hell weren't an athletic Dead Poet's Society, and neither were the many teams we came to know in our time as harriers. To the short-sighted like Mr. Oppenheimer, it is a difficult concept to process, but just because we were friends with runners from other teams, just because we hung out with them on the weekends and sneaked into their dances and invited them to our spaghetti suppers didn't mean we weren't trying with every fiber of our being to crush them into the dirt when we raced. And likewise, just because we were crushing them in a footrace doesn't mean we were scared of them. Spectators who take the woods during a cross country race are often shocked to see the supposedly cowardly, mutually-respective-of-one-another pansies driving a bony elbow into the gut of a runner who tries to pass on the inside of a turn. I've had dear friends take swings at me during a race, only to have us both laugh about it after the fact.

I believe Mr. Oppenheimer that the anti-heroic waifs who fall into running due to failure at everything else do exist. I also have never met a single one in my years of association with running. The old stereotypes, like most stereotypes, fall away when you meet the individual runners. Runners don't have girlfriends? Most of the ones I know don't have trouble meeting girls, nor did they in high school. Unlike the young ladies in romantic comedies, most real adolescent girls will respond to a boy they find funny, or smart, or worth talking to in any way. Runners are socially awkward and invisible to “normal people?” My cross country team provided my high school class with its Vice-President, Secretary, and one of four Officers-At-Large, and this wasn't a particularly rare occurrence at the schools against whom we competed, either. The football team and the cross country team are natural opposites, and the runners harbor some desire to be football players themselves? Perhaps in the world of “Grease” or Happy Days, but in the world I lived in, most football teams provided a few shot putters or sprinters to the track team in the spring, and both teams had a mutual respect of what the others were capable of.

I'm not saying every football player wanted to hold our hands and sing with us, but in general, the shot putters who played football in the fall held a deep respect for the distance runners as they watched them run lap after lap on a track shimmering with May heat, their faces contorted in discomfort but their gazes far away, breaking imaginary tapes and setting hypothetical untouchable records. Likewise, as we distance runners stopped by the weight roomm to knock back our paltry pushups and chinups, we cheered as our sprinters exploded upwards from under barbells that would take three or four of us to lift. We didn't always get along, but we never got stuffed into trash cans or lockers, either.

The bottom line is that rarely do reductionist stereotypes tell the full story of any community. Rarely, if ever, does poetic license present a complete story. This response, then, is ultimately a boring and inconvenient reminder that people are more complicated than amateur group psychology and the projections of the overly self-reflective. It's telling that Mr. Oppenheimer so whole-heartedly agreed with Alan Sillitoe's characterization of the runner in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, because Sillitoe, despite his brilliance as an author, gets it wrong, because he was not nor ever was a runner. Sillitoe's characterization is a great hypothesis, but it isn't factual and even it if was, it would say nothing about the actual thousands of American boys who join the ranks of harriers every year.

Ultimately, elevating distance running to some higher plane than mere sport while dismissing distance runners as lost souls, cowards, and anti-heroes is a convenient but useless reduction. The truth, however, is far more boring and uncomfortable. Who are these runners? Why, we're you. We're in your math class, we went to the prom with your cousin, we had trouble with geometry, and last weekend, while the soccer team had Sunday practice from 8am-10am, we did our long run. After practice, both teams went home, showered, did some homework, mowed lawns, ate dinner, went to bed. We're not more or less noble than any other high school student. Like all adolescents, we're figuring ourselves out, and while there's social anxiety and anguish that go with that, we don't have any more of an identity crisis than the kid who dyes his hair black or starts pretending to be a rapper.

However, we are so sorry if you think our shorts are homosexual, or our sport is inherently cowardly, or you think we're trying to make statements about being independent. Whatever you may think of us, the truth is that we're just as boringly average as the rest of you.

1 comment:

  1. well ******* reasoned. love the dead poets reference. one day that author may be half as concise and eloquent with his writings as you are.