Peripheral Vision

As I write this, March 2021 is twelve days out. Our collective month of panic-bought toilet paper and the jerry-rigged home office returns to us in time’s flat circle. We’ve stopped calling it “the new normal” — after a year, nothing about this is novel anymore.

When the pandemic hit, I decamped from my cramped downtown Toronto apartment to my partner’s place uptown. I was training for the Chicago Marathon, a regimen I reluctantly abandoned after reading the words “droplet dispersal” and “slipstream” one too many times on Alex Hutchinson’s Twitter feed. The sidewalks, now all but deserted, nonetheless felt dangerously crowded. We set up a stationary bike in the basement; I stopped going out.

All around us, the city grew quiet. But online, the running community was loud. The familiar annual rhythms of road-racing season had been disrupted, and athletes processed feelings of helplessness in shades of indignation, even anger. Yes, frontline health care workers were critically low on PPE, but you must understand, the Ottawa Marathon failed to refund entry fees! Hospitals braced for a ventilator shortage, but surely the government couldn’t expect elite marathoners to temporarily forgo physio?

Running is a discipline of narrow hyperfocus, and the discourse around it has manifested accordingly. This hyperfocus isn’t without function — to do any one thing really well, you necessarily need to let everything else fall by the wayside. But a good way to nail a season-best marathon performance turns out to be a very bad way to narrativize a diverse global community.

Elitism reproduces the social iniquities around it, protecting predatory actors, entrenching racialized power structures, and giving a pass to top-tier athletes with problematic attitudes. (Anybody else remember Rob Watson publicly slagging off the run-it-just-to-finish-it marathon set?) Elite voices and perspectives have long shaped the kind of conversations we’re used to having about our sport, leaving Runner Twitter, somewhat understandably, ill-equipped to meet a moment of global, collective crisis with anything resembling grace, or even proportionality.

There were sobering, community-minded voices in those early days, yes, but they were the minority — the world only has so many Dorothy Beals.

For years, we’ve worshipped at the altar of PBs, BQs, and prestige races, where bragging rights are everything and toiling in obscurity is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. The rare meditation on running for running’s sake has generally been regarded as filler, an anomalous bit of fluff shoehorned in between athlete profiles and race reports. The truly bad takes we saw online in the early days of the pandemic are the logical extension of the values that underscore this — athletes who have only ever been rewarded for framing their running in terms of credential and rank.

There’s no objectively right or wrong way to appreciate a sport. If you’re the type of runner who fetishizes your Garmin data and Strava segments, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with finding motivation and enjoyment in rankings and PBs. But it’s worth asking now, a year into this pandemic, why we’re actually doing this, and what kind of sport we want to be on the other side of this thing.

Because there is no “going back to normal” anymore. Not after a year, or probably more.

Running has reached an inflection point. As we stare down the barrel of a seemingly interminable lockdown — gyms shuttered, fitness classes cancelled, and freezing winter temperatures precluding all but the most vigorous outdoor activity — more non-runners are being drawn into our sport than ever before; out of necessity, out of boredom, out of a lack of viable alternatives. How many of them will feel welcome? How many of them will stay?