This post isn’t for everyone. It’s my reaction to what I see as an overly simplified worship of elite athletes in our society, and an obsession with fitness and appearance that goes beyond physical and mental health.
I see people admiring elite runners and aspiring to be elite runners themselves. Now, don’t get me wrong; I fully support people being active, changing their lifestyles in other healthy ways (eating properly, sleeping enough, overcoming substance abuse), and setting goals such as finishing a particular race or achieving a particular time.
However, I’d like to make people think about some of the negative aspects of being an elite runner.
What I am rebelling against, and have always rebelled against, is the reduction of the athlete to the status of a human-shaped robot, a being who will follow a purely scientific recipe to achieve success in his athletic goals, no matter what the spiritual, personal, or ethical costs.
One of the extreme consequences of this attitude is the athlete who uses banned performance-enhancing drugs. Why are many people outraged by the prevalence of this drug use in sport? I would suggest that the moral outrage comes not simply because athletes are breaking the rules. It comes from a deeper moral infraction: the dehumanization of athletes. They are human laboratory rats, using drugs to achieve wins, money, and superhero-worship.
But oh, we want our athletic superheroes! We love to watch the power, speed, and grace of the best runners every time the Olympics and World Championships come around. We admire their dedication, the intelligence of their racing tactics, their iron willpower; but above all, we watch to see the sheer beauty of the human animal at its best.
But we want it to be natural, and the discovery that it is not (when an athlete’s drug use is uncovered) is part of the reason for our outrage and our disappointment.
Cynical observers may have accepted that “everyone” takes drugs and therefore we should stop fighting what has become a “level playing field”. They have accepted the full mechanization of the human athlete.
What about the modern athlete’s predicament? Drug use comes with an ethical burden, if the athlete is capable of any moral qualms; it requires dishonesty and possibly severe threats to an athlete’s current or future health. Why should the athlete who doesn’t want to take performance-enhancing drugs feel that there is no chance to be competitive without them?
The use of drugs is just an extension of the scientific approach to improving running. Yet there are many ways to improve performance without breaking the rules or endangering one’s health. Science has helped athletes greatly by giving us a wealth of information on the physiology of training, the best nutrition for top athletic performance, the best treatment for injuries, and so on.
What the average person or recreational runner may not realize is the extent to which the joy and playfulness of running can be destroyed for the elite runner by the tools and attitudes that science provides. Moreover, the imperative to push one’s body to the limit can curtail the “fun” element of running.
From the time I started competitive running, I recognized my own ambivalence about taking running seriously. I never felt ambivalent about running itself (once I got over the becoming-fit stage). I loved the act of running, I (often) loved competition—especially winning—and I loved the runner’s high afterwards; but I did feel frustrated and sad about the limitations that training to be my best sometimes imposed, on both running itself and other aspects of my life.
What were some of the negative things about my years as an elite runner?
- I was frequently injured. For many of my best running years I could only run three or four days a week. To run fast, this meant I had to keep the intense parts of my running training: the track workouts and the hard tempo runs. On “easy” days, instead of the relaxation and fun of going for easy runs on the trails, I had to go to the gym or the pool. I didn’t especially like swimming or weight training or stationary bike workouts, but I needed to be active and get my aerobic work done even though it couldn’t be through running.
- I would have liked to do more long runs—exploratory, adventurous runs—but again, because my best event was the 10,000m, I couldn’t do long runs that would interfere with my speed workouts.
- I was always exhausted. People know that elite runners train hard. They may not know that it’s not the workouts themselves that take the zest out of life. It’s the lack of energy left for other things.
- I caught many colds and often took a week or more to recover from them.
- I suffered from insomnia frequently when I travelled to races, especially when I crossed time zones and was away for only a weekend. I raced many times on little or no sleep, under enormous pressure. I found out that I could still perform pretty well—but there were many miserable, panic-filled nights and races that I struggled through without any joy or eagerness. Pulling out of a race was not an option when a race director had paid to fly me out to his race and put me up in a nice hotel.
Why have I chosen to write about these negative aspects of being an elite runner—especially when my long-time participation in the sport, and my success, make it clear that I decided the sacrifices made it worth it?
I write about my own regrets and ambivalence with the hope that it might help recreational athletes to be satisfied (if they aren’t already) with the limited place running has in their lives. It might help talented athletes pursue the goal to become an elite athlete in a realistic way, with self-awareness about their more holistic life goals.
Sometimes I now think that I made the wrong choice by striving to be an elite runner for as long as I did. It seems a cruel irony that I had to become a cripple (because of an ACL tear and cartilage damage that happened when I was 49) before I allowed myself to simply “play” at running again. Yet it was my incessant drive for excellence that led to my success as a runner; I couldn’t turn it off even as I got older and my injuries grew more severe.
Even during my early days as a runner, in high school, I felt ambivalence, towards track running in particular. I wrote a short story in one of my English classes about space aliens who were watching a long-distance track race from high above the Earth. It was incomprehensible to them why all these humans were running in circles, and why some of them collapsed on the ground at the end or threw up. There was no prey or predators in sight, no apparent reason for this running, and with their binocular-type instruments the aliens could recognize the expressions of pain on the runners’ faces; they clearly weren’t doing this for play, and the aliens thought it would be a pretty unimaginative type of play if they were…
Little did I know when I wrote that story that the 25-lap race would turn out to be my best event—the distance that was perfect for me, physiologically and mentally. But I never liked the 10,000m on the track, although I enjoyed the distance on the road.
Could a recreational runner who competes in road races ever understand the special anguish of 10,000m on the track? It’s a mental game. You start hurting when there are still so many laps to go that persisting seems unimaginable…but you grimly strive to hold the pace, one lap at a time. Finally, after many messages back-and-forth from your body to your brain (I’m hurting—slow down—I’m hurting—stop!) the finish is close enough that you feel confident about marshalling every last bit of strength that you can squeeze out of your protesting body.
I’ll never forget an event that happened perhaps ten or fifteen years ago. I don’t remember the name of the runner involved, and I’m not going to research it because anonymity is appropriate in this case. This runner was in the middle of a collegiate 10,000m race when she ran right off the track to a nearby bridge. She jumped off (apparently with suicidal intent) into the river below. She survived, but is in a wheelchair for life—no longer “forced” to run, on the grueling collegiate circuit or anywhere else.
I read that story with horror, yet complete understanding. Here was an athlete for whom the pressures of life, and at that critical moment, the pressure and pain of the 10,000m race, had become unbearable.
I think about the success of the many great African distance runners. They dominate the sport. There has been a lot of talk about what roles their genetics and their environment (which usually includes running from an early age) play in their success. But the modern champions are also dedicated to a lifestyle that is at once brutal and simple, a regime of two or three daily running workouts, resting, eating, and sleeping, perhaps with physio treatments and gym work outs added if in they have access to these things. They are highly motivated by the substantial financial rewards of marathon prize money, and there are few other options available to allow an escape from dire poverty.
How many North American athletes are willing to accept such an unremitting and monotonous lifestyle and training regime? I wasn’t.
I probably could have been a better runner had I been less ambivalent about devoting myself wholeheartedly to a scientific approach. I trained as hard as I could, and I gave up the extra “enjoyable” kinds of running that might have made my injuries worse, but I wasn’t persistent about seeking medical help. Surely I could have found a physiotherapist who could have helped me significantly with my frequent injuries, possibly by trying to determine their root causes. I needed a qualified person who could analyze my running style and suggest exercises that would mitigate my muscular and biomechanical weaknesses. Perhaps I could also have solved my insomnia problem with professional help, possibly with meditation or hypnosis (I did see three psychiatrists over the years, two of whom were completely incompetent–though that is another story). But I chafed at the hours I was already putting into my actual workouts. I didn’t want to add hours of physiotherapy, exercises, ice baths, meditation, and more. I didn’t want my whole life to be ruled by my athletic career.
Where will the mechanization of high performance running end? Already, at the very least, being a professional runner requires a single-minded dedication to training as well as a commitment to any other boost that legitimate science and medicine can possibly provide: nutrition, supplements, physiotherapy, surgery (if necessary), massage, possibly psychological counselling. And in the “brave new world” of the future, how far will we go in the quest for superhuman performance? Will athletes move beyond performance-enhancing drugs to DNA modification or bioengineered muscles and tendons? Will athletes be created through genetic modification even before birth?
I recently read a novel that expressed my repugnance about treating human beings in an overly mechanistic way. The protagonist of Fury, by Salman Rushdie (the famous author of The Satanic Verses), is a man experiencing tremendous, pent-up anger, an anger so extreme that he flees from his beloved wife and toddler after coming close to murdering them with a kitchen knife. Alone in a new country, in New York City, Milak Solanka continues to feel this inner fury, and struggles with how to control it. At one point he even suspects himself of being the serial murderer the police are hunting for; he worries that he could have committed the murders while in a drunken state.
Even after the police find the real killers, Solanka considers the possibility of taking an antidepressant to control his anger. He thinks to himself:
This was a nation for which the daily recitation of pharmaceutical brand names—Prozac, Halcion, Seroquil, Numskul, Lobotomine [don’t you love Rushdie’s parodic names?]—was like a Zen Koan, or the assertion of a kind of screwy patriotism: I pledge allegiance to the American drug…Most people would say it was his duty to take drugs since his mental condition was preventable and could stop him from being a danger to others.
But Solanka rebels against taking any drug:
The medication was a mist. It was a fog you swallowed that curled around your mind. The medication was a shelf and you had to sit on it while the world went on around you.
Solanka thinks about all the different ways people can get themselves “improved” by doctors, whether they want to be taller, prettier, thinner, younger, etc. But he concludes:
Was that all there was? …Were we just cars now, cars that could take themselves to the mechanic and get themselves fixed up any way they wanted? Customized, with leopard-spotted seats and wraparound sound? Everything in him fought against the mechanization of the human. [bolded italics mine]
I emphasized Rushdie’s final sentence in the paragraph above because it struck such a perfect chord in me. I was trained as a biologist and appreciate all the ways that science and medicine have contributed to training for sport. But I will always be repelled by the idea of turning a human athlete into a machine.