A Cultural Dilemma

“I think part of the problem is that a lot of runners run outside of their lives. What I mean is that they run and then they go about their lives. The two are separate. Many people only run to look good for their ‘real’ lives. No one climbs mountains to get in shape. No one surfs for fitness.” – Joel Wolpert

This short quote is an excerpt from a recent email exchange with Joel, part of an ongoing discussion of ours about running-related media and specifically about how to document the sport in ways we find both authentic and creative. It is a challenging task to produce material that is true to one’s perception, but also relatable to a broader audience.

My interest in running-related media most often remains at a surface level, a mix of race coverage, reporting and training-specific articles. I am not using the word ‘surface’ in a negative way, as in superficial, since I do have a healthy appetite for this type of media, and there is plenty of high-quality content available. Rather, I observe that I do not find the same type of consistent inspiration and nourishment in running media that I do in other disciplines, such as surfing or climbing, for example. I have often wondered why I tend to look elsewhere for influences in my approach to the sport considering how passionate I am about running. I find myself trying to superimpose an outside culture and perspective on a sport into which I do not always quite fit.

In the above quote, Joel begins to present the beginning of an answer, where running is seen as something outside of our lives, rather than a lifestyle in and of itself. Perhaps part of the reason this type of disconnect is foreign to me is that I came to running from a different background, and did not grow up running in school. My primary interest has always been to spend time outside. Through climbing and backpacking, I developed a love for wild places, specifically mountainous landscapes. I was attracted to running as a simplified version of both of these activities; it was a way to explore the land further in an untethered manner. The heart of my inspiration to run lies first and foremost in wanting to form an experience in the place that I am in, with mountains playing a central part in my interests. Running as a lifestyle does not mean that it is an all-consuming pursuit, rather it is an integrated part of my daily routine and the fitness benefits derived from the activity are almost incidental.

As a result, the type of media I gravitate toward is one relating more to the land and environment where an activity is practiced. The depiction of a person’s authentic experience and self-expression in that particular place is more compelling to me than the activity itself. I climb much less than I run and I have not surfed in nearly 10 years, yet I draw from both of these activities as a daily source of inspiration significantly more often than running. The reason for this is that there is a much wider breadth of climbing-related media that pertains directly to the mountains, and surfing media that speaks to the wonders of the ocean. Place is of critical importance to portraying these activities as a whole, something that is less emphasized when documenting running.

In running-related media, the focus on the activity of running itself prevails over the landscape in which it takes place. To me, running in and of itself is less interesting than the relationship and experience that is formed by practicing the activity in a given place.

The idea that our relationship to place matters more than just the activity we pursue there was further accentuated for me during a recent trip to Alaska for the White Mountains 100. Winter racing in Alaska is unique since bikers, skiers, and runners often get to compete on the same course, at the same time. The chosen mode of transport seems of lesser importance than the desire to simply challenge oneself, self-propelled, in a difficult environment. Alaskans seem to be inherently excited to spend time outside. This sentiment often defines the underlying strength of people’s bond to a place whether they are bikers, skiers, mushers, or runners. When talking about an event such as the White Mountains 100 with fellow participants, the conversation quickly moves past the activities of running, biking, or skiing to the place in which we are engaging in these activities.

When running is presented as a lifestyle with a culture derived from the landscape in which it is practiced, I believe it will have a stronger identity, and one that is relatable to a much broader audience. It is my hope that I can reflect this type of approach in the way that I run and document the activity by offering a different perspective outside of the fitness-only angle that most often characterises our discipline.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you agree or disagree with Joe’s supposition that running-related media lacks the deeper storytelling of climbing- and surfing-related media?
  • Do you, like Joe, draw inspiration from other sports-related media? If so, what kinds and what are some specific examples from those other media?
  • What are some examples of running-related media you have seen that integrate storytelling of the environment, regional culture, and/or lifestyle of the runners with storytelling about the actual act of running?

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Cultural Dilemma 2

Cultural Dilemma 3

Cultural Dilemma 4

Cultural Dilemma 5

Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.