Community Revisited

I’ve written often about the benefits and satisfaction of being a part of a vibrant running community, and how these communities can make us better runners as well as better people. This benefit is so notable and so significant in my mind that in December of 2014 I published an entire article about it. This said, and despite having given so much specific attention to this topic in the past, I have recently come to notice another significant, but previously overlooked (by me) part of the dynamic that is a runner’s community.

No matter how popular it has become, running (and especially ultrarunning) is still very much what you might call a niche activity. As avid runners it is easy to assume that everyone is interested in running, or is supportive of people they know who run, but there is a reality that most people do not run, and many non-runners have no regular exposure to or interactions with people who do. This is certainly not unusual among most niche activities. If you’re not a surfer yourself, you very likely don’t have many friends who are surfers. This reality is generally reflected in most aspects of our sport. Simply put, running is not a sport that interacts a whole lot with the non-running population. Races tend to be attended almost exclusively by other runners or friends/family of participating runners. A running-based event (e.g. screening of a running movie) will have a small handful of non-runners in attendance, but the vast majority will be people who are avid runners themselves. This is why I would refer to running as a niche sport. It’s simply not an activity that non-participants pay much attention to.

I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing, or as I’ve already said, I don’t think this is uncommon among most activities, but I do know that this lack of interaction has caused me, for most of my life, to generally overlook the importance of a runner’s relationship to their non-running community. As runners it is entirely logical to think primarily of our running-specific community when we talk about the importance of community. Recently though, I have come to notice the potential for the benefit and satisfaction we runners can gain from our interactions and experiences with the non-running members of our local communities.

I recently attended a screening of Unbreakable, the movie by JB Benna highlighting the 2010 edition of the Western States 100. Being that I am one of the runners that is highlighted in the film, I have been (as an invited guest) to nearly a dozen screenings of the film in the past four years. There was however one thing unique about this most recent edition. It was the only one in which the crowd was not made up primarily of avid runners. There were certainly many runners in attendance, but the screening was simply part of a fundraiser for a local school. Because of this, a large percentage of the audience were not runners at all, but simply local community members who came out to support the school, or who came out because they know me as local community member, but not necessarily as a runner. Surprisingly this was the most I’ve enjoyed any of the screenings I have been to these past few years. It felt much more substantial and valuable to share this running-related story and experience of mine with a non-running crowd. The questions people asked at the end of the film were highly intriguing, and surprisingly much more relevant than usual.

I think as avid runners we can easily become close minded and view everything through a very specific and narrow lens. It was refreshing, interesting, and uplifting to view this particular experience of mine through the lens of so many non-runners in attendance. I think it helped me understand many things about my running and my relationship with running that I just can’t pick up on through my interactions exclusively within my running community.

I’ve also recently begun to write a column in my local newspaper which has given me even more perspective on this dynamic between a runner and their larger non-runner community. This is the first running-related writing I have ever done that is not directed exclusively at a runner audience. I have found that there is often much more value, depth, and substance to the feedback and questions I get from non-runners than that I get from other runners. Once again I think this stems from the broader lens that a non-runner is likely to use when viewing an article about running. For better or worse, an avid runner will almost always have baggage and preconceived ideas about a particular topic being discussed, while a non-runner may have never thought about these topics at all. Because of this, they are able to bring a much less biased and much fresher perspective to the conversation.

I’ve only ever run a few races that I would say have a significant non-running community aspect to them (mostly in Europe), but I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed those experiences. For whatever reason most races tend to happen away from local non-runner communities, but there is nothing quite as energizing and encouraging for me as a racer when non-runners are involved in a race in any way. I’ve always known this, but I’ve never quite understood it. I think it feels good to be ‘accepted’ by a larger audience, but I also think it is energizing and uplifting to see the way that non-runners respond to a race and interact with a race. Other runners understand most of what’s going on so they tend to be a bit more reserved, a bit more calculated in their enthusiasm. There’s something very logical and wise about this, but on the flip side there is something very raw, vulnerable, and real about the way non-runners observe and become involved with running events. It’s a dynamic that I’ve always been able to draw a lot of energy from. Unfortunately so few races have a significant number of non-runners involved in any way.

Going forward I hope to be able to continue to increase my awareness of this dynamic and to be able to interact more and more as a runner with non-runners. I think there is much to be learned from these interactions, and I think this is something that any runner or running event would be wise to consider. I would love to see a day when most races are a prominent part of their local communities (and vice versa). This is probably not going to be something that occurs anytime soon, but I think it’s something we all can benefit from, and thus should strive for. For now I will have to settle for enjoying my time as a spectator this summer at the Mount Marathon race in Seward, Alaska; one of the few truly community-oriented trail races in the country. If its relationship with the local non-running community is anything close to what I envision from stories I have heard, it will be a great learning experience to be there on race day.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What predominantly non-running-centric communities do you belong to? A church? A book club? Another sport? An environmental group? What similarities and differences do you observe among your running-centric and non-running-centric communities?
  • Have these communities intermixed? What have been the results of mixing runners and non-runners?
  • What valuable perspectives have you learned from non-runners about our sport?