Warning: only of interest to runners, if that….Nevertheless you should at least watch the short video on understanding music. This is an introduction to how I think about that very fuzzy category called running.
I hope that some signposting in the confusing running landscape is convincing and amusing enough to get at least some of you along in my journey of pedestrian discovery. I call my signposts ‘properties’ but please don’t get hung up on that term. It’s purpose doesn’t go beyond showcasing the diversity of ‘aspects’, ‘perspectives’, etc., that make up particular ‘kinds’, ‘forms’, etc. of running. So it is important to keep in mind that the ‘property space’ below is only a starting point, a thinking tool, a way of arguing for a larger space.
Below is my tentative list of relevant properties. This list is grounded in the common sense/traditional/mainstream conceptual space of running as a ‘sport’. At its various fuzzy boundaries that space morphs into territories that are difficult to describe without adding properties. (like rhythm). These are explored further in my post on pedestrianism and purpose.
- Running surface. The obvious one to start with because together with distance it defines the major ‘official’ sub-divisions of track, road and cross-country. Note that the last one includes quite different species, like unpaved roads, hiking trails/paths, single track, and (fell running) no-trail, cross-country in its literal sense. Also, the trail concept includes the urban version, footpaths/alleys, which are usually paved. And if one includes parkour, and there is no reason to exclude it, that adds an urban no-trail equivalent to the bag of possibilities.
- Distance. Anything from 60 meters indoor-track to the Sri Chinmoy 3100 miler, and beyond. I’m not proposing any specific subdivision here. There’s the various governing bodies’ definitions, one could also take a body energy-systems perspective, or look at it through the lens of speed.
- Speed, One can make a good argument that there is running and running, and the two are really as different as ‘walking’ and running. The lens of speed, reveals the style required to run really fast (middle-distance) is a fundamentally different kind of running from what you need for longer ultras. And I am not even talking sprints here.
- Time is best understood as a separate property, with two subdivisions: continuous and stages. This matters because the importance of runners’ ability to perform under sleep deprivation conditions implies that a continuous format for the really long distances makes for a very different kind of event. This is also where running meets trekking, popularly called fastpacking, or thru-hiking (most of this is young enough in terms of bigger numbers being interested that the jargon is still jockeying for primacy). Another relatively new term, Fastest Known Time, is also massively on the upsurge. I mention it here although it is not actually a property, more an ‘approach’ but I feel it needs at least mention in this try-at-property-space-description. I could as well have mentioned it under level of support during an event/project. More on the walking-running connection below.
PS: don’t be fooled by the this-all-started-in-2000 claim in this video. There is nothing new under the sun, other than the scale, and the media attention. For a n informed quick intro, see here.
- Environment. A property going hand in hand, correlating with, various others on this list, but such a strong overall determinant that it needs explicit mention, early on. The experiental difference between running natural and man-made (urban) environments is substantial for most of us.
- Other users of the same route. Properly organized road races temporarily ban other users; but for A to B road-ultra events, and for most urban running that is normally not possible, so traffic offers itself as a potentially separate property. But it is not only the need to navigate (or not) traffic, is it, that makes for a strong determinant of the running experience. Navigating crowds is equally experience-shaping, and in multiple ways, from weaving through a crowded pedestrian area versus running empty streets, to running the first kilometers of a big city marathon versus a solitary run.
- (Technical) trail difficulty. Only really important for cross-country, but within that division crucial. I have no grading system to propose because different terrains make for incomparable difficulties: beach running versus running bogs (popular in Ireland) or the cobbles/boulders of a dry river bed, or….you get my point. One particular kind of difficulty warrants separate mention:
- Positive/negative altitude meters (ascent/descent). I club them together here, but one might also argue that each deserves separate mention because the mountain running world has uphill-only races (as well as uphill/downhill). Both total altitude meters up and down, and steepness (in combination with technical difficulty), especially/mainly downhill, are determining aspects.
- Absolute altitude reached is another difficulty aspect that needs separate mention. Again, I leave subdivision proposals to others, but it’s obvious that lots of positive/negative altitude meters is a totally different kind of difficulty than running to or at 4000 meters or higher. Well actually, for many of our species living at sea-level anything above 2000-2500 meters starts feeling more draining than usual.
- Navigation. The fell running no-trail courses often require choosing the best line through the terrain, and then there is (foot) orienteering and rogaining, which require map and compass.
- Weather. You may wonder about this one. But it comes with the decision to use properties like technical difficulty, pos/neg altitude meters and absolute altitude, rather than categorizing natural environments (mountains, etc.). The property is relevant from two angles: the weather you actually run in (temps, etc.) and the possibility of it suddenly turning bad – which in particular environments may mean a requirement to always take safety gear with you. Which is a bridge to the property of equipment.
- Obstacles requiring jumping/scrambling/use of hands. Both in the mountains and in the urban area (parkour), running trails fuses into scrambling up/down difficult sections, jumping across/down, etc. Parkour developed from (military) obstacle courses, which are also the basis for the tough mudder like obstacle courses. And don’t forget the hurdles and steeplechase. I’ll get back to this property, which makes for one of the fuzziest edges of the running concept, but let’s first finish the list.
- Individual/Team competition. Very different if it’s all about you, or a team effort that makes for success.
- Level of support during an event/project. Often undervalued attribute. Running with gear on your back is a very different game from being serviced on route with whatever you need. Having to look after yourself in multi-day events very different from being looked after by volunteers, your own support crew, or logistic support staff of the event organizers. Again various levels of support could be defined, but that is not my purpose here. Safety back-ups could be lumped under this umbrella or listed separately.
- Equipment. Some courses in some environments make it foolhardy not to take additional gear on your back. Then there is the kind of equipment that one can either allow or not, and given which, will make for a different event (although that is often not acknowledged by either organizers or participants), with special mention here of the ultra-light walking poles. Then there’s the equipment without which some terrain is just not doable: crampons for certain snow slopes, ice-axes for some solo speed climbing routes. Next: something I never come across in running lit is questioning the exponentially increasing diversity of specialized basic gear that becomes available. Shoes for every single type of surface (from slippery mud, to rocky trails, to snow, etc.), extremely light-weight clothes, bags, whatever, for the longer distances. There is a serious argument to make that money/sponsorship buys competitive advantage here. But as the sport near totally lives of the producers of this gear I guess that is a no-go area.
What is the point you may ask. I hope I managed to transmit that the term ‘running’ is an umbrella covering a diversity of activities that is bewildering. Thinking about running quickly turns that simplest of movements into a deeply fuzzy affair. And that is the case even without look at its boundaries where it becomes even more bewildering. Unfortunately, not much in life remains sharply outlined when given some thought. And fortunately that doesn’t or at least shouldn’t prevent you from thoroughly enjoying it. This video makes exactly that argument for another of these simple pleasures: