Sunday, August 11, 2013

What is a Running Paradigm and Where is it Shifting?

“We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.” 
― Rick Warren

I've probably looked up the definition a dozen times, asked my wife, asked my son, asked my priest, my Rabbi, tried hard to understand, but never got it. What I never got was the proper meaning of the word paradigm, as in a Paradigm Shift. I'm not going to write the definition in the dictionary here, mainly because Webster was apparently also confused by it's meaning. The best I can determine is that it's a way of thinking that something is viewed as the norm and not "the fringe". Now, that's my definition and probably doesn't clear it up for you, but it's my blog and I'll try to clear up where all this came from. This is what occupied much of my 3+hour, water deprived run on the trails yesterday morning! 

 When I began running back in the 70's...I know, before many of you were alive, but no, I didn't have to run to catch tonight's dinner...I used to be part of a fringe. Running was beginning to Boom fueled by Frank Shorter's gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon and Jim Fixx's excellent, influential, and best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running. However, my impetus was a growing waistline due to working next to a McDonald's and thinking occasionally that two Big Mac's was better than one. I wasn't huge, but my mom's description of "big-boned" didn't work at 30 years old like it did when I was a chubby 10 year old. Anyway, I began to pull myself around the UAB track a few times and the weight began to fall off. This track running soon became longer and longer distances until "MARATHON" entered my mind. Our running nerd heroes included Boston Billy, The Great Greta, Joannie, and Dr. Sheehan, our own philosopher! Sure, we were running nerds, but we didn't care. We were a happy fringe. We ran marathons, did 60-70 miles per week, and were a happy group. But, the paradigm of running was the beginning Boom of 10K runners (even before 5K's were popular). Marathoners were on the outside of this box, and I was part of that fringe.

Running faded a bit during the 1980s. Big races, like 10k's managed to hold fast, but the new Boom was beginning to be marathons.  Blame Oprah.  Blame Lance and P Diddy , George Bush, Al Gore, or blame Runner’s World. Blame the mainstream press too, as they began to perpetuate the idea that running a marathon should be accepted almost universally as some kind of lifetime achievement, bucket list item, or rite of passage. Whatever the reason, what was the fringe now was fast becoming the new paradigm shift. Running meant doing a half or full marathon. We "hard core" runners hung in there by doing MORE marathons than the masses, but the distance was no longer the challenge. Instead of "I don't know how you run a marathon", it became "I don't know how you run 6 marathons in a year". Some tried to take up running, but for one reason or another, it didn't float their boat and quit, and many of these folks took up the new sport of triathlon and it began it's own Booming. But, we runners were still a happy fringe, 80's style. We, in the happy fringe now found ultrarunning! Yes, we were doing 50 mile runs, 100 mile runs, and 24-hour events. Marathons for us were used as training runs and we still maintained our out-of-the-box status.

The 90's really brought on the "Marathon Boom". Many celebrities were doing it, so it gained the publicity regular runners couldn't generate and now many of the masses wanted to prove they could do the marathon too. But, doing a marathon does take a lot of training and dedication and more of the masses wanted to be runners, but the new paradigm for them was a runner-lite and so, the result was the explosion of a plethora of fund-raising 5k fun runs, which squeezed out a lot of the older (and longer and tougher) small-town races. In addition, it seemed that there was suddenly a marathon in every state on every weekend of the year. But, there were still these new folks that wanted to try the marathon distance, but needed a less-serious approach. Enter Jeff Galloway who wrote tirelessly about strategies for mixing running and walking during races, or completing marathons with a MINIMUM amount of training and mileage (to we "hard core"  guys, the mere thought that you would approach a race as serious as a marathon with the intention of doing the minimum amount of training or WALKING was simply absurd). Then, there was the birth of the Penguin movement.  This was a self-proclaimed and proud group of plodders who even found their own guru, John Bingham. Suddenly, runners weren't such a fringe anymore ... anyone could be a runner. The influx  watered things down a bit. I became a Run Coach for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and we (the Society) were training thousands of runners to do a marathon without much of a base of all..."You can do 26.2" was the Battle-Cry. This was heresy a decade before! And so, running 26.2 miles (in addition to running the growing 5k's) became the new running paradigm. These weren't hard-core anymore, but became a social event with longer and longer times to complete the race. We added many new runners to the general pool, but the whole thought process had shifted towards long distance. And along with this, slowly, the masses, like an unrelenting glacier, began to infiltrate the ultrarunning scene. It wasn't easy, but more runners wanted to spread their wings. So, the out-of -the boxers began to feel squeezed and had to find a new field. 

In 1997, I ran my first trail ultra - a 50k in California, and a new fringe was found. I, and many of many fellow veteran runners, slowly began to enter into these trail runs. But, we were also racing our several road marathons and our road ultras while the masses continued growing, doing giant, social marathons and it's very popular, rapidly growing sister, the Half-marathon. The first decade of the 21st Century saw Big Box marathoning being the paradigm of running. From soccer-moms to High School Cross Country runners, it seemed like everyone was doing marathons. You had the Marathon Maniacs to the 50-States Club, and  you had groups seeing how many of the Rock 'n' Roll series they could do. I have read that statistically there are four times as many race participants as there were in the 1980s. But, rather than focusing on competition, today’s runners (women and men alike) seem more interested in spending time together. This was definitely not a bad thing. Running groups are springing up all over. They train and even run races in groups, keeping their pace in sync with the slowest of their tribe, instead of pushing themselves to their limits. Our sport has become so much more social (contrast that with the famous "loneliness of the long distance runner"). It seems like this is another running boom and it might potentially mean a more healthy populace. Of all potential exercise regimens, running/jogging/walking certainly has the lowest barrier to entry...low clothing costs, no initiation fees, flexible scheduling. Anything that would help this country get in better shape has got to be good. 

If you've read this far, you may still be wondering where I'm going with all this. Well, you see, over the past several years, my fringe has been shifting from platform to platform and now it seems to be trail running. Not many folks did it. It was challenging, the pace was slower than the road, it was way low-key, and info was hard to find. A run in the woods was still "out-there" in the minority of running. It still is, BUT lately the lava flow of the masses is coming aboard. We now have new runner's groups meeting regularly to run weekly on the trails, trail gear being sold in most running and sports shops, and several trail races popping up to give competition to the local Saturday 5k's. Here, in Birmingham, we have BUTS (the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) and we have a very tough 7-race Southeastern Trail Race Series, and although it's not busting at the seams, there are runners doing this that had never tread on trails until less than a year ago. I think the ever-shifting paradigm of running may well be including trail running in another year or two. In other words, it'll be more common place, more accepted, more main-stream. It'll be accepted as a new view of running. That certainly has to be good for the sport. But I have to admit that I miss being part of a happy fringe. I think I've run out of new fringes. I've traveled down some pretty cool roads along the way, but I think I'll park the bus here for a while. But, when on the trail for 3 hours, out of water, by myself, it seems somewhat familiar and I have to reflect...Ah, yes, the good old days.

Friends, I'm glad we're taking this journey together. I'll see you on the roads or trails - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"


Unknown said...

Loved this post Al! I agree with you that trail running will explode in the next year or two, especially in Birmingham. You just need to find a new fringe - maybe trail running without water while doing deadlifts at every aid station with a road marathon tacked on at the end.

Unknown said...

^ Tanya, not sure why my name didn't show up!