Running in Herds Is for Buffalo, Not Humans

Every year, the City of Philadelphia reroutes streets and bus routes when it is time to host a marathon. At the last Philadelphia Marathon, thousands of runners from all over the world participated, many having registered months before the event. Marathons have become big business, an industry that has created multiple product lines, including T-shirts, caps, certificates, pins, fanny packs and water bottle holders. The Philadelphia Marathon started in 1994 as a small local event with a humble 1,500 participants. It has now morphed into one of the nation’s ten largest marathons with 30,000 runners, 3,000 volunteers and many more onlookers.

There are many other marathons in Philadelphia and the list keeps growing every year. There are Half Marathons, the annual Broad Street Run, usually in May, which also wreaks havoc with city buses and traffic. During the Broad Street Run people trying to get to work often do not get to work or arrive late. Sometimes the planned alternate bus routes are changed at the last minute, leaving many more city residents stranded or unable to travel.

But running didn’t used to be like this. Long distance running, or cross country, used to be the least celebrated sport in high school. I know because I used to be a high school cross country runner. Running long distances can be very rewarding. Running clears the mind and relieves stress. Some people even claim that running long distances can bring about a kind of enlightenment. While I don’t go that far, it is easy to understand why some Japanese Buddhist monks do seven-year stretches of running.

As a non-contact sport, running in universities and high schools used to attract few if any spectators, so when runners crossed the finish line there was usually only the sound of one hand clapping. In high school I liked the sport’s quiet individualism as opposed to the noisy cheerleader and band mayhem that surrounded football, or the “I got hit with a bat and my nose was broken” hazards of baseball, or even the boredom of “Old Man” Bermuda short wearing golf, about which Mark Twain quipped, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

A famous film about running was the 1962 movie The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner from an Alan Sillitoe short story. The story is about a working-class boy in England who gets into trouble with the law but finds personal redemption (and a chance to change his life) through long-distance running. The story’s odd twist is that the boy, who becomes the best runner in England, opts out of winning a race by suddenly standing still just before he’s due to cross the finish line.

After high school, I didn’t run again until I moved to the city. Jogging was just coming into vogue at that time. On any given jog around town, you could count the number of fellow joggers on one hand. Jogging in the 1980s was done more for health maintenance and exercise rather than extreme endurance and pushing the envelope and wanting to be “competitive.”  Most runners wore average sneakers, an ordinary pair of shorts and a T-shirt; they did not carry water bottles, and there was certainly no such thing as expensive designer running uniforms or even more expensive official running gear, like expensive spandex shorts with blinking neon strips or “made in Ecuador” running sneakers that promised you the winged power of Mercury, all for just  $300.00. Running today has become a cultish endeavor where one must purchase a plethora of “side supplies” that help to flesh out membership in the cult.

Men who shave their legs so as to be able to run faster or get a better running time were unheard of then. Had they been around they would probably have been laughed off Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Today soy boy men thinking nothing of shaving their legs like Philadelphia debutants in order to fit the cult’s requirements.

This was also the era before bicycling was taken over by wannabe Lance Armstrong divas, when cyclists would cycle without wearing expensive headgear or official spandex bike drag. The hobby—or sport—of cycling had not yet been transformed into a merchandise industry, aka a cult on wheels. Cycling today is much more than just hopping on your bike and going for a spin. Before one can do that, there’s societal pressure to go out and buy “the wardrobe.”  Some of that is also true when it comes to running. It is certainly true in the marathon world.

When marathons began to become popular, I knew it was over for running as being the sport of the individual. Overnight, it seemed, running became competition-based, a development that seemed to reflect the 1980s business culture of cutthroat competition where the winner takes all. What had been a private casual joy to help keep the body in shape was now a massive movement of robotic troops racing along sectioned off areas of the highway with police escorts, starting whistles, racing forms, hefty entrance fees, NBC camera crews and a primary corporate sponsor or two.

In any culture, there are going to be followers who adapt to any fad or pastime just because most people are doing it. Marathon running is a prime example of this. Following the crowd covers a lot of territory: today it might be getting a tattoo or a piercing “because everybody is getting one,” whereas in the late sixties, “conformity” meant wearing a headband or a Mother Earth dress and dousing yourself with Patchouli oil.

I love running but I have no love for marathons. Many doctors and cardiologists say that marathon running is one of the worst forms of exercise. Studies, in fact, have found that after an average marathon at least 12% of runners will have scar tissue in their heart muscle (detected through an MRI) just one week after a marathon. Apparently the right ventricular (RV) function is affected after a long race. “Excessive cardio is counterproductive,” these doctors say.

In 2017, James Hamblin, MD wrote in The Atlantic, about a study from Michigan’s William Beaumont Hospital that found that about 40 percent of runners suffer acute kidney injury after marathons.

“That sounds bad. Is it?” Hamblin asks. “Should I never run another marathon? Never run more than a few miles? Never leave this chair?”

Vice reported in 2017 that Researchers at Yale “announced that 82 percent of marathoners suffer from a condition known as stage 1 acute kidney injury—when the kidneys fail to filter waste products from the blood.” The report did go on to explain that for runners the kidneys usually fully recover within 48 hours.

Other physicians believe that moderate marathon running for someone in good health will not create problems, and that the overall health of a runner depends on his or her total lifestyle.

While running a marathon is certainly better than cultivating a video game addiction, for me it symbolizes the pinnacle of conformity. Perhaps my biggest personal gripe with marathons is the idea of merging with a crowd of thousands. For me, that is much like getting stuck in a theater lobby with hundreds of people who are pushing and shoving.

Running in herds is for buffalo, antelope, or wild horses or even for those biblical pigs that went over a cliff en masse.