pedestrianism and the fuzzy category of running
This is an introduction to how I think about that very fuzzy category called running, and why I think it makes sense to use a broader label: pedestrianism.
It tries to identify the many aspects that determine ‘kinds’ of running ‘disciplines’, events, experiences, highlight its fuzzy boundaries with other pursuits, and touches upon plenty that deserves more elaborate treatment.
A growing corpus of posts, accessible through the category of pedestrianism (see right-hand column), elaborates on issues only touched upon in this intro, or overlooked by it.
As an arm-chair enthusiast runner (ace for you), who spends quite some time in the cyber-world of running, I probably over-think my hobby (yes, a marketing-savvy blogger would use ‘passion’ here but just cannot get that cliché out of my pen). I nevertheless hope that some signposting in the confusing running landscape, and border-crossings into neighbouring territories, 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 purpoise doesn’t go beyond showcasing the diversity of ‘aspects’, ‘perspectives’, etc., etc. that make up particular ‘kinds’, ‘forms’, etc. etc. of running, ‘pedestrian’ and other ‘related’ pursuits.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.
the property space of running
Below is my tentative list of relevant properties. This list takes the common sense/traditional/mainstream conceptual space of running as a ‘sport’ as its starting point but at its various boundaries that space morphs into territories that are difficult to describe without adding properties (like rhythm) that are not explored in this intro but in posts in the pedestrianism category.
- 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. I return to the latter later on when I pontificate on the boundaries of the running landscape.
- 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 meest 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, and intuit it would not be easy, if not impossible, to come up with something uncontroversial. Maybe difficulty is not the right term, because it suggests an ordinal scale, while categorical/nominal may be the best way of thinking about it. How does one compare beach running with 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 kinda 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 last property (see 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.
crossing boundaries into neighbouring pursuits
I put this property last, also, because here our running space meets the death zone – where what Kilian Jornet is doing on mountains like Matterhorn or the Courmayeur-Chamonix traverse merges into what Ueli Steck was doing on more serious mountains, something he admitted is dangerous, which again merges into zero-safety (free) soloing of rock climbers like Alex Honnold (see below; amazing, he still lives. Fascinating making-of, because it tells as much about Honnold as about the inescapable paradoxes of our mediated times – it also has an urban counterpart and here for some visuals of that).
Obviously, I have gone way beyond the conceptual universe of ‘running’ with my last examples, but I feel that one has to leave the box in order to really get the fuzziness of the running concept across. What Kilian Jornet does is still part of the running property space, what Ueli Steck did is climbing. In the urban setting I would argue that much of parkour, with its emphasis on fast and most efficient movement from A to B, is clearly within the running space. But when the emphasis moves away from efficiency toward self-expression through movement (which is the underlying philosophy of the parkour spin-off freerunning) one gets to the fuzzy edge. And one crosses over to dance, when efficiency is not a consideration any more, as in the B-boying-inspired movements in Daniel Cloud Campos first short film The Paperboy.
I do not immediately see other activities beyond climbing and dancing that similarly share grey areas of overlap with ‘running’, but maybe it makes sense to look at adventure racing from this perspective too. If so, one might use a yardstick like a minimum of 75% of the total needs to be ‘running’, less makes it adventure racing. The same yardstick is often used to define trail running (75+% off-road), and it also works to place other combination-disciplines, like triathlon, duathlon/aquathlon, and summer biathlon, outside the property space of running.
For me it doesn’t make much sense to separate walking and running. For several reasons. Lots of especially European mountain races require extensive stretches of (uphill) walking. No one objects against following a walk-run strategy in longer ultra’s. And although the modern sport of racewalking proscribes loss of contact (both feet off the ground) which is the flight fase of running, it shares a venerated history with running under the label of pedestrianism (yes confusing, I know, so be it). Based on all of the above, if I would have to come up with a definition of running, it wouldn’t go beyond something like more or less relentless and efficient self-propelled movement along a more or less defined route. I think Ras Vaughan has a point when he goes back to pedestrianism for that. It is a good term for all that is actually included within the conceptual space of ‘running’.
Another angle on this is to think in terms of approaching a course with a running mentality, which basically means opting for running whenever that is physically an option. But as power walking and running can be near equally efficient, with considerable individual differences in what suits a body best, it is unpredictable what this would mean in practice for different individuals. On top of that, what is physically possible and what is efficient, given the physical and mental requirements of a particular route, are two different things. The earlier mentioned run-walk strategy is the easiest illustration of that. So again, better to not even try to separate out a ‘running’ enclave within the pedestrianism spectrum.
A last perspective for now, the lens of speed, is that 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 kinda running from what you need for longer ultras. And I am not even talking sprints here. So if lumping all of these together into one category is no problem, why make a fuss about including other styles of motion?
movement and stillness
Pedestrianism may broaden the conceptual space of running, but most of what I have presented above, including my self-minted definition (more or less relentless and efficient self-propelled movement along a more or less defined route) still explores the space from its ‘conventional’ centre, the running of races, the training, the records, the targets, etc. etc. The relentless and efficient are the signposts that keep that centre in focus. With the risk of losing all you running afictionados out there, I want to conclude with highlighting the other ingredients of my definition, the movement, the route and the more or less.
Those few amongst you that will have given that definition any thought at all might seriously disagree with the self-propelled because it opens the door to bicycles, push scooters, skate & long boards and what have you. And you’re right. I don’t want to claim this pedestrianism, let alone running. But I also think that only self-propelled movement can connect intimately with the landscape it cruises. And that quality is important enough to make it explicit in my definition.
I say “can” with reason because being self-propelled is a necessary but not sufficient condition for such connection. The higher the speed, the more inward the focus of the runner, the less the running experience can reach out and let the landscape in. Mind you, this is not to say the landscape may not (fully) determine that experience – think a fast steep down hill on a technical trail, which is only possible in a state of utter concentration infused with a weird kinda relaxed letting-go. If you’re confused by now, I cannot blame you. The title of this introduction has warned you though: Thinking about running quickly turns that simplest of movements into a deeply fuzzy affair 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:
The route is another of those ingredients that highlights that same liminality of speed. It would be weird to describe sprints and middle-distance, be they on track or road, as covering anything other than a particular distance. Route is only relevant in its most physical of aspects, surface, straight or with bends.
Thus many, I guess all properties of the pedestrian universe trigger qualitative shifts at the extreme ends of their continuum. The linguistic qualifier more or less indicates that it is all about ranges. You probably intuit by now that the final move in this over(thinking) exercise is to focus on the movement in my definition. Why stop at proposing walking and running as equal denizens of the pedestrian universe. Sometimes, to really commune with an environment one needs to stop, be still and take it in. Sure, when you don’t move, you’re not running, but many runs become much more enjoyable, interesting, surprising, memorable, restorative, you name it, with an occasional stop build in, moments lacking any relentless and efficient movement. We all know that stillness allows us to be fully present. And we all know how difficult it is to actually be still. It so happens that for many some relentless and efficient movement is really good preparation for it. No guarantees but certainly increased chances. The alternation of movement and stillness has the potential to enrich both.
So that’s my basic take on pedestrianism. To repeat: some of what has only been hinted at in this introduction, was left out, seems (tangentially) relevant enough for more elaborate treatment, or otherwise adds to this Glassperlenspiel of running thoughts I’ll post within the category of pedestrianism (see right-hand column).
If you’ve made it all the way to here you deserve a little treat.