It is widely acknowledged that we are experiencing a participation boom in recreational running, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in the number of registered running events, from 5Ks through to marathon distances and beyond, as well as the proliferation of themed races such as Colour Run, and Tough Mudder.
A Millennial Running Study conducted last year estimated that 42 million Americans considered themselves runners or joggers, whilst in the UK participation has consistently followed an upward trend over recent years, with England Athletics recently launching the ‘Run Together’ initiative designed to grow grassroots running. This conspicuous rise in running’s popularity begs the question as to how the activity is represented in popular culture, and whether portrayals in the media are reflective of the widespread appeal of running and its emergence, as one Washington Post journalist described, ‘a lifestyle phenomenon’.
When it comes to fictional representations of running, who can forget the post-war working class rebelliousness of Alan Sillitoe’s Colin in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, for whom running is a political act? Or Lola in the film Run Lola Run, who is straight out of the blocks like a sprinter, hurtling down the street, swerving to avoid cars and pedestrians, running for dear life as the clock ticks down. More generally, the scene of the lone protagonist out on a solitary jog – typically at dusk – has become an often used literary device.
When it comes to analysing the way popular culture depicts the stereotypical runner however, it is difficult to look beyond the depictions in mainstream running magazines such as Runners’ World – a publication that historically has explicitly attempted to expand running praxis to older people and to women. Drawing on a study by Abbas (2004) the author found that magazine content and pictorial representations were commonly interrelated with body image, and a dominant public perception of running as a health promoting activity, with aesthetic implications. She cites a ‘causal power’ in terms of attracting companies wanting to associate their products with a healthy lifestyle, as well as a slim, toned and muscular body. Taken together these serve to promote the idea that the running community favours an idealised body type, with the rare inclusion of the obese runner habitually being used as a narrative of how running can be used to overcome physical inactivity and as a means of weight loss.
And yet all of this is deliberately jarring to the commonly held presumption that running is an accessible pursuit that is ‘convenience-rich’ which can be undertaken almost anywhere and at almost any time, and by anyone. As former long-distance runner, Brendan Foster succinctly opines ‘at the most basic level, running is the simplest and most available of sports: all you need is a decent pair of shoes and a front door’.
It is interesting too, reflecting on a recent study I conducted examining the meanings and experiences of participants at Colwick parkrun in Nottingham, England, that in the majority of cases first-timers falsely held a perception that their fellow runners would be lycra-clad ‘serious’ competitors, which for the non-traditional groups could potentially be a restrictive barrier to future growth.