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April 4, 2017

The Rupp Mask: a look at running’s doofiest accessory and what it signifies

On the cool Manhattan morning of Sunday, March 20th, 2011, the world was first introduced to The Rupp Mask, causing endurance athletes the world over to question themselves, and society at large.

Would I wear that thing if it meant running better?/How has a sport so simple become so odd?

The Rupp Mask wasn’t the first facial accessory donned by the 10,000m American Record holder.

That dubious distinction belongs to the Rupp Breath Right strip (which I would argue—via embarrassing personal anecdote—wasn’t nearly as psychopathic: as a high school junior in San Antonio, on a mediocre team void of real running knowledge, I wore Breath Right strips for an entire cross country season after seeing Rupp wearing one on TV and figuring that was a normal, sane, effective thing to do).

I don’t think I was alone in being okay with Rupp’s use of a questionably useful, visually subtle nose adhesive. It presumably came into use by means of partially scientific rationalization, and stuck around as a placebo; two things that any runner can relate to. (We’ve all got our little picadillos.)

And had Rupp, on that fateful morning in New York City, merely added another Breath Right Strip or two to his nose, I don’t think anyone would have really noticed or cared.

People’s tolerance for the strange is akin to the overused boiling frog metaphor. The gradual addition of more and more BRSs would amount to incrementally upping the temperature our amphibious pal was soaking in. But when Rupp put on that mask, he just dumped a bucket of pressurized, superheated water all over every frog, toad, newt, and salamander in existence.

Masks as we know them have been around as long as humans have lumped themselves into civilizations. The fig leaves Adam and Eve used to conceal their crotches and boobs? Basically masks. The ornate gold number plopped on King Tut’s dead head? Definitely a mask. The elaborate costumes created for religious ceremonial purposes on every inhabited continent on earth? Oh yeah, buddy those included masks.

But the thing is, masks don’t have a strictly positive connotation. I shouldn’t have to say this. Picture the antagonist from your favorite horror movie. More likely than not, if the scary bad guy is a human, they wore a creepy-ass mask (Jigsaw, Michael Myers, Jason, Ghostface, etc.). Many cities have anti-mask laws that prohibit people from concealing their faces at mass demonstrations. And just for a second imagine you’re walking down a darkened street, completely empty except for you and the person 40 feet behind you, who is wearing an old, industrial-strength gas mask. Holy shit that’s a scary visual! And we haven’t even mentioned death masks yet. What a zany concept, and spooky too!

You could and should argue that this last paragraph was full of sweeping generalization, and largely summarized from Wikipedia. Both are correct. And you should also ask, what do these factoids have to do with Galen Rupp wearing a silly mask to combat allergies?

Everything. They have everything to do with it.

To wear a mask publicly as an adult, you are basically signing off on an imaginary waiver that says: “I am aware that masks have a creepy history, and an even weirder present connotation. If I were to wear this bad boy into a bank or school, I would be promptly tackled and patted down by the nearest security guard, if not shot. And outside of Halloween, or to a lesser extent, attending a sporting event, there is no socially acceptable situation in which I can wear this thing.”

But Rupp persisted, and masked himself anyway.

Look, I’m no ableist. My dad was an asthmatic and I myself have cat allergies. I know that congestion of the chest or schnozz can be a real drag, and a huge detriment to athletic performance. But there’s gotta be something better than that mask. Right? Or maybe the problem’s merely with my own judgement of its use.

Perhaps that’s the greatest psychological difference between those who achieve greatness (Rupp), and those who don’t (me); the willingness to look stupid and make an a** of yourself in the name of shaving precious seconds off of your time.

This is a big leap here but bear with me. I’d say your decision to wear a potentially performance-enhancing mask or not, is similar to my favorite running thought-experiment: how fast would you have to run in a race to ignore the need to stop to use the bathroom, and thus, s*** yourself in front of thousands of people in order to finish unencumbered?

I’ll never forget where I was when I was first posed this important question. It was at John Jay dining hall on Columbia University’s campus. And as soon as I thought about my answer (there really wasn’t a time I was willing to poop myself in order to reach), I knew my competitive career would have a low ceiling. (This may be something discussed on a future episode of The Citius Mag Podcast Voicemail Show)

Based on the existence of The Rupp Mask, we can safely say that Galen would probably suit up in a Nike Racing Diaper if it meant dropping a second or two off of any of his PRs. And you gotta respect that level of commitment.

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