Contributor: Dan Cheung
The runner who writes or the writer who runs — neither at the fringe of either — will eventually have to acknowledge a seemingly tragic paradox when it comes to documenting the sport that will bemoan him or her to no end: that they have a choice between writing exposition-heavy, niched-but-proper representations of our experiences as runners or writing overly-narrative and indulgent, non-representational melodrama.
The former is sure to satiate the needs of runners who are looking either to further their understanding of their beloved subculture or to find something that, finally, can speak realistically and accurately to a lifestyle they themselves have been (so it seems) ineffably leading. The latter entertains the masses, but misrepresents 99% of those whom it is supposed to speak for and induces both painful cringes and egotistical inferiority-complexes for those of us who know a thing or two about it all.
Neither option meets the criteria to be deemed successful art. While proper-representation is informative and can be niched-ly impressive, it fails to reach an audience beyond the subculture within which it resides — a failure which decidedly reminds us that the whole point of art, and representation within that art, is to newly illustrate our humanism to other people, and importantly to other people who may not otherwise get a chance to understand our humanism. What’s the point of laboring over something that will only reach people for whom that thing will already be redundancy? And, what’s sadly key, no layman wants to read about how little of a runner’s time training is actually spent running, and how most of it is instead set in trainers’ office, in the weight room, on the bike or in the pool, nap-focused-agenda-maneuvering, dragging ice-packs god-knows-where. Nobody unsolicitedly cares about DIII All-Americans.
That our passion for running is bound up tightly to our being human is no new concept, nor is it particularly unique to running as a singular subculture (one could very well see this representational struggle with aspiring chefs or dog-trainers trying to write about their experiences). What is unique, however, are the ways in which running is an almost entirely internal practice — both, importantly, for each individual within the physical act of running (dealing with pain, measuring out a self, exploring a physical, mental and emotional limit, alone) and within the cult-ish space that all of us runners (who are almost always exclusively weird, hard-to-get people) weirdly share. And this internality is precisely what makes representation to those beyond who already understand the lifestyle paradoxically impossible — that the “better,” or more thoroughly and accurately we represent our passion for and experiences in the sport, the higher the wall we put up between ourselves and outsiders trying learning about it.
Once a Runner is both a good and easy example of the ways in which writers try to mitigate this issue of representation vs. entertainment — a mitigation that, fair warning, unfortunately bends the art towards the aforementioned latter. If EPO is a runner’s banned substance, melodrama is the writer’s, and John. L. Parker Jr.’s novel is at this point leaning on its B-sample.
I’ve been tough on JLP before and I’m very comfortable being tough on him again, but I will begin criticism by giving him credit in saying that he has a certain navigational understanding of literary narrative that a lot of other authors of sports-literature lack, which is why the book actually reads like normal fiction. Not great fiction, but fiction. This is also why I wouldn’t necessarily place OAR at the entirely melodramatic end of the representational-running-literature continuum. As frustratingly unrealistic and filmic it can be, runners — though, almost exclusively runners — have attached themselves to the novel because of its comfortingly-familiar and relatable ethos.
But the issue of literary craft in the novel — among others — is a mix between how melodramatic the tropic hero-narrative is and how cheaply Parker chooses his protagonist: the conveniently-adored Quenton Cassidy, the-just-a-shade-over-4-flat miler who is banned from collegiate track participation and who somehow manages to play Thoreau and retreat to the woods to train ridiculously and without major injury and, over the span of a few months, drop his already elite and for most of us un-fathomable mile time down nearly ten f***ing seconds to beat the then world record holder and, in all his bearded, faux-Finnish glory, stick it to the authorities and, of course, win the pretty girl along the way, all while proving to us that he’s even more unrelatably successful than he was at the beginning of the novel.
The truth is that rarely does running-writing like to talk about runners on-their-way, a phenomenon of which there has been no better or more consistent example than Runners World Magazine, and one which I postulate is a reason for the polarity of oft-failed running literature. As historically the most popular and commercially successful source of writing-about-running, RW long ago succumbed to the split forces of target marketing: either they would offer fringe-runners (a term I’m using in place of the more idiomatic and perhaps condescending “hobby-jogger”) a two-month training plan to break 25 minutes in their local 5k, or they’d offer fans a regurgitated bio-piece/glorified-interview with the sport’s most successful figure. The more relevant in-betweens have almost always been left out, which is especially ironic for a magazine which has branded itself as a source of content meant to please all forms of runners, a lot of whom, I’d imagine, might enjoy reading a well rendered account about how grippingly delightful it feels to run well, or commentary on the psychological effects on self-worth running poorly can prompt, or why it is running that is so magically analogous to the dialectic of our being people trying to get somewhere.
Runners — people — who are on-their-way just don’t glisten enough. They don’t offer easy narratives, their value necessitates venture. So the writers who want easy attention find their way to it, and they always will, and always at the expense of the narratives that can affectedly do something were someone to give it proper care.
Biographies, interestingly, tend to find proportionally more success both commercially and literarily than other modes of running-writing. Publishing politics aside, the biographical form lends to this success in a way which addresses certain issues RW neglects: no matter who the subject is, the writing is necessarily about the getting-there of that person. Exceptional biographies are willing to take this to the extreme—to sacrifice large portions of page space and neglect narrative drama and polished moments of success to wrestle with the toll-taking, often non-athletically-related internalities of the subject when they were “on-their-way” (some I’ve enjoyed that do this well: Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Running with the Buffaloes, Today We Die a Little).
These decisions only happen at the hand of writers who understand that what makes a piece of art good isn’t in the ways in which it glorifies its subject but in the ways in which it pulls that subject apart, handing them to readers piece by piece to show us that they are so often made of the same stuff as we are.
Art has always felt to me to interact with the world in some strikingly similar ways to running: countercultural, anti-establishment, almost always non-commercial. It means — or should mean — to ruminate, to question. The idea of “successful” literature about running or any subculture — much like “successful” running — does not portend to a final product that sells a lot, but rather to something that has the capacity to affect people at their most human levels. And it seems like talking about people “on-their-way” is at least the first place we should begin as documentarians of the sport — for that it speaks both genuinely to the very real lives we runners live, and stirringly, homologously, sometimes-allegorically to the very real lives we humans live.The question, then: how exactly can running-literature speak to something bigger?
Beyond merely studying the more meagre processes of the sport, in what ways can running narratives affectedly reach an un-limited audience? And the question of which I’m very fearfully aware that I should be asking myself: how can this speak to something bigger?
Since this isn’t academic dogma, I want to take a moment to note that I don’t claim to actually have explicit answers, nor do I feel that this piece of writing necessarily needs to be optimistic about the struggle to create successful running literature. In fact, I’ve spent enough time feeling bogged down and pissed off about terrible running literature both at my hand and others to be tempted to write any plausible optimism off completely. But I suppose that would be a no-no in the essayistic tradition, and I’ve written too much to give up now.
A fellow runner/writer friend, Brad, wrote a piece about the film Boogie Nights for Audiences Everywhere, an online platform for “film conversationalists” to write thoughtfully about movies, which I think will help me find my way to some sort of conclusion. The prompt which Brad was responding to asked writers to talk about the representation of their understandings of America in their favorite movies. Though this is an over-simplification, Brad talked about Dirk Diggler’s happenstance talent and eventual love for pornography as an emblem of “silly American dreams,” relating the absurdity of Diggler’s pornographic exploits not just to the absurdity of our shared experience as Division III runners, but also to the tangential dreams running both taught and allowed us to unabashedly have for ourselves:
As someone who was part of a dedicated and weird group of Division III distance runners, I relate deeply to the way Boogie Nights accounts for the absurdity of a dream.
Here’s the thing about what we were doing with our athletic endeavor: it was pointless outside of the value we attributed to it. We weren’t talented enough to be getting scholarships, and there weren’t really people in the outside world who were interested. We were, as a team, well above average, but not all of us contributed in a tangible way. The act of making competing meaningful took more than endlessly training, though it required a lot of that too.
It also took fostering a community of weirdos. Sometimes that meant throwing elaborately planned and embarrassingly acted out parties. Other times that meant giving each other space and support to be something other than a college runner, whether that be a writer, a DJ, a coffee expert, a future doctor, or something else to which one can attribute varying degrees of realism. Something about aspiring to succeed with running made having other dreams more comfortable. It was a shared effort around which we built our surrogate family
At once, Brad’s writing serves as a great example of the alternative routes we can take to get at the runner’s experience as well as highlights the idea, far better than I can, that much of what makes our experiences both valuable to us and to other people are the ways they supplement peripheral parts of our lives. That the space between our dreams as runners and some other people we want to see ourselves becoming is something that not only we all have but something we all support.
Running offers an unconventional beauty touched on here. The beauty is in the ways running teaches us to love, and not to love for the sake of outcome, but just for the sake of being in love. The absurdity is the irony — that the less the love promises, the more we have to be and often are invested in it. In this way, running teaches us to be other people, and far better so than we might otherwise have been. For me, it feels as though this is where the heart of the runner is really proven, where our humanism — the basal subject of all art — is most sincerely inclined to expression, and where the beautiful good of running is most widely and justly conceivable. The people we are while living out our silly running dreams — while we are on our way — will always make a far more important impression than any four-minute mile ever could.
Only so much can be said about running; only so much has been said about runners.