Bodywork

When the Going Gets Tough, We Runners Get Going

In times of national crisis, America sees a boom in distance running. But why?

Is our urge to run long distances rooted in how we cope with adversity?     Photo: David De Lossy/Getty Images

While humans are arguably the most intelligent animals on the planet, we certainly aren’t the fastest, or the strongest. Since prehistoric times, we’ve outsmarted our way to survival. But that hasn’t stopped us from running. When a threat arises—whether it’s a predator lurking too close to the cave or an impending job loss—and we’re not ready to fight, we have a default mode: flight.

In his bestselling 2009 book, Born to Run, Chris McDougall outlines an intriguing premise. During times of national crisis, America sees a surge in distance running. Running makes us feel far away from our troubles, it’s introspective, and, when we’re achieving personal goals, we become less vulnerable to negative external forces. Running not only gives us a sense of safety, but a feeling of victory. Ask any runner why they do what they do, and they’ll probably say something like “it just makes me feel better,” or “it’s my time for myself.”

During the Great Depression, more than 200 runners raced 40 miles a day cross-country in the Great American Footrace. According to Runner’s World historical advisor Pamela Cooper, the marathoners of the Depression were predominantly from working-class and immigrant groups—the men struck hardest by the economic crash.

Amid the turbulent cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies, distance running once again found a foothold. In 1972, the country was reeling from Vietnam. The Cold War still seemed far from over, but marathoner Frank Shorter’s Olympic gold in Munich inspired many to test their own limits. People weren’t showing up at the polling booths (1972 saw the lowest voter turnout ever), but they were turning out to run.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the recessions that followed, unemployment skyrocketed. But 2011 also saw an all-time high of marathon finishers—518,000 of them, according to Running USA’s 2012 Annual Marathon Report. Trail running, barefoot running, and ultrarunning are no longer fitness-freak niches: they’ve all enjoyed a dramatic growth in popularity over the last five years. According to a June 2012 story on the Toronto Star’s website, the number of International Association of Ultrarunners races grew from 390 in 2011 to 420 in 2012.

When two bombs exploded last year in Boston, the great form of escape suddenly became the entanglement. For such a life-affirming sport to become a target of terrorism leads us to wonder what could happen next. It’s natural to fear, in the aftermath, that running could lose its status as a safe public tradition, but it would be uncharacteristic for runners to be shackled by such concerns: they’re resilient. In less than two months, the 2014 Boston Marathon will start, with 36,000 runners lining up together to take that annual first step in the second-largest venue the marathon tradition has ever known.

Whether it’s a beginner’s first mile or an Olympian’s marathon, there’s something about suffering (even in a trivial way) again and again—then living through it every time—that creates this wellspring of strength and resilience. It’s something we can turn to in our own bodies, yes, but even more significantly, in our hearts.

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