Distance Running’s Dirty Words
What we (shouldn't) talk about when we talk about running
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There’s a George Carlin bit called “Fussy Eater” in which the late comedian riffs on the idea that some foods are unappetizing because they have questionable names. (For example, squash: “It sounds like somebody sat on my dinner.”) Of course, it’s hardly a secret that certain language can trigger a specific emotional response. Environmentalists have lamented that “climate change” sounds too innocuous to stir people into action. Meanwhile, branding gurus earn a living by dreaming up evocative names so you’ll buy a particular kind of pickup truck or yogurt.
Perhaps some of these language wizards can help the sport of distance running improve its messaging—especially since the “running boom” has been ebbing over the past few years. At the very least, we should consider excising the following words from the sport’s lexicon.
There shouldn’t really be any debate on this one. Standing in the midst thousands of nervous, pungent strangers before setting out on an orchestrated stampede is unnerving enough without an explicit livestock reference. The Gold Coast Marathon in Australia uses the term “start zone.” Much more dignified.
Every time I meet up with my local running group, someone will inevitably refer to their weekly or monthly mileage when discussing their training routine. As with “corral,” “mileage” has a dehumanizing effect. It’s not great for motivation; I may be alone here, but I don’t fancy talking about myself as if I were a used Subaru. “Modern exercise makes you acknowledge the machine operating inside yourself,” Mark Greif wrote in a 2004 essay for n+1 that reads as a caustic take on the hollowness of contemporary fitness culture. “Mileage” is a case in point.
Obviously, we can’t lament the pervasiveness of “mileage” and let “fuel” and “fueling” off the hook. The machine analogy persists! Also, since eating is one of life’s principal joys, it seems advisable not to describe running-related consumption habits with a word connoting gasoline. To be fair, I can understand the tendency to think of in-race sustenance as fuel, rather than food; at the end of the day, the gel packet you sloppily imbibe at mile 23 doesn’t have much in common with mom’s home cooking. Still, I think we can do better. Is “competition foodstuffs” too much of a mouthful? Probably.
Apropos of foodstuffs: There’s something vaguely disgusting about the expression used to describe the process of consuming copious amounts of carbohydrates, typically during the week leading up to a big race. Imagine if you knew nothing about running and, after a bit of preliminary research, found out that “carbo-loading” was a widespread practice. Does that seem like a culture you’d want to be a part of? Carbo-loading sounds like an unpleasant form of forced gluttony. My vote is for a verbified iteration of “pastapalooza.”
Growing up, I spoke German before I spoke English. Even though I consider myself reasonably proficient in the latter language by now, occasionally there are moments that make me have my doubts. Like when I’m at a race expo and a volunteer informs me where I can pick up my bib. Excuse me? (I thought this was a ten-miler, not an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet?) I’m probably being overly sensitive here, but it’s my understanding that most people, when they hear “bib,” think of a mealtime accessory for babies. Seems less than ideal for road race organizers who want to create an atmosphere of serious competition.