mundane adventures in running
Low entry cost is an oft cited benefit of running cf other forms of exercise. You don’t need much stuff to get running. Maybe a pair of trainers. Maybe some moisture wicking t shirts. Maybe a water bottle. At it’s best it can be totally and completely divorced from the grubby worlds of money and of consumerism
I still spend a lot of cash on running stuff, but I have managed to divorce the idea of progress from expenditure. In so many parts of our lives we assume that if we just spend money on something we’ll get a benefit. I’ve fallen into the trap with running before, thinking that the right trainers might help my recovery times, or that a new heart rate monitor might improve my heart rate. There’s only so much progress you can buy. And the truth is, the joy is in the run, in being there and in the moment and progressing relentlessly forward one step after another, being present in your body and in the world, and getting better, faster, fitter.
Running is free and wild and beautiful and that’s why I love it. It’s an unmediated joy. You don’t need a time to run, or a reason to run, or even any special equipment to run. You just need to manifest yourself in the body you were born in and drag that body out on a journey, to propel it forward an adventure through the city, down the roads, out into the country and the hills.
I don’t normally race. I find the crowds of people pretty antithetical to my idea of why running is amazing. Despite that, i understand that other people are different to me and totally entitled to enjoy the stuff i don’t like. Low key park run things, massive charity sponsored things, crazy city marathon things, weird hippy ultra run things. All of these make sense to me: even if i don’t want to do them, i get why other people do. Camaraderie, milestones, making it ‘a thing’, relying on other people for the organising, being part of something bigger than you. Park run is a nice example: people who do it get a sense of camaraderie, there’s a routine to it, they sign up so it feels proper, it;’s more than just trudging out of the door on Saturday with a hangover, it’s real you’re really running. Sure it’s sponsored, but it feels like Adidas are doing a nice thing for people.
But. Heavily branded pay to enter races. What is up with that? While Tough Muddah looks fun, none of their stupid obstacles would ever be fun enough to justify spending so much money to race. 140 quid. Actually fuck off. When I can run alone or with people I choose to run with, when I can run through mud and climb over walls and jump and swim myself, without paying, why on earth would I pay money? Does the transaction lend gravitas: if i’m running through mud by myself it’s not proper, if i’ve spent money on it, and have a t shirt, and can rely on the narrative of the race pedalled by Tough Muddah’s brand strategy team then it’s proper.
So, it was with some surprise that I found myself doing one of these things, Gung Ho! a watered down version of Tough Muddah, with inflatables. Seriously fun 5k! My 7 yr. old son was invited to be Gung Ho! by his friend. I run with friend’s mum from time to time anyway, my wife was busy, and I figured it would be anthropologically interesting. Also, while i often sound curmudgeonly and grumpy, I can quite easily fake enthusiasm. I promise I didn’t enter this with a neggy determination to spoil it for everyone.
We arrived. We stood out a bit. I was wearing a twenty year old pair of Ronhill tracksters and utterly fucked, mud encrusted vivo trainers. Etta had split side race shorts. We were also the only people there with kids.
The crowd seemed to be largely made up of younger people. It didn’t feel like much of a fitness crowd. Not as fit as the crowd you’d expect for a London triathlon, not as socially diverse as the crowd you’d expect for a Brockwell Park Park Run. The gear though. The gear was on point. All Lululemon lycra, all over patterned running tights, weird technical knits and compression socks. Lots of Under Armour stuff.
And there we were, dancing in front of a stage as a warm up for a 5k. Bad pop music and an enthusiastic shouting guy psyching us up for the challenge. The psyche bit was slightly odd: given that none of us had chips, and there wasn’t a timer in sight, it’s hard to see what the challenge might be. Racing this would be insane and antithetical. Whatever Gung Ho! is about, it’s not a race.
The motivational chat was about completing a full 5k. I can’t believe that anyone would choose this as their first 5k. It would be an odd thing to do: if you DNF, would you really feel bad, or put it down to the obstacles, if you did finish, would you feel a sense of satisfaction… particularly given that it’s not timed, and even if you ti
mes it on a stop watch you’d have to discount the time spent fucking about on inflatables?
We found our wave and set off. The course was 5k with about 15 obstacles. Each obstacle was an inflatable thing to scramble over, to push past. They look really fun. They’re not really fun. As a forty year old man, my main challenge was not to land badly and put my hip out of joint/ dislocate my shoulder/ slip a disc. Running between them likewise. I found i had no incentive to really run, other than it was what i was meant to be doing. It’s not like I’d be able to get into the groove of running, get a runners high, embrace a landscape or absorb myself in either the world or my own mind and body.
That said, a couple of the obstacles where sufficiently cool to repeat. While not really fun, they were quite fun: the long slide-y ones were really pretty cool. After about 3k, we started circling round the better ones, treating Gung Ho! as a particularly exciting playground rather than as a race. In fact, subverting the intention of the race was probably the most entertaining aspect of it.
By the end of Gung Ho! there was a massive bottle neck, people waiting to go on the slide which constituted a grande finale. We dipped out on it. Queuing to
complete part of a race seemed odd (and we had the normal line up of weekend child
obligations to get through). We went staright on to the other, less grande, finale: the swag stand. No sports drinks here, no fliers for running shops or discounts for Brooks trainers, just a branded t shirt and bandana.
What is this thing? For £40 (each. no discount for children) what did we get? certainly a t
shirt and a weird sweat band thing, but what else? I didn’t feel like i’d run 5k, had that much fun, achieved anything. The crowd had been odd, not motivating. I never felt like i was enjoying some shared purpose, beyond just playing with the children.
Gung Ho! is probably for someone else and not for me, but I struggle to see who. I don’t begrudge people taking part, but i also can’t help but feel that they are being exploited. I think they’d all do better on a park run or just going for a jog with some mates. I don’t see what they gain from dropping £40 on it.
Perhaps it’s just intended as a reductio ad absurdum of all amateur running events ever: all pay to race races boil down to this fuckery.