Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mean People Suck: Some Thoughts on the Running "Community"

“The easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves. ” ~ Socrates
This week I'm struck by the number of mean spirited things I've either seen online or experienced in person, and all day I've been wandering around in a funk thinking: Why can't we just be nice? Why must we always place ourselves on some pedestal? Why do we like making ourselves feel superior at the expense of someone else? Why can't we all just do our own thing and accept that others are doing their thing (when it has no impact on us)?

It didn't help that I had a couple bad interactions on the trail this week with a belligerent dog owner who was just plain mean and nasty, I've also seen all kinds of really mean spirited, divisive comments and blog posts and people seemed to flock in droves to say 'hell yeah' and share over and over again, these negative, nasty posts. We enthusiastically leap onto the bandwagon of hatred and bigotry, and pat ourselves on the back for not being one of the lame whiners and wannabes. We put people down for asking questions we deem 'silly'. We mock the goals, paces, results, etc of others. When I registered for my first 50 miler a couple years ago, people didn't miss a beat at jumping all over me for choosing an "easy" 50. What the hell does it matter to anyone else what I run? Does this make us feel better about ourselves to mock and put down others?

Now, I'm not "Little Miss Nicey-Nice". I certainly can be critical at times - though 'critical' needn't be mean and nasty and foul mouthed.

What runners seem to like to do is label themselves and others:
road runner
trail runner
track runner
fun runner
mom runner
slow runner
mid-pack runner
back-of-the-pack runner
competitive runner
newbie runner
seasoned runner
masters runner
mountain runner
and on and on and on.

We put ourselves in categories. Others like to keep things tidy by assigning a little box and stuffing us into it. Labeling is limiting. Labeling makes us flat, unchanging things, not humans being and becoming. But through these labels we establish our camps - our clique - our clan. And the others are outsiders at best and infiltrators at worst.

I call myself a runner. That's as far as that goes. I don't call myself an 'ultrarunner'. I don't call myself a 'masters runner' or any of the above labels: I run roads and trails. I run 5ks and 100 milers. I run hills and flats. I run. Period.

I'm 'new' to ultrarunning as I only started dipping my toe into that pond in 2013, but I have been running longer than most ultrarunners have been alive. So I'm one of those 'old-timers'. And I've watched the rise in popularity of marathons and the resulting 'old school' verses 'newbie' divide surface again and again. I certainly have been guilty of looking at some newer trends with concern and suspicion and perhaps with a little head shaking and finger waving. BUT, most of that arises out of concern for the well being of runners, who may still be new to the sport and MAY be listening to people who do not really know what they are talking about and may not have the most noble intentions. Sure, that's 'judgmental' of me. But, I do actually have the qualifications to make those judgments. Old timers grouse about 'standards', and preparation, and crowding, and cost. As a result. 'road runners' are often seen as a more contentious group.

Now, in the ultrarunning community, both in the 'real world' and the 'virtual world' I see two very conflicting trends: 1) Inclusiveness: Ultrarunners are a welcoming and encouraging, and 2) Divisiveness: As ultrarunning has grown in popularity a divide has slowly oozed to the surface from the deepest, darkest depths of muddy trails: The 'seasoned' ultra runners vs the 'newbie'.

So, while ultrarunners and trail runners love to depict themselves as welcoming and inclusive, laid-back and humbly hard core at the same time (And I would say MOST unltrarunners ARE welcoming and encouraging), there is also a 'pissing match' element. And that's all well and good as long as long as it's meant in a good competitive spirit - that is you aren't pissing all over the other person. What do I mean by good competitive spirit? Well, it goes something like this: I'm gonna beat your ass, or I'm gonna beat my own ass, and try my best, and shake your hand no matter how it goes. Put-downs have no place in sport. Do YOUR own damn thing.

When I did not get into Western States and tried to look on the bright side by saying that this just gave me a chance to get more experience, a well known and respected runner accused me of not going into it for the right reasons because I wasn't sobbing all over social media. I was, and still am, very disappointed that I didn't get in. And I signed up for my next 100 with the intention of qualifying again. This runner attacked me because I might have possibly taken a spot from someone who 'really' wanted to get in had I been accepted. She told me that with my attitude I am doomed to fail. So, let me get this right: I tried really hard to get in. I ran and finished my first 100 miler (first attempt at the distance and I did okay) and qualified. And I applied. I was too nervous to watch the drawing, so I went for a 16 mile run in the snow. When I got home I looked over the list again and again, hoping against hope. No Bueno. "Okay", I tell myself, "Time for plan B. And next year I'll have 2 tickets and a little more experience under my belt." THIS is the attitude of a failure??? This person doesn't even know me, but as a leader and role model in the community, I was slightly devastated that she would say these things. So sure of her judgement of me. So mean and hurtful.

For the record, these things usually eat at me for a time and then I get back up, brush off the crap people like to throw at me, and go on pursuing MY passions. They can shove their shite somewhere else.

Recently a blog post was shared all over the interwebs and on ultrarunning sites: The point of the piece is to tell ultrarunners to stop their whining - and if they don't like it they can f*ck off. The author clearly notes that with the rise in the popularity of ultras there has also be an increase in the amount of whiny runners. Again, the message is clear - All these 'newbies' are a bunch of whiny pansies (yeah, you know what word everyone was really using!) and they should all just shut up or piss off. This post was shared by so many runners who I know and used to respect. The reaction to the post is disheartening: "I love you". "Well said". "If this offends you, you don't belong here anyway." "Spot on." "You are my new hero!!" etc etc etc. I saw hundreds of thumbs up comments in response to this.
"People don't mind being mean; but they never want to be ridiculous." ~ Moliere
Now, I don't like whiners and complainers, and those who act as though they are 'entitled' to things that no one is entitled to (like a smooth ride and automatic success), and I'm not 'offended' by the post or the comments, but I am SAD about it. I'm sad about it because it feels like much ado about not much! Yeah, I haven't run that many ultras, but I can say that I've never seen these whiny creatures out on the trails when I'm there. I've volunteered at races, and have not had runners grouse about aid stations, the course, the support, etc. Of course the whiners are out there (and I could add "who the f*ck cares"), but they are so in the minority I'm just not getting the big deal here, except as an us/them thing: Us being the cool kids. Them being the lame whiners who we are not!.The us/them dichotomy is divisive.

But here's the thing, everyone rushes to say, "awesome job" and in so doing they become one of the good guys. They are one of the real runners. And since they get it, nudge nudge, wink wink, and aren't offended that just proves how much better they are. They aren't offended therefore they aren't one of the whiners (It should be noted, however, that this was whining about whiners) They are tough and stoic and made of better stuff then those other losers. But, it's like all the fools in the story of the Emperors New Clothes - No one is brave enough to say, this is nothing but meanness. This is about nothing more than making yourself feel superior. Puff up that chest, man. You f*cking rock.

So, here's MY message: Make YOURSELF as good as possible. Be nice to others. How they behave has no baring on your character, be that good or bad. Your character and the character of the community rests in how we behave and how we treat others.

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” ~ Socrates


  1. at this point I tend to reject all labels - but if I had to apply one it would no longer even be "runner". I like the thought and term of ultra pedestrian. I travel, by foot. Sometimes I run and sometimes I walk (more often these days for the long stuff)I'm happy doing my things and smile as people pass me and smile when I pass people (sometimes the same people)As your post points out - be happy with your own thing. Nice post.

    1. Thanks! I will never understand why people don't get this. Maybe it's just because I'm older, but even if I am 'racing' it's mostly a race against myself and I don't compare my results to those of others because it just doesn't matter to me. Glad to see so many others feel the same!

  2. Reading this article today made my month!
    It was so amazing to finally read EVERYTHING thats been swirling around in my on own head for quite some time so well articulated in writing.
    I couldn't agree more about the recent ultra "whiner" blog post being the straw that broke the camel's back for as much as I whole heartedly "agreed" with the author's sentiments, I always find judging & poking fun of others to be nails on the chalkboard unneccessary.
    As someone who "just runs" & is extremely new to the world of ultrarunning, but has been running for almost 25 years, I too share the EXACT same cautious concern for those with less experience.
    Because I've just switched back to running as my primary form of exercise in recent years after participating primarily in another sport, I didn't feel qualified to share these thoughts publicly.
    Thank you SO much for saying what needed to be said!
    I truly hope your words go viral as they are some of the most valuable thoughts to ever be articulated in the running world and deserve to be heard by all to make this community a better place.

    1. And your comment has made my day!!! I almost didn't write this because, well, I figured no one else cared. I figured I was alone. And honetly? I've had more comments on this post, on FB and Runners World, than any I've written for some time. I've been ready to give up this whole writing thing because it seems so pointless...and then I get just a little encouragement. It means so much.

      I too left the 'racing' world for about 15 years while I pursued rock climbing as my primary athletic focus and returned to racing in 2009 after a bad injury. I ran a lot during those climbing years, but didn't race and was not in the running 'community' at all. But I've been a runner for many many decades. So it matters to me in ways I can't quite describe. I'm glad to see I'm not alone.

      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. It matters more than you know!

  3. People seem to hold Western States in this "Holy Grail" sort of realm. It seams any slight brush you may have with the race is cause for severe judgement. I was one of the lucky few selected to attempt the race in 2014. After having an extremely rough go at training I gave it my everything and needed to step off the course after 80 miles (much further than others I know who were able to adequately train).

    I thought I had done well. After giving the race the respect I felt it needed and leaving everything I had out on that course... I thought I had done well.

    Weeks after the race I posted my report on the Loop and at first things were fine. People were cordial. Then the rest of the people interjected with their opinions of how terrible of a person I was for even attempting it in the shape I was in.

    I won't go into detail here but if truly interested you can search it out for yourself. The point is I hadn't seen that side of runners during my 5 prior years where I was "involved" in the running "community". It's tainted everything for me. I've only raced once since.

    It's disappointing to see people act like that in the running world but if I know they exist in the actual world why is it so jarring to see them in the running world? I believe it's because they tend to come out of nowhere. It's people you know. It's those who you considered to be your peers. It is those you respected. And then everything changes when they become precisely what you thought they would never be. Hurtful.

    I honestly don't know how deep your cuts go but mine are deep. It's made me extremely timid. Feels like I'm walking on egg shells around familiar faces. You hang out with people you enjoy the company of and want to see those you've felt a connection with... I don't come around much anymore.

    Thank you for posting this. I don't feel quite so alone anymore.


    1. I can say that for those who lash out and critique my choices, I am done with these people. I can say though, that I have so much more support from people than I have detractors. A couple years ago I tore a ligament in my pelvis 10 days before I was supposed to run Boston. Some took this as an opportunity to criticize me because I'm a coach, so how could I be a good coach if I hurt myself. Some told me to be careful about what I posted and wrote, since I wrote about my poor judgement in this case - At first it hit me hard. But then I realized something: Anyone who criticizes me for being an imperfect human I don't want to have anything to do with. I would have done EXACTLY what you did in WSER. You earned your bib. Why wouldn't you try? Who does that effect other than you? No one!!! Find those people who build you up. Those people who criticized me??? They showed me what THEY are made of not what I am made of. I hope that you can put this aside! I have told many friends and coaching clients not to 'overshare' because people will look for a way to jab at you if things don't go well. It's best to keep some of your cards hidden. I've learned to do that. You sound like you miss it. Don't let the assholes win.

  4. Great writing and great topic! I've run most of my life but took a break to pursue horse endurance riding/racing after a knee injury derailed my running. Although most people were helpful and welcoming, there was still a stigma if you didn't do the longer you weren't truly an endurance rider if you didn't have 100 mile races as your ultimate goal. Folks that raced shorter events were criticized for going to was all about trying to get into the "cool" group. Typically it is the most insecure that fall into the abyss that being in the cool group is the goal. Now that I'm back into running/racing, I'm drawn to longer distances, but trying to figure out if it's because I want to be respected and in the "cool" group (because 50K's are really only a few miles longer than a marathon...and we know how easy marathons are to run lol), or if I truly want to run that long/far. It's an evolution of any sport really- finding out what really drives you to strap on those shoes every day- is it for yourself or to be someone that you think others want you to be?

  5. This was a good and thoughtful post. I don't know the answer other than we need to respect others. But I have a hard time respecting those that denigrate others, either for not going fast enough or far enough to meet some standard. At a place like Letsrun, you frequently see posts saying that anyone who is not a professional runner is a jogger--or anyone over a time XX:XX for distance Y-- is "slow" (and some very fast people, like top 1%, still get called slow there! Meanwhile, on other sites I've seen participants sniff at anything less than a marathon as not even a race. What is it with people these days?

  6. One of the best blogs I've read in a while. Thank you

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  8. Great article and exactly what I've been thinking since reading these posts from the select few who seem to think that ultra running is their sport and no-one else is allowed to play. Ultra running, just like any sport, is everyone's and they should be embracing the growth in popularity and the diversity it brings.

  9. Nice post Caolan. Do you not find that "labelling" (self or otherwise) is inherently fractal? Humans are mostly inherently social, and want to be part of a group. Once within, however, many seem to want to identify subgroups, and constantly aspire to be in an evermore exclusive segment.

    On one hand, as you suggest, these aspirations can result in undesirable behaviour, but I presume they can also be a force for good (personally, or socially). I guess it's just a question of how an individual is affected by those motives, and/or how those effects are perceived by their peers.

    I don't call myself a runner, it seems redundant, and any attempt at clarification ends up sounding niche-y. Do I run enough to claim the title of a "runner" (that works, raises a family, rides bikes and waves, climbs rocks and paddles a boat)? Or am I a person who does stuff (and tries not to be a knob)?

    1. When I say I call myself a 'runner' I am not saying that that is ALL I am, but in the realm of running that's what I am which means I can be all the other things under that umbrella as well, or none of them. And yes. I've written about the idea and importance of having and being included in a tribe of sorts - a tribe of runners - and that doesn't mean we will always agree about everything but that we are in it together in some sense. The problem with labels is when they are either exclusive (keeping people out) or limiting (You are X therefore you can't do Y). I'm a runner who works, is a wife and mother, has intellectual passions and pursuits, climbs rocks, swims, gardens and enjoys running long and short, on roads and trails, over remote mountains and through crowded cities. We can be whatever we want (with some limits) - and that should be dictated by US not others imposing limits on us based on their judgement of who belongs and does not belong.
      SO. We agree :)


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