Running is a lot of things, but is it fun?
In the first weeks of the cross-country season, when summer heat lingers, and no one has actually raced yet, our team organizes a 5K “fun run” for ourselves and for anyone else at the school who wants to join in. Our guests usually include one or two other teams from the school (boys and girls JV soccer joined us this year), about a dozen adults from the faculty and staff, and a few students who aren’t on any team, but have their own reasons for participating. It’s a good way to remind ourselves what meet day feels like, and a chance to practice the whole warmup routine.
A few years ago, one of our runners decided that this event should no longer be called the Fun Run, but instead should be renamed the “Fall Classic.” I have waffled ever since between referring to it that way, and falling back on old habits. Mostly, I say both names, verbalizing a slash between the two identities, to wit: “Don’t forget that Thursday is the Fun Run slash Fall Classic.” Perhaps my ambivalence reflects a real sense that we are talking about two different things: on the one hand, a timed run over a fixed course (a.k.a, a “race”), and on the other, a social event that brings together runners of all ability levels, as well as campus kids, who have their own 600m race around the fields.
A few minutes before the start of the 5K at this year’s event, I happened to overhear two boys from the soccer team discussing the ordeal to come. One of them summed up succinctly the reasons that they were playing soccer that fall, rather than exploring the roads and trails of Concord with the cross-country team. “A ‘Fun Run,'” he ventured, is a contradiction in terms!”
After a moment in which I tried to decide whether I should be offended, I decided that I actually agreed with him. Obviously running is pretty important to me, but I would almost never describe a run as “fun” unless I were trying to use the term ironically (Example: after completing a ten mile slog through winter slush: “Well that was fun…”). To me, “fun” means entertaining, diverting, jolly… Running is rarely jolly. It can be joyful, but it’s not always so easy to perceive the joyfulness in the attitude of a runner toiling away at his or her craft. The story of our sport will never be summed up as “A person goes running… hilarity ensues.”
Other than the Concord Academy events, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually participated in a Fun Run. I’ve never been excited about dressing up in a goofy costume for a run, either. I don’t know, I guess I’ve always felt that a run for time and place is pretty serious business — satisfying, yes; virtuous, perhaps; but fun? No, not really.
And I think that people who join the cross-country team or a running club for the fun, aren’t really focused on the actual running, which is often tedious, but on the before and after. Perhaps the running part is just a pretext for getting together, for eating and drinking afterwards, for getting out of the house. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
But the running itself — the hours of trotting here and there, but mostly in circular paths that deposit you back at your own front door much more tired than when you started — it’s fun the way cleaning out the garage is fun. You feel good afterwards, and you feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but you don’t laugh much while you’re actually doing it.
I think those young soccer players had it right. In searching for an image for this blog post, I Googled ‘fun run,’ and the photos that appeared showed lots of people on lots of starting lines of so-called fun events, and just about every runner wore an expression of grim determination. It’s hard work, this running! And sure, it might be a little less intense when you call it ‘fun’ and don’t offer medals and prize money (although many of these fun runs do), but it’s still serious business out there. In fact, the cynic in me thinks that calling a race a “fun run” is simply deceptive marketing, a pretense that the pomp beforehand and the treats afterwards will cancel out the effort required to cover those 3.1 miles in a respectable time.
Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe for some people, every step brings a smile, and every mile leads to laughs. Maybe I’m the one who just takes it all too seriously, searching for meaning in the ceaseless attempt to improve on yesterday’s effort. Maybe fun runs are designed to put people like me in my place, and let other people enjoy the sport without overlaying it with all sorts of deeper meanings. It’s a run! Let it be fun!
But if that’s true (and it probably is to some extent), it’s still a bit ironic that fun-loving types are the ones most likely to find the 5K really hard, practically a death march. I know because I saw them staggering in last week, their strained faces reflecting the effort of such a long journey on foot. Meanwhile, the runners from our team, the ones who had raced hard, had mostly finished, and were occupying themselves by cheering lustily for the stragglers. Several of them were even talking about running the course again as a cool down.
So who was having the most fun?