Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Defending the Marathon – A Response to Daniel Engber of Slate

Marathon Finish

Kelrick and I at the Seattle Marathon finish line with our hard won medals.

Daniel Engber is a Slate columnist.  He has a friend who decided to run the New York Marathon.  In response to this, Daniel had the journalistic equivalent of a full-toddler-tantrum-meltdown (or an ingenious idea for clickbait) which he then published under the title “Don’t Run a Marathon, You have better things to do.” Let’s take a look, shall we:

Have we devised any greater waste of time and energy than the running of the marathon? I’m asking for a friend. This friend will soon be training for the New York City Marathon, and he’ll be going at it for a span of 20 weeks. When he’s finished all his workouts, iced his injuries and prepped his body for the brutal course, he’ll be ready to achieve a goal that has no meaning in itself and offers benefits to no one.

Bitter, party of one…your table is ready.

So my first question is  – why are you asking for this friend? This friend has made up his mind to take on this challenge and, one might assume, decided that it has meaning and benefit to him. Daniel doesn’t even mention that his friend asked him if he wanted to train with him, or that he suggested that people who do marathons are better than those who don’t (which is total, unadulterated bullshit and would be deserving of scorn.) So basically from what I’m reading, his friend told him “I’m excited about this personal goal I’ve set for myself!” and Daniel responded “Let me use my platform as a journalist to demean you, and everyone else who chooses this goal, in front of as many people as possible.”

Some will read this as a #slatepitch, and say it’s just a way for me to troll for clicks, as if calling runners foolish were like saying pie is overrated or that constellations suck. But the logic goes the other way: It’s the runners who have gone against the grain; it’s the runners who have tried to make a virtue of their quirky point of view; it’s the runners who demand attention for all the time they spend on worthless locomotion; it’s the runners who are trolling all the rest of us. The marathon must be the biggest #slatepitch of all time.

Ah, the old “I’m not a bully for bullying you about your personal choices, you’re a bully for making personal choices” argument. The only people who buy this argument are internet trolls. Honestly, I hope that this is #slatepitch because otherwise it’s just super shitty.

Consider all the other things we could accomplish in those hours spent in training.Half a million Americans could speak a little Arabic. Half a million Americans could learn computer programming, maybe well enough to start a new career. Half a million Americans could devote themselves to helping out in soup kitchens, or fortifying dikes, or memorizing sonnets, or playing Google Image Labeler. Half a million Americans could do something truly beneficial for themselves or for their neighbors or for the country as a whole.

Out of curiosity Daniel – do you speak Arabic? Do you know computer programming well enough to start a new career? Where do you volunteer? What dikes do you fortify?  What sonnets have you memorized?  And if you do – why do you assume that the ways you choose to spend your time are the ways that everyone should spend their time? Can you make chainmaille? Do you speak every language? Do you play the tuba?

Let’s recognize that we don’t know that runners aren’t doing these things. Then let’s recognize that this argument is sheer, unadulterated slippery slope bullshit. Because in the time that Daniel spent memorizing sonnets, he could have volunteered at a food bank, how dare he be so selfish with his time? We each get to choose what to do with our bodies and our time and the idea that Daniel – who spent time writing this piece of drivel – should be the arbiter of how we spend that time is absolutely laughable.

I hope it’s not that people run in marathons to improve their health. All the evidence goes the other way..

Even if this were true, it’s a healthist argument.  The idea that we have some obligation to do things that are “healthist” by the definition of the person who has appointed themselves the judge of such things is nothing but another dangerously slippery slope, often used by bullies as a tool to bully people whose behaviors (or body sizes) they don’t like. Health is not an obligation, a barometer of worthiness, entirely within our control, or guaranteed under any circumstances.  Unless you are excited about having someone else tell you what you are and are not allowed to do with your body, you should probably take a pass on doing it to others.

The sport isn’t merely dangerous; it’s extravagant. It costs more than $250 just to enter the New York City Marathon and to have the chance to chafe your nipples alongside 50,000 other people. Meanwhile, humanity’s oldest form of exercise has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry in footwear.

Dude, trust me, I get not getting it. I get asking yourself -bleeding nipples?  The fuck are you doing? (Though if the nipples are freaking him out, let’s not tell him about the toenails, or where we put the Vaseline…) What I don’t get is thinking that your not getting it creates a solid platform from which to dole out advice and judgment.

This is actually the start of a good argument, but then it goes sideways. Accessibility is a major problem, but I don’t think that the answer isn’t to end the sport of running. Nobody is obligated to participate in athletics of any kind, but athletics should be as accessible as possible to anyone who wants to participate.

I like companies like Mainly Marathons that are not only affordable, but also highly inclusive of people of different speeds. There should be clothing and shoe options that are affordable.  And not just for running, but for any movement options that people might want to be involved in. That includes not just physical accessibility (though that’s obviously really important) but also psychological accessibility.  People should be assured that they can participate in movement without shame, stigma, bullying, or harassment.

I get the feeling that marathoners think of themselves as gritty, motivated types, who would rather train and get things done than sit around watching videos on Facebook. Indeed, they’ll often note the fact of their accomplishment (we might think of this as “showing off”) on social media.

Here Daniel takes a break from ranting in order to make up things about other people’s self-concept based on the fact that they talk about their accomplishments on social media.  Here again, I’m wondering if Daniel would be ok with them posting to their social media if they were learning a new language, computer programming, fortifying dykes, or memorizing sonnets?

Should we all be writing letters to Daniel to ask permission to choose our hobbies and post about them to our social media? Now, healthism is an actual thing and so if people aren’t clear that running is their hobby and that it doesn’t make them better than anybody else, then that’s a problem.  “I ran a marathon this weekend”is fine.  “I have kids and I still found time to run a marathon, what’s your excuse?”  is healthist bullshit because nobody needs an excuse not to do a marathon, or any type of movement.

For them, the pursuit of running 26 miles may have less to do with any functional reward than merely having gone through training in the first place. It’s an exercise of will, not one of purpose; the marathoner views achievement as a virtue of its own—like climbing Everest because it’s there.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but so the hell what? People are allowed to view their achievement as a virtue – whether they ran a marathon, or knit their first tea cozy (I don’t even know what a tea cozy is, but I want one.) The problem happens when society views it as a better thing than what other people do. If we think it’s more virtuous, or makes people deserving of better treatment, if they train for and complete a marathon than if they are involved in other hobbies, then that’s a problem. Working towards athletic goals is an option (though not an option for everyone for lots of reasons including everything from illness and disability to income and more,) but it is never an obligation or a barometer of worthiness.

It’s telling that this monomania gets rewarded—every single time, with cheering crowds and Facebook likes—despite its lack of substance. (At least Everest has a view!) I guess the form itself excites us: We’re so starved for ways to show self-discipline, and to regiment our time, that any goal will do, even one so imbecilic as the marathon. This only calls attention to the wasted opportunity: If we want to celebrate the act of building up to something hard—if we’re ready to devote ourselves, for at least 100 hours, to regimented training—then we should strive for something better. Instead of spending all that time purely for the sake of having spent it, let’s pursue a goal that has some meaning in itself.

Last call for bitter, party of one – last call – your table is ready, go sit down now Danny. When did Daniel become the judge of what is a worthy pursuit for everyone? Was there a ceremony?  Was it nice? Does it involve a cape? A gavel?  Where can I buy my “Daniel Engber is the boss of me” commemorative t-shirt and mug? Nobody is forcing Daniel to do a marathon, or to follow the social media of his friends who are doing marathons, so why in the world is he whipped up into such a  frenzy about the people who are? How is this affecting his life in any way?

That’s the spirit of the Anti-Marathon, introduced this week at Slate. We’re hoping to reclaim the idea of working hard, so the energy that goes into running marathons can be put to better and more lasting use.

The original article (which you can read in its entirely here) has a link to the ‘Anti-Marathon” program which includes an invitation to pay to join Slate Plus for extra content.  I will say that the notion that you can master swing dancing in 22 weeks gave me a much needed laugh after all this mess.  I will also point out that it’s not an “anti-marathon” as much as it is a “parallel marathon” doing the same things that  marathoners do, but for hobbies other than running (and, ostensibly, more acceptable to Daniel.)  Let’s also be clear that knowing how to swing dance (as I do) is no better than completing a marathon (which I have.)

At this point you may be asking “Why is this woman, who was so slow at her marathon that she and her Best Friend finished in a dark alley, so concerned about defending the marathon?”  Clearly, it’s not like marathoners are an oppressed group of people, indeed we are privileged by a healthist society.

This concerns me because as a fat person who has completed a marathon, is now training for an IRONMAN, and hears all kinds of opinions about my choices, I experience Daniel’s type of argument as just another part of the “We’ll Tell You What To Do With Your Body, And Why To Do It” Police. The argument that insists that I have some moral obligation to exercise (which is total bullshit), that the only “good” outcome of exercise is a thin body (also total bullshit,) also insists that I have some moral obligation not move my body “too much” or in the “wrong ways” (again I say, bullshit.)

Obviously there are lots of different types of privilege at work here and doing athletic things as a fat person both offers me “good fatty” privilege, and opens me up to types of harassment and oppression that I wouldn’t experience if I wasn’t involved. I want to keep reminding people that we get to do whatever we want with our bodies, for whatever our reasons are, and that participating in athletics doesn’t make someone better than anyone else – completing a marathon and watching a Netflix marathon are morally equivalent and both totally valid uses of a Sunday.

I wish that people, like Daniel, who want to focus on the physical activity choices of others would confine themselves to trying to dismantle the healthism that’s rampant in our society, and helping to create accessible, inclusive options for the types of physical activity that people might  want to do, instead of judging people for doing, or not doing, it.

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