Blood, Guts and Glory: Endless Attempts to Monetize the Oldest Sport

If you ask around you’re likely to hear all sorts of candidates, humanity’s oldest sport could be wrestling or boxing. Various inculcations of sports that employ balls in one form or another. Even martial arts in their great variety. But if you ask the question “what is our oldest sport?” you’re unlikely to hear the reply “running.” I’ve always wondered at this, it’s an anthropological oddity in my mind. Humanity has been running since before it was humanity. Arguably, there was undoubtedly a great deal of utility attached to this activity. There is plenty of evidence that suggests various populations employed persistence techniques for a great deal of their calorie intake. And, for a very long time, a significant portion of our history in fact, it was the only way to get from point A to point B with any efficiency at all. But the utility of the activity does not preclude the achievement of entertainment for the fans of pleasure for the participants. Anyone who has run, knows that some where deep down, the activity tickles pleasure centers and dumps Dopamine into the body. Why? Because we evolved while running.

That said, while other sports have been transformed into cash cows for an industrial complex intent on extracting every potential red cent from any human activity, running has remained relatively aloof, and mostly unaffected. And it is my contention that, in particular, long distance running will continue to enjoy obscurity primarily because of the difficulties involved with monetization the sport. For instance, the pressures of monetization transformed auto racing from a long distance, staged endeavor, with lots of blank spaces, characterized by the Paris–Rouen, into track events such as the Daytona 500. Beyond the starts and finishes of these early races much of the drama of the competition was lost. The advent of purpose built tracks contained all the spectacle making it possible for anyone to witness all the crashes or the bitter battles for the checkered flag. And the track served as a platform to catapult the amount of money that could be derived by hosting such an event. Want a piece of the pie? Build a stadium.

Long distance running, even on a track, lacks the external spectacle that you can expect from other races, even when it is contained on a track. So much of a foot race is contained inside the head of the competitors, that the great majority of the turmoil is largely lost on onlookers. In fact, I speculate, that you need to have necessarily experienced that struggle before you can share in the spectacle of the foot race. Move the event out onto a road or into the backcountry and you’ve further separated competitors from spectators. Starting lines and finish lines are where all the action happens and by comparison there just isn’t all that much of it.

But failing conventional modes of squeezing money from such an event, people will still attempt to gather what they can. We’re inventive that way. Running sponsorships are well and fine, but from this remove I have difficulty seeing how sponsorship necessarily pencils out for anyone, even the athletes. Especially in the tiny worlds of ultra running or trail running. But the attempts will still be made. I see several successful modes of commercialization of this sport, and because they are successful I anticipate that they’ll likely continue.

Infernal Commercialization

This morning, while catching up on reading I came across this example which illustrates a type of infernal commercialization generally intent on extracting money through sensationalization and fear mongering. The paper in question, published in Missouri Medicine. Once the peer reviewed paper hit the proverbial shelf other publications promulgated the idea that running was ultimately bad for your heart. Countless couch potatoes tapping away at their iPads undoubtably felt a certain sense of self-satisfaction and schadenfreude as they scanned articles about how certain it might be that all those runners out there, pounding away down some trail and wasting their valuable couch time, are now certain to end with a most horrible death. The National Review and many other periodicals, despite failing to tell the complete story (as explained by Jackie Ho), sold more advertisements and thus successfully commercialized some aspect of long distance running by playing on fears that running will cause more harm than good.

Trail running is not and will never be a spectator sport. But that is never going to stop others from trying to make a quick buck from your blood, sweat and tears. Infernal commercialization of trail running happens ever time someone publishes a heartfelt story with the gory details of some runner dropping dead on the path. Every time someone publishes a piece concerning some supposed reason not to lace up your joggers. These are excuses that sell, because they endorse the sedentary lifestyle that so many chose.

Harder Than it Is

Yeah, go figure. There are commercial entities out there that wish to sell you their stuff by making the claim that running is harder than it really is. It’s so difficult, in fact, that you should feel special. Singular. And, in some way, better than your peers. The ultimate in keeping up with the Jones’. 

Find your strong? These kids are all 20-somethings who haven’t yet been tested. They come to the sport with youth on their side. Energy and time that the majority of us lack and covet. Yeah, sure sweaty guy with bare chest and brand new shoes ran hard to get to that stream where he washes in the crystal clear waters before heading over the back of the hill, but if you’re buying shoes because of his example you might want to check your motivations for getting into this sport. Trail running and long-distance running both are unsustainable with little more than vanity for propellant.

No, you need discipline to keep with it after your connective tissues start to harden. Even the extra padding on those Hokas aren’t going to keep you going, one foot in front of the other, after age has caught up to you. Believe me, when this kid’s beard starts to thin and his lustrous locks have streaks of grey he is going to be looking for any which way to make the trail easier. You don’t know you have the intestinal fortitude to deal with age until you have the age and happen to be dealing with all that it brings.

Easier Than it Is

First, let me clarify, if you chose to make running a part of your life, I believe that, you’re making a decision to do one of the most human things possible. It is not easy and there are many distractions, but as you progress and improve your body will respond. Your body can’t help it. The more you run the more it will respond. You’ll feel lactic acid burning in your legs, burning hotter than a thousand wasp stings. You’ll twist your ankle or strain your knee or develop the dreaded Plantars fasciitis. Lately, I’ve been coping with lower back pain and pain in my shoulders (from pushing the bulki).

This does not end. And it’s never easy. One sweaty run isn’t going to transform your bloated corpse. You shouldn’t even consider that you’re now a “runner” let alone that you’ve somehow become glorious. The greatness they are talking about won’t come from shoes. It wont come from any amount of consumer behavior, in fact. Discipline, baby. Sticking with it through the hurt and disappointment. Through the bad weather. Through the worst your coach or personal trainer can dish out. Worse, the worst you can dish out. Yeah you, because after you start down this path you’re going to become your own nightmare. You’re going to be the one berating yourself late at night when you’re craving a pile of junk food or a bowl of ice cream. You’re the one that knows you actually do have the energy and the moxie to get back out on the road while you sit in front of the boob tube complaining about how tired you are. And you’re going to live with that truth, nagging at you day and night. Even in your dreams. For as long as you’re willing to approach greatness.

Has trail running become too commercialized? Who knows? There’s plenty to suggest that attempts to make money from the activity will continue, but when I’m out on the trail its unlikely I’m paying much attention to them. Sure I see the banners at the start and finish line, but that is such a small part of what constitutes running for me.

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