Monday, 28 May 2018

Running free?

In Running Free, Richard Askwith argues that running in a commercial event such as Tough Mudder or Rat Race is not the same as running in a traditional race in, say, an athletics meeting, a fun run or a charity event (I assume as much; he simply says "Big Running wants you to run in a rut (...) But don't let them tell you that's the only option", where Askwith states that Big Running has successfully created a whole new market for runners where the emphasis is on paying a lot of money on both the equipment and for the experience when really you could do all this for much less and possibly for more entertainment).

However, it occurred to me that despite my affiliation with a running club, not spending very much on running gear and nothing on gym fees (except the fell running essentials for about £40, minus trail shoes) and running for the sake of my own enjoyment and not necessarily for the times (except Parkrun), what I had just done today (see date of the article) ideologically amounted to the exact same end product of the antithesis of what Richard Askwith would like us runners to do. Bear with me. Today I ran in the Bamford Sheepdog Trials Fell Race. The race itself isn't important; it had a 300 metre ascent over a 1 mile stretch of a 4.5 miles race, with fantastic views of the Derwent Valley all round at the top. If it wasn't for the narrow path maybe I could've taken a few more runners on the uphill... but I digress. I paid £5 for that privilege. The problem I realised posthumously is that essentially any event you pay for could fall into this "Big running" category. Admittedly in Tough Mudder you pay upwards of £50 for the race itself without the extras, which is a lot more money and very limiting to those with a decent disposable income.

"Big Running" is seen as bad by Askwith as it implies that you are letting capitalism control every aspect of your running life by sanitising the experience into something marketable and "enjoyable" by making you think you are enjoying the countryside whereas really you are rather safe and not actually experiencing the environment. The entrance fee is the most problematic part of this. Askwith would say that Bamford is a charity and not a commercial venture so they are not making a profit out of the race. I would argue that if people are willing to pay for a Big Running experience, then fell runners are just as culpable in paying for an event run by a charity. Most races I attend are run by volunteers and charities, and with the exception of Parkrun, I pay for pretty much all of these. I could  have organised my own event but if I had charged for it surely I would have been culpable too!

However the other argument here is that a charity/volunteer event is much more likely to give back to the community. It gives the communities, often relatively isolated ones, a chance of making some much needed cash for their communities. The Bamford race I mentioned above explicitly states where the money from the fell race goes to, such as the local girl Guides (see here). But it is still within the confines of a capitalist system. It may not be as bad as the commercial ventures but it still legitimises the system and justifies paying for a race. This in itself isn't a bad thing - races can rarely be done for free. However in fell running a large portion of the races are locally grounded, in contrast to the Big Running events, which have little historical association with the areas they are hosted. Relations between locals and the events are not usually the reason why you go to a Big Running event, whereas the nostalgia of running in a fell race sometimes involves an entire village coming out to help organise a race (see the Burnsall Classic). So the simple act of paying for a race entry immediately blurs the community and commercial lines. At what point are you paying for the race organisation, the upkeep of the church, or just lining someone's pockets? This is a very cynical view, and certainly in the fell running scene is almost unheard of. However, I feel this is something that Mr. Askwith could address in a future article.

The second part of this is the branding/advertising of said events. In a similar vein, at what point does advertising an event become branding? Simply having your race on the Fellrunner website in itself may be grounds for branding as you are exposing yourself to market forces (there are a lot of adverts on the site from some big fell running names). However, this argument does fall down a bit as many fell races don't spend money on advertising and often rely on word of mouth more so than Big Running events.

Ultimately the Big Running events are mostly motivated by profit while the charity and local events are run for the locals (no pun intended). At a fundamental level comparing the paid aspect of these different types of events doesn't give us the ideological difference we are looking for. The way they are marketed is better, and Askwith does identify this as a factor. His other factors I don't have a problem with (sanitising the experience, selling merchandise and "the experience"), but a refinement of the differences should focus more on the community of who these races benefit would be a better starting point.

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