Obscenities in Paradise
With a good hour to kill before the start of the Bozeman Marathon, I perched myself atop a fence post to watch the Rocky Mountain sunrise. I hoped to run fast this morning and with a pink sky looming over the Bridgers anything seemed possible. Other runners passing time before the start of the race paced or jogged past my perch. Some of them I regarded, others I ignored, as my idle mind drifted this way and that. There is a certain stillness that is available only in the moments before intense action. When the race started, I'd be there running. For the time being, I was right there doing nothing in particular. It sounds idyllic, does it not? It was. Mountains, skies, human bodies preparing for exertion—it was an elemental morning. Except, when I studied the runners moving by my fence post I saw that a great many of them were wearing what I could tell were the carbon-plated super shoes that had so disrupted our simple sport over the preceding few years. And these runners did not belong to, shall we say, the sport's elite. They were my middle age or older, they were stiff, they were heavy. Most of them, I estimated, would be lucky to break two hours. In spite of all this, they wore the shoes of Olympians. What possesses noncompetitive runners to spend hundreds of dollars on shoes that may marginally improve their times? And what possesses me, a runner who on a good day can still place in his division, to resist? For me, it's surely in part a combination of pride, personality, and my allegiance to an antiquated distinction between natural and artificialI. But more than any of these, it's plain old self-consciousness. I wouldn't want to be seen as the kind of person who would wear high-tech elite racing shoes while churning out seven-minute miles. It would be embarrassing. But these runners had, to my eye, lost the capacity for embarrassment. These were the kind of people who might ask me sincerely why in a world with fast shoes they should run in slow shoes. What could I say to them? How could I try again to explain that the point is the running itself, not the times that can be engineered by the mad scientists at Nike? I didn't know what to feel. Part of me wanted to laugh at these ridiculous creatures made doubly ridiculous for the fact they couldn't see how ridiculous they were in the first place. Another part of me wanted to curse how fake accomplishments cheapen real ones. A third part of me inclined toward pity: What kind of emotional depravity must a person know to be susceptible to the ad campaigns of Nike? Who thinks that if they can buy their way from a 2:08 half to 2:05 they'll deserve their own private Wheaties box? Super shoes neither stand for nor encourage athletic excellence. They stand for and invite only entitlement. You can spend your way to a time that five years ago you would have had to work for. It is once again a way for wealth to tilt the even ground. How could a sane person not rant that these shoes represent everything that's wrong with our results-focused and number-obsessed sport? Who could argue that in its granting of unearned benefits it's any different from doping? But here's the thing about running: the self-righteousness, the offended sensibility, the inner ranting—you can leave them all behind simply by moving your legs. When the race started, I ran. And because I didn't look back, my problems were all behind me. Ahead of me, the sky was still pink, I was back in paradise.