Watching the awesome Susie Chan this weekend head into the record books was really quite spectacular and in the heat of that great piece of running it gave thought to me about the rise of celebrity status within the running community and why I’ve always leaned towards community over the famous/infamous.
Let me explain my thinking. In days gone by your average fun runners might have looked to the track to find inspirational athletes that they could aspire to be. I remember watching people like Linford Christie, Michael Johnson, Roger Black, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram at various ‘meets’ and thinking that they were amazing – but interestingly I never wanted to be them.
From an early age I wanted to be like the only marathon runner I’d ever heard of – my dad. However, I saw this type of running as something people did for fun – not competition and perhaps back in the 1980s this was more true than it is today. So there was an immediate disconnect between say Cram and Mr. K (my dad).
Let’s paint a picture – my very Liverpudlian dad (moustache and curly mop in place) on race day would don his 5 inch shorts and very thin vest and a pair of old Hi-Tec (or whatever, probably Adidas) and go and run 26.2 miles – I don’t have memories of the races themselves, nor of him racing in his heyday, just random images in my head but the photographs and medals suggest he was pretty good. So maybe I was copying him or seeking approval when I took up running? As a child I was influenced by this very real runner and by runners like him (beer in one hand, trainers in the other). What I do know is I never thought about wanting to emulate Coe or Ovett, they were too far removed from me (in social terms as well as talent) but my dad was just a normal everyday runner and as an adult I think I appreciate better why that was important to me.
When I started running again nearly five years ago, this time to prove something to myself I still struggled to be inspired by the tremendous feats of runners like Liz McColgan, Paula Radcliffe and Steve Way they were people I could admire but not be inspired by. There remained this giant gulf between those people and what I felt I could ever achieve. However, Sue and Kirstie, two lovely ladies from SE London, who had started training for the Grim Challenge provided me with a little bit of running community and inspired me to get fit, get filthy and have fun. I recall the sense of achievement when I ran quite well that day but moreover I remember the sense of elation when I saw Big Liz, Little Liz and my two running companions. I’d found the missing piece of my running jigsaw – people.
Soon after I joined the modern era via t’internet and we saw the rise of social media as a gateway to running. This has changed the dynamic in our interactions with runners and we see the rise of runners who are both real and touching what you might describe as ‘celebrity’ as well as building ‘community’.
This seems to be especially prevalent trend in the ultra running community at the moment, people like Cracknell, Karnazes, Jurek and Krupicka are at the heart of this but also on that curve we’ve got rising stars like Tobias Mews and Anna Frost whose individual achievements have merited a deep and loyal fanbase but have a more nuanced ‘realness’ to them. We should perhaps consider ourselves lucky in the ultra community that money isn’t rife or we’d see more people wanting to rise to the top – as it stands these runners and others like them are at the top of their game because they’re exceptional athletes.
However, much like those on the track I watched as a child I still struggle to be inspired by them. I couldn’t look into a mirror and see a future Tobias staring back at me. So why the disconnect? It’s partly about the gulf in brilliance, but that’s not unusual when you’re looking at the elite, I’m not an Olympian, nor an endurance running legend but I think it’s more that I’m inspired by those I feel I could emulate with a bit of hard work. I find inspiration not in glory but in story and those that inspire me have interesting stories to tell. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the tremendous achievements of Susie Chan this weekend because it walked that fine line between community, celebrity and talent.
So who then? I was asked recently who my favourite ultra runner was and without skipping a heartbeat I answered, ‘well truth be told there are three ultra runners who really inspire me, Dan Park, Louise Ayling and Emma Lawson‘ – not exactly household names, but exceptional runners in their own way and I’ve been following their adventures since I first decided I was embarking on a social media and running journey about four years back. Perhaps it’s their mishaps and struggles, perhaps it’s because they don’t seem invincible, perhaps it’s because I can aspire to be them and most of all it’s because they’re awesome.
So I’ll continue to watch the amazing feats of Anna Frost or Scott Jurek because they’re exceptional but I’ll save my fanboy admiration for when Joe finishes the Hardmoors Grandslam or Louise finishes the Lakeland 100 or Roz does another canal double
How about you? Do this new generation of runners inspire you, this social media generation? Or do you find its your best buddy at your running club who is the one that inspires you to go further and harder? Or are you inspired by the classics and look to the feats of years gone by?