Is Run-Commuting a (Post) Modern-Western Idea?

Despite the absence of official statistics about run-commuting, the practice certainly seems to be on the up: the run2work group terms itself a movement, I describe run-commuting as an emerging mobility practice in my academic work, and The Run Commuter has christened 2015 the Year of the Run-Commute. Yet, using running as a form of transport is not a new phenomenon – as humans we have been using running for such purposes for our entire existence. However, run-commuting does represent a different manifestation of running as transport, a manifestation born out of different ideas that I would argue, are luxury of ‘the west’ and have distinctive post-modern characteristics.

Historic Transportation Uses of Running 

The statue of Pheidippides along the Olympic marathon route in Rafina, Greece. Thanassis Stavrakis/AP.

Over the course of history, running has served in a complex set of cultural, political and biological contexts as its role and the meanings ascribed to it have changed over time. A brief dash through its history reveals how running has been fundamental to human evolution, been utilised in cultural rituals, been developed as a gymnastic endeavour, and assisted in messenger services among others. The latter serves as a crucial reminder that at its core, running involves getting to somewhere from somewhere else; it is a locational displacement. As human’s second technology for overcoming the distance of space and time (after walking), running’s ability to allow the traversal of A and B has proved an important service for humans. Indeed, Thor Gotaas’ wonderful book Running: A Global History begins with a chapter about running messengers, footmen and forerunners; an office held by thousands of specially trained men across cultures and throughout history. Perhaps the most famous of these is Pheidippides, the legendary Greek messenger who ran the entire distance from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated, before collapsing and dying. This of course, serves as the inspiration for the modern 26.2 miles race (minus the dying). In short, running has always been a means of transport.

Non-Western Transportation Uses of Running 

Most of the public, media and research attention on run-commuting have come from ‘western’ or ‘developed’ (terms I hate by the way) countries. In such places, contemporary running practices rarely centre of transport (it is therefore a marginal or emerging practice, and therefore, of interest). As cultures, lifestyles, technologies, land-use and geographies have changed, the hegemonic discourses around running have shifted to revolve around sport, fitness and health. Elsewhere in the world however, there are many places where running discourses firmly incorporate transport at the centre rather than the margins.

Tarahumara Runners. Laura Colbert.

As splendidly brought to light by Chistopher McDougall in Born to Run, the Tarahumara, Native American people of northwestern Mexico, are renowned for their long-distance running ability. Their settlements are widely dispersed and they have developed a tradition of long distance running for inter-village communication and transportation. Some academic studies show the pervasiveness of running as transport in particular countries. For example one study suggest 60% of young people in rural Kenya use running to get to and from school. Legendary Ethopian long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie used to run ten kilometres to school every morning, and then same back again every evening. This led to his distinctive running posture as an adult – his left arm crooked – the effect of years spent running with books under his arm.

Run-Commuting as (Post) Modern, Western Idea

Running as a form of transport clearly has a sporadic geography and temporality. Advocates of run-commuting as a future mobility are not, however, just arguing for a policy of back to the future, run-commuting does represent something different. Unlike historical uses or occurrences of running in ‘undeveloped’, ‘non-western’ countries, patrons of run-commuting have a choice. They don’t have to run to get to where they need to be as there are no alternatives, they are choosing to do so. Modern transport technologies, life rhythms and workplace cultures have led to the development of reasonably efficient modes of getting people from work to home and back again. Run-commuters choose not to utilise such developments and instead revert to a more traditional mode of getting around. This is why I argue that running is a postmodern idea rather than modern. The way of thinking known of modernity is founded on principles of rationality, efficiency and specialisation. Understanding run-commuting as a form of transport, it is not particularly rational or effective. Yet it is our postmodern sensibilities that allows us to see beyond this, taking into consideration the many wonders that running can gift the commuter in terms of fitness, wellbeing, morale, exploration, physicality and so on. In many ways, run-commuting is as much about rationality and efficiency as any other mode of transport. Run-commuters attempt to optimise these premises throughout their entire life (managing work, family and running commitments) rather than purely achieving these during their moments of transport, which would be a modern idea.

So running has long been and is still used as a form of transport, yet run-commuting represents something a bit different. In rejecting modern efficient modes of transportation for trainers, run-commuting manifests for different reasons and takes on different attributes and essences to other manifestations of run for transport. It is a highly textured and complex practice which makes it such a joy to research.

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