I’m a Running Researcher: Stephanie Merchant

This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.

Who are you?

Hello! I’m Stephanie Merchant, I have been a Lecturer in the Department for Health at the University of Bath for the last 7 years.

What is your background?

I have been around the (academic) houses in a relatively short period of time with a Masters and PhD in Human Geography (University of Exeter), Postdoc work in Outdoor Education (University of Plymouth), to now find myself teaching ‘Sociology of Sport’ and ‘Sport and the Environment’ on the Sport, Management and Coaching Degree at the University of Bath.

How long have you been researching running?

Officially since 2017, but it had been bubbling away in the background for years! I wrote a paper about mapping human-environment interactions and although it was framed more broadly, it originated from thinking about the potential of using people’s (running) GPS data to explore their emotional relationship to the spaces they occupy when they run. Since then I co-wrote (with Gareth Wiltshire) a review chapter on the role of “nature” in parkrun and started a project on canicross (running with dogs).

How did you get into researching running?

I have always been interested in sport and the environment, and I have a tendency to write about my hobbies! I think knowing and caring about the contexts and communities you are studying makes the research process really enjoyable. I was personally obsessed with canicross when I started writing about it ethnographically. When I started collecting survey data from other people on canicross, it just generated so many new areas of interest for me.

What running research have you done?

The ‘Running with ‘others’: motivation and inter-relationality in canicross’ project has encompassed an auto-ethnographic element and a survey based study. The aim was to explore the role dogs play in motivating people to take part in this running based sport, and also to consider how dogs alter people’s perceptions of running environments (mostly rural trails).  

How do you research running?

I am a tech geek, and I love a visual methodology. At the moment I’m exploring how we might be able to use 360 degree video to better understand the running experience (and indeed nature based sport more broadly). However, so far I have relied on auto-ethnographic post-run journal entries and online surveys.  I thought it would be very difficult to get people to open up and meaningfully describe their experiences via an online survey, but actually people’s responses were really powerful and emotive. It seems people like talking about hobbies and pets!

What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?

There are three things that I find particularly exciting about this research:

  1. The mental health benefits people describe of running in nature
  2. The deep mutual understanding and ethic of care that both humans and dogs develop through running together (I need a box of tissues every time I get the data set out!)
  3. The power of dogs to alter human sensorial perception of running spaces

Do you run?

Yes, I love trail running with my dog. Having established that we are never going to be the most competitive over 5km (canicross standard), I tend to enter middle distance trail runs that allow canine companions, and a yearly solo race that scares me (next year it is Ultra Trail Snowdonia, last year it was Race to the Tower).

Where can I find out more?

My published research and ongoing projects can be found here. I very occasionally tweet @SMerchant84. My (non-academic) human-dog running exploits can be followed on Instagram @tails.running.trails.


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