This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.
Who are you?
My name is Hannah Borenstein and I’m a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.
What is your background?
My dissertation research is about long-distance women runners in Ethiopia navigating a transnational athletics market. I’m generally interested in the intersections of sports, race, gender, as they pertain to labour, culture, and global capitalism, and I think athletes’ perspectives on such matters, ironically, are often overlooked. As an anthropologist I spend a lot of time with and interview athletes and other actors to see how social relations impact material reality, and vis versa.
How long have you been researching running?
Unofficially since about 2013. I went to the Ethiopia for the first time by myself when I was 19 years old over a summer. I was technically on a research grant while doing my undergraduate degree to begin what eventually became my Ph.D. project, and started training with a small group of women. So, to varying levels of commitment, about 7 years.
How did you get into researching running?
When I went to Ethiopia in 2013, two things happened. First, I met some really great people, many of whom I’m close friends with to this day. Second, I became so interested with what I perceived to be incredible misunderstandings between runners and spectators in the “west” and the lived realities of athletes in Ethiopia. I was running for my university at the time and followed the sport closely, and saw that many people spoke with confidence about the training and backgrounds of East African athletes (often lacking distinctions between Kenya and Ethiopia, which are so different to begin with). Many of these presumptions I found to be wrong, but I realized that if I didn’t learn the language, Amharic, and really spend time with people to speak about sensitive subjects, I wouldn’t be able to learn either. So I eventually decided to commit myself to researching running through anthropology.
What running research have you done?
My Ph.D. is still in progress and my project about Ethiopian athletes encompasses a variety of other perspectives in running. So I’ve also spent time working at a sports agency, spent time with coaches, and interviewed several people beyond athletes and former athletes in the industry. But the current dissertation project is the main priority and still underway.
How do you research running?
Running, of course! I’m sure that will be obvious. But some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with athletes have been on the run, or shortly thereafter. I think most people that have run on a team or with others can attest to a unique combination of endorphins and fresh air that allow thoughts and words to flow in different ways. The same goes for after hard efforts.
I’ve also spent time living with runners, which means being involved in daily activities. So of course this means cooking, cleaning, stretching, and relaxing. But it also means going to weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, and funerals. It means celebrating holidays and stressing through injuries together – just really experiencing highs and lows.
And then I also interview runners about their lives, training, and perspectives on running. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to travel to international competitions, and help translate for athletes. Beyond just running there are many ways to research it as part of someone’s life and I find in all of the circumstances I just listed above that different insights and ideas emerge.
What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?
This is a tough question to answer because it drives so much of my research, but I guess one important component is that Ethiopian runners have a pretty good sense of how they are misunderstood in international media. Most Ethiopian athletes speak very limited English (if any at all), and reporters often ask complicated questions, and speak very quickly. In turn, athlete responses tend to appear simplistic and childlike. My research has not only led me to see the complicated dynamics belie spectacular performances, but also observe a peculiar dynamic in which athletes are afraid of being misrepresented or belittled when they travel for competitions. In short, many Ethiopian athletes see that the media often does not account for the complexity of their lives, but don’t know what to do about it. I’ve tried to assist by translating and doing some public writing about athletes and their coaches, but it’s a work in progress.
Do you run?
I do! When I’m not injured, that is. I had a pretty late start to running, and didn’t end up joining my university team until several years in to school. I grew up playing all sports, and in retrospect probably should have focused on running earlier, as I think I am better at it than most other things, but I feel very grateful to have it in my life as it has taken me many places and introduced me to some of the most incredible people. My pseudo-athletic friends will tell you I’m an incredible runner. My Ethiopian runner friends will tell you I’m slow, but that I have lots of potential. Do with that feedback what you will.
Where can I find out more?
I’m in the process of making a website but for the time being follow me on Twitter @hborenstein23.