I’m a Running Researcher: Toomas Gross

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 Toomas Gross and I am an anthropologist. I work as a Lecturer of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and currently I am also a co-PI of a research project entitled “Religion, self and the ethical life.”

What is your background?

As an undergraduate, I studied biology at the University of Tartu, Estonia (my native country). After graduating I switched to anthropology and got my PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2001. My doctoral dissertation discussed religious change and various implications of this in Oaxaca, Mexico, and most of my research until a few years ago has continued to focus on the topics related to religion and Latin America. After a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego, I took up my current position at the University of Helsinki.

How long have you been researching running?

Research on running has been a relatively recent side project for me and I would still identify myself mainly as an anthropologist of religion, although I have realised that perhaps religion and running – at least the way I approach and experience the latter – are not that different! I first started thinking about doing research on running in around 2015 and have collected data since then. First it was a slow process with other research and teaching duties taking most of my time but in the past 2-3 years I have been able to write somewhat more actively and also publish a few papers.

How did you get into researching running?

What directly prompted me to approach running anthropologically was reading Robert Desjarlais’s book Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard. For most of his scholarly career Desjarlais had worked and written on death and funeral rites among the Yolmo people, an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist group in Nepal, but, as he describes in the introduction of the book, he had got tired of being an anthropologist, of writing, and, above all, of thinking about death. Chess had been his “high-school sweetheart” and while growing tired of his work, Desjarlais was suddenly experiencing a renewed crush on it. In his own words: “Chess had become infinitely more interesting than keeping up with the scholarly research in my field” (p. 5). Yet in the end it was namely chess that pulled him out of the intellectual crisis – he got to do research on his own passion.

I found myself in a somewhat similar although not identical situation in 2015, having reached a saturation point of sorts with the research I had done for nearly two decades. It had never occurred to me to study running or focus on anthropology of sport more generally even though I had been running for most of my life and keenly follow all kinds of sports. Desjarlais’s example and his ethnography on playing chess gave me that initial push.

What running research have you done?

To date, I have published three articles, all focusing on recreational long-distance running in Estonia. The first paper explored the relationship between middle-classness, “good life,” and recreational running. In the second paper I examined running addiction (and exercise addiction more generally) through an “ethnographic lens,” aiming at what I call a “high-resolution” image of the phenomenon that psychometric tests and measurement fail to offer, in my opinion. Many among my interlocutors showed various symptoms of exercise addiction that are highlighted in common approaches to and definitions of the phenomenon (I draw, in particular, on a well-known approach by Hausenblas and Downs, 2002) but an ethnographic perspective reveals a much more nuanced picture of the “running addicts’” life-worlds. My most recent article discusses how many runners, at some point of their running careers, start experimenting with “novel” or “alternative” ways of running and what are the sensorial dimensions and implications of such experimentation.  By “alternative” running I mean the ways of running that differ from “conventional” road-running either because of their format, context, mode of movement, unconventional distance, or any combination of these.

Body and senses are in one way or another central to all these three papers. Although focusing on Estonian runners, my analytical arguments and conclusions can be extrapolated to most other socio-cultural contexts where running is a common form of serious leisure. On the other hand, the fact that my research has been set in Estonia is not completely irrelevant. The running boom in Estonia is a reflection of various broader changes such as growing health-awareness, increased prosperity, and novel understandings of “good life.” I am sure that this, in general terms, is true about any other context as well, but what renders the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe somewhat particular (compared to the rest of Europe) is the fact that a sizable middle class there is a rather recent and still evolving phenomenon. It is also noteworthy that in the 1990s, life expectancy in these countries actually dropped, which was unprecedented for modern peace-time industrialised nations (although the Covid-19 pandemic has now set another precedent in various contexts). These aspects have had an impact on the Estonian running trends in the past few decades.

How do you research running?

Qualitative methods, mostly semi-structured interviews and participant observation. Although a passionate runner myself, I have not really done autoethnographic research. That said, being myself also a member of what Atkinson (2008) in his study of Canadian triathletes aptly calls “a pain community” has enabled me to have an intuitive sense of the topics I have written about. I think such intuition is particularly important in the study of other people’s sensorial experiences. Besides interviews and participant observation I have also kept an eye on many running/runners’ blogs – I find them interesting as sites for the construction of runners’ selves for others and in many ways blogs, if publicly accessible, function as “self-inflicted panopticons.”

I have also analysed the statistical trends of running in Estonia, although more as a backdrop for my ethnographic approach than as a systematic and earnest attempt to apply quantitative methods in my research.

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

That’s a difficult one to answer. I have had many eureka moments, some during the interviews, some while I was myself running and processing the article ideas in my head, some while writing, some thanks to the peer-reviewers’ feedback. If I had to choose one, I’d perhaps highlight my interviews and later reflections on the so-called “straight line running” that I discuss in my latest article on “alternative forms of running.” The idea of the straight line running format is simple – using a GPS tracking device, the runner runs as long a distance as possible without deviating from either side of the straight line by more than a hundred meters. I was surprised how rich and reflexive accounts interviewing on such running experiences produced and how well these accounts fit with some of Merleau-Ponty’s and also Ingold’s core ideas. There are times when – as all social scientists have probably experienced – one feels like forcing a theoretical frame on empirical data. But in this case the lived experiences of straight run runners and my theoretical perspective felt like a perfect match!

Do you run?

I have been running, with shorter breaks, since my early teenage years, although I ran my first marathon when I was already nearly 30 – in 2001 in London. Throughout the past two decades I have been a relatively avid marathoner, my body permitting. To date I have completed roughly eighty marathons, occasional ultramarathons included. My pace has slowed down considerably with age though. It’s such a curious and interesting experience – I feel like I am pushing as hard as ever or even harder, but my past marathon times (mediocre as such) have gradually slipped further and further away from what is now achievable, even on a good running day. Incidentally, I remember Murakami writing about similar experiences in his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. But that’s OK, I’ve made peace with the fact of slowing down and just try to enjoy running regardless of my pace, not competing with myself or anyone else.

Where can I find out more?

You can find out more on my research on ResearchGate, although I have not been very organised about updating my information there. Another option is my profile in the University of Helsinki research portal. The webpage of our research project, also mentioned above, is here.


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