Friday, 12 April 2013

Marathon Running - A "Cure" for Thatcherism

With the death of Thatcher much has been written about her legacy and how she changed the country. Could marathon running actually combat one of the most pernicious excesses of the Thatcher era: increased materialism?

To answer that you have to go back three years before she came to power:
In 1976 two things happened:

1. The seminal film “Marathon Man” starring Dustin Hoffman was released. 
2. Philosopher Erich Fromm’s ground-breaking book “To Have or To Be” was published.

Marathon Man” is a thriller about a Nazi war criminal and a Jewish keen amateur runner in New York, it’s a great film and one of Hoffman’s best performances before he went all Tootsie on us. Irrespective of the plot and acting however the film brilliantly captures the nascent phenomenon of mass participation distance running that started in America and eventually spread across the world.
In Erich Fromm’s book “To Have or To Be” he outlines how modern society has become materialistic and prefers "having" than "being". As individuals we have become disconnected from our true natures as we measure our self-worth, our existence and our experiences by our possessions rather than what we are inside – our “being”. The book concludes that in every mode of life people should ponder more on their "being" nature and less towards their "having" nature.

I do not think it is a coincidence that both seminal pieces of work were produced at the same time. They both reflect a zeitgeist feeling that large swaths of people were unhappy with trying to find meaning through increasing material acquisition. It seemed as if the love of money and “having” accelerated when Thatcher was in power. In the 80's you had the creation of “Yuppies”, “Loads-Of-Money” stereotypes and the explosion of the City. It is little wonder that many people needed a refuge from this brash form of “having”.
For me marathon running is the ultimate form of “being”. No amount of money will improve my running, make me run longer or make me run faster, (despite the promises of some sports apparel manufacturers). In fact there have even been studies that suggest that marathon running, by increasing the level of natural endorphins, even reduces people’s desire for money and material possessions.

Mass participation running which was just beginning in the 1970’s is also possibly the ultimate “being” sporting activity. The vast majority (98%) of people running in a mass participation marathon are not running with any expectation of winning. We are not running to achieve anything recognised by the outside world. Our achievements are deeply personal (my PB time is important to me and no one else) and our joy is about taking part not whether we win or lose. Or to put it another way our joy is in “being” a runner not “having” won or lost.
In the last 37 years I think it would be fair to say that society has become even more materialistic. Like Fromm I believe that we will never be able to achieve true happiness through material gain, but when I’m lacing up my running shoes and go for my next run I might at least get some relief from it.

(Today's picture is of an early mass participation marathons in the late 1970's) 

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