I find myself, for the first time in twenty years, reading the running magazines. It is a curiously alienating experience. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the pages are given over to advertisements, for GPS watches capable of tracking a runner’s route and uploading it to a home computer (£250-£350), merino wool running tops (£75), running sunglasses (£125-£200), energy gels, ie snacks (£36 for three boxes), an “essential” personal trainer kit composed of a long strip of elastic (£150), etc.
When I was young, and an aspirant professional runner, I would have disdained the contents as useless. I wanted to run. I was fast, and effortlessly so. I was constantly seeking to simplify my running experience. One of the things I liked about running was precisely its separation from the cash-nexus. I could sprint on a track; I could run through fields of wet clay; neither of these required spending, neither experience would in way be enhanced if I was running in specially-designed sports socks rather than my ordinary size 9 black socks from Peter Jones
Now, I am a fun runner: I run for pleasure, and am only very loosely connected to a running club. My ambition is to run half a dozen times a year or less under someone else’s stopwatch. I run slowly and freely acknowledge the weight of my years, the absence of my former speed. Just avoiding injury is a sufficient goal. Before I was outside the magazine’s key demographic, that of the amateur runner, now I have by-passed it, and remain outside, but at the opposite pole.
An amateur runner is defined now by how regularly, quickly or happily they run, but by how often they purchase. The magazines provide quick bursts of training advice provided by physios-for-hire, the authors happily revealing their hourly and monthly fees in case a reader is looking for a personal trainer of their own. The (limited) content is given over to inspirational stories, tips on avoiding injuries. Advertisements for races emphasise that the uniqueness of every particular event: the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it provides for sea views, running at altitude, etc…
In the amateur runners’ magazines, there is a very strange tension between creativity and rule-following: a running-consumer is marked by their I-fear-no-one approach to running through Eastern European cities, across African wildernesses, etc. But should they make a mistake of warming-down by stretching (a 1980s throwback) or eating fatty food before a long run, then they can expect the full censure of an amateur culture that expects increasing uniformity of its consumers.
I have written before about how the running boom of the 1980s associated with the Coe-Ovett rivalry and the launch of the London Marathon has given way to the relative malaise of British elite running: there are fewer people in their 20s running, there are many more “ultra-marathon runners” but relatively fewer people capable of running seriously fast times
More people are wearing sports gear; fewer people are doing sports. The consumer-driven technologies are not leading to a general increase in sporting participation, rather they are “raising the bar”, making ordinary physical activity seem more demanding, more difficult, and a harder thing to do.
Readers of pornographic magazines are (notoriously) under- and not over-sexed. It is the same with sports porn.