There’s a reason no one reads university theses – they are often out of touch with reality, argument-driven to a fault, full of confirmation bias and reek of ivory tower penmanship.
A PhD thesis by Carys Egan-Wyer, from Lund University in Sweden, promoted on The Conversation, an independent news site based in Australia, reinforces this notion as it bolsters itself with a column from the writer herself and a doozy, clickbait-friendly title: “Running: not so much a liberating hobby as a cult”.
Let’s break down the word “cult” before we go anywhere with this mess of a thesis, which I’m sure cost a pretty penny and will look grand on a LinkedIn profile. The term “cult”, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious”, hardly applies to endurance athletes, which is the “research context” of Egan-Wyer’s thesis.
The negative connotation associated with the word is undeniable. The actual title of the thesis, which is an exhausting 200 and some odd pages, is not much better: “The Sellable Self: Exploring endurance running as an extraordinary consumption experience”.
The crux of Egan-Wyer’s argument, if there is one to be found, is that running is rife with “neoliberalism”. In layman’s terms, Wyer is saying running is individualistic, results-based and bad for your stress and anxiety levels because the pressure to perform and post, and thus self-scrutinise, is too great for us to handle and we should all go lie down before we hurt ourselves.
Of all the things to take aim at in today’s modern age it turns out running is bad for your mental health and needs to be earmarked. Thank god we have this thesis to sound the alarm bells.
Where Egan-Wyer’s argument falls like a house of cards is in her research methods, or lack thereof. She states that she only spoke to 33 runners in what she describes as “qualitative research” which relies on in-depth information rather than large amounts of data. To put this into context, Strava, the most popular running app, logged more than 6.67 billion miles from 36 million runners over 195 countries in 2018 alone.
That is just Strava and if you have a look online, running and walking, two key forms of exercise globally, are so widespread that finding a way to quantify how popular they are is tough. We are talking hundreds of millions, possibly billions of people who run on a regular basis.
Egan-Wyer spoke to a minuscule fraction of a fraction (to put it lightly) of the specific endurance running community and decided to draw broad conclusions about a physical activity which could potentially save humanity from a widespread obesity crisis. Here’s some qualitative research for you: I am part of the Gone Runners “cult” here in Hong Kong, led by the all-knowing, omnipotent Peter Hopper, and I think over the course of the past two weeks I have participated in runs with around 33 different runners. Under Egan-Wyer’s methodology, apparently I’ve seen enough to write a whole thesis on the subject.
She also states during the course of her research she “visited” triathlon competitions, obstacle course races and even competed in an ultramarathon. That she did not take to any of these athletic communities is no one’s fault – endurance running is not for everyone – but to paint it in such a negative light juxtaposed with the countless social ills floating around modern society screams, “I went into my thesis with a preconceived notion and was unable to open my mind and instead got data to reinforce a half-baked, negative stereotype because I just want to graduate with a doctorate”.
Egan-Wyer did not have to promote her thesis, but she did. She could have left it on the shelves of Lund University to collect dust, but she has now firmly shoved her work into the public realm for everyone to see and scrutinise.
This reminds me of a research paper, written by two Canadian university professors, who called dodgeball “oppressive”, arguing that “the lessons learned in playing dodgeball are antithetical to anti-oppressive education”. Once the media, and thus the internet mobs got a hold of this one, the online disdain was rightly vicious. Apparently we should all be raised in hermetically sealed bubbles to prevent bruising in adulthood.
I don’t need to tout the benefits of running as a sound counterargument. The studies do that for me, and they are plentiful, robust and widespread. Literally countless mental and physical health gains, longevity, fighting off chronic diseases, finding community, spirituality, even winding down after a tough day at the office by getting the endorphins going.
No one in their right mind is going to say running is a part of the problem, or any problem for that matter. Egan-Wyer’s counterargument is that posting running and racing results on social media is not good and we are advised against it because we can’t handle a little competition and are a lost cause when it comes to self-regulation like gorging animals.
I can think of a million things people should not be sharing on social media ahead of posting their morning Strava run, such as incorrect news reports, bigoted hate speech, closed-minded political rhetoric, criminal acts, unsubstantial negative claims against other individuals and photos of their genitals. In labeling endurance running a cult, Egan-Wyer is reminding us why academia seems so far from reality these days.
Ivory tower papers taking shots at holistic activities from afar, touting “research” and succumbing to what appears to be confirmation bias, really do no one any good. I’ve logged some pretty vicious runs over the years, testing my physical and mental limits, but getting through this thesis turned out to be an endurance test for the ages.