Meg Mackenzie explores trail running's macho language problem.
Have you ever noticed the amount of war language we use in everyday life? We ‘roll with the punches’ at home, ‘pull the trigger’ on an exciting project, fire off ‘bullet points’ in a work email, and get ‘caught in the crossfire’ of a dispute. We call problems ‘ticking time bombs’ and sometimes we horrifyingly call women ‘blonde bombshells’. To be clear; bombshells are “large-caliber projectiles fired by artillery-armored fighting vehicles during war.” If you find this sexually attractive you might want to see a therapist.
But let’s get to trail running; a beautiful fringe sport with a natural connection to nature, peace, and joy in the mountains. Despite this obvious connection as a spirited, soul-filling activity – nearly all the common phrases and terms we use to talk about running and racing are heavily focused on patriarchal-enforcing qualities or war language. Often we compare running a trail race with going to battle. We ‘obliterate’ course records, ‘crush’ our competitors, ‘defend’ our titles and ‘dominate’ the field. All these words imply that, in order to succeed, we need to beat another into submission.
But one person shining shouldn’t come at the cost of ‘crushing’ another person (or a mountain!). And this surely shouldn’t be what we celebrate on the trails or in society.
There is nothing inherently domineering about the pure desire to shine. My light shining brightly doesn’t suggest that your flame needs to be extinguished.. Rather, this is a false narrative we have been taught through generations of books, myths, and in history classes. Stories of winning and losing, beating, retreating, and defending have flooded our minds and language from the very beginning which is why it is so deeply internalized that we even apply it to something as peaceful as trail running.
You may have overheard people talking about trail racing in this way:
“Wasn’t it so cool seeing Jo obliterate the course record at the Worlds Gnarliest Hardcore Death Defying 100-mile yesterday?”
“Yeah he totally dominated that field, nobody else stood a chance. He crushed the uphills and killed the competition…”
“Whoa and did you see him annihilate John on that downhill? That was so badass. He totally owned it; what a hero. It was killer. Go Jo!”
Now let’s have some fun and flip this. Have you ever heard someone describing a race with non-violent language?
“Did you see Jo run the Spirit Soaring 50k out of sheer joy over the weekend?”
“Yeah it was so awesome to see him embrace those uphills. He really encouraged everyone as he went too. Did you see his happy tears on that flowing downhill?”
“Yes, he expresses himself in such an admirable way – so intune with nature and connected with the trail.
He is such a caring athlete too, so sensitive to his fellow runners. Go Jo!”
Language matters. The words we use frame our experiences and define our culture. They shape our stories and dictate the narrative. Adjusting and playing with different language can begin a process that describes the full experience of complex human reality instead of just one side of it. What if we could blend it all together, tempering male encoded language of warriorship, stoicism and power with empathy, giving weight to love and nurture?
“Your energy flows where attention goes.” We’ve all heard the saying in some way or form and it informs why language is so important. If we continue to pay attention to violent language and hierarchical ways of describing situations that is what will prevail.
Trail running does not exist in a vacuum. It’s part of the larger narrative that currently exists in the world. Perhaps, next time you tell a story of your favorite athlete or race – play with language that reflects that world you hope to live in.