Why We Need To Run In Crowds


On 11 August, something like 85,000 people will run the City to Surf in Sydney. They’ll muster in Hyde Park early in the morning and run up William Street to the Cross. They’ll dip down into Rushcutters Bay and then climb back up to Edgecliff. Down to Double Bay and then up, up, up New South Head Road to Vaucluse. They’ll zig zag through the back streets of Bondi and the cruise down the hill to Campbell Parade and finish at the beach.

There’s a medal for everyone who crosses the line, along with oranges, brightly coloured drinks, and bananas. This is when the waiting starts. Bags, buses, beers. It’s also when the chatting starts. Nothing, I’ve discovered, brings people together like talking shit about running. The strains! The sprains! People talk up their times, get faux-technical about training, and reminisce about previous runs. It’s a crazy Dencorub-scented carnival and even though it takes hours to get home afterward, it’s a lot of fun.

The City to Surf is the biggest annual running event in the world — though there are plenty of other big runs which draw tens of thousands of competitors, including lots of marathons. If you wanted to, you could run a marathon in a different city every weekend for a year.

And of the many marathons you could run, the Boston Marathon stands out. It’s the oldest marathon in the world, it’s one of the toughest to qualify for, and it’s one of the six World Marathon Majors events. It’s a big deal for runners around the world — and a big deal to Bostonians. The Red Sox time their game so spectators can pile out and cheer on the marathon finishers. There might be twice as many runners in the City to Surf, but Boston musters a mightier cheer squad.

The Boston Marathon has special significance for women who run. In 1967 Kathrine Switzer registered for the event under the name K.V. Switzer. Back then, the event wasn’t open to women runners. When one of the race directors realised that a woman had snuck into the event, he attempted to drag her off the course. Other competitors stepped in to defend Switzer and she finished the event, the first woman officially to complete a modern marathon.

The images of this tussle are extraordinary and Switzer herself has gone on to be a tireless promoter of women’s athletics. She’s still running marathons and is an extraordinary advocate for the many pleasures of running long distances.

I came to running late and the City to Surf was the first big event I competed in. In my twenties, I’d taken to the streets to join protests and rallies. There were police horses, barricades, the threat of violence, and often hostility from drivers and pedestrians. Even so, the thrill of being on the streets, of roaming in places usually forbidden to pedestrians and even to citizens, has stuck with me. I was surprised to experience something of that gleeful celebration of public space when I started running in road events.

The explosions on the finish line of the Boston Marathon have shattered this delight for those involved. We still don’t know the extent of the damage but it’s clear that lives have been lost and many people have been injured. To the human cost of this violence, we must add the loss of the shared euphoria of runners, spectators and officials.

The finish line is the focal point for all this. It’s a sweaty, exciting, delirious vortex of emotions and exhaustion. I ran the New York City Marathon a few years ago. I was told to put my name and nationality on my shirt so people could cheer me on — and I didn’t. Near the finish, I was totally shattered and ready to stop.

As I limped through Central Park, there were thousands of people lining the route cheering on stragglers like me. They yelled things like, “Hey, you, lady in the orange shirt, keep at it” and “Whatever your name is, you’re almost there”. It was great and I crossed the line with a smile on my face. Songs like I Believe in Miracles blast over the PA and you find yourself hugging strangers. When the race officials call your name and people cheer, you shed tears. Strange things happen — and nothing seems more important than sitting down, having a drink, and taking your shoes off.

In an anxious society of surveillance, the pleasure of sharing public spaces has become increasingly curtailed. We are watched, we are herded, we are regulated. It’s easy to forget the heaving collective pleasures that crowds can deliver. This tragedy will almost certainly result in a tightening of security at big participatory events such as the Boston Marathon.

At every event I’ve run there’s been a visible, but good-humoured, police presence. The race officials are the PE teachers making sure no one pushes in or gets out of line — and the cops watch from the sidelines. Interactions with authority are cooperative and the cameras are there to capture your achievements, not to catch you out.

You need to indulge in a few fantasies to keep running and cross the line in a marathon. Endorphins only go so far. You need a bit of wishful thinking to convince yourself that running 42 kilometres is either a sensible idea or an achievable goal. That’s why, perhaps, I’m so tempted to think of long distance running events as exemplary public uses of public space. (Yes, this does involve suspending the awareness that marathons are a privileged use of public space, and often bothersome and boring to those who aren’t involved.) We need to be able to run around our streets and parks and experience collective glee with strangers. We need to be able to congregate, protest, participate and build communities — in public. It’s something that’s getting harder and harder to do.

As we mourn the victims of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, let’s remember the joys of crowds. Governments around the world have consistently followed up terrorist acts with crackdowns on civil liberties and regulation of public spaces. Crowds, we are told, are dangerous. We must protect the safety of runners, spectators and officials — but let’s also protect the shared pleasures of public spaces.

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