For many people, running is not just an ordinary, seemingly healthy exercise activity, but an essential component of their everyday lives. Whether part of their efforts and desire to attain optimal health or a rigorous, deeply embodied activity that they enjoy, running is now a ubiquitous, culturally-meaning practice within modern capitalist societies. The omnipresence of running images, symbols and representations within sporting and social media is a testament to its power and ubiquity of running within, at the very least, North American popular culture.
Running, however, is a complex, contentious running practice. Class, race, gender, sexuality, space and nationalism, to name a few, intimately shape people’s ordinary running experiences. The chaos and complexity of the urban environment impacts a runner’s reactions, emotions, anxieties, and thoughts on the spaces they live. Non-human objects such as cars, streetlights, and tree branches exhibit their own forms of agency by impacting the runner’s activities. Exercise shoes, apparel and equipment can be excessively expensive, while running-related fashion trends and data tracking technologies become increasingly central to the embodied of middle-and upper-middle-class habitus. Women continue to experience running, particularly within urban spaces, as a practice impacted by masculine oppression. Sadly, recent studies have found that almost half of women runners have experienced some form of street harassment while running. In short, there is much to unpack, reflect upon, and critique when it comes to the experience of running within (post)modern life.
In this episode of Somatic, we talked with cultural scholar Katie Esmonde about her experiences with running, specifically within urban spaces. Katie is a Ph.D. candidate in Kinesiology, with a focus on Physical Cultural Studies, at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is currently conducting research on the running practices of women. We asked Katie to record herself running as part of her everyday exercise routine. We then interviewed Katie days after her run, and asked her to reflect on the experience, using her research and scholarly insight on exercise as a critical lens. The result is an immersive episode in which you hear the sounds and ambient soundscape of someone running, with discussion and original music interwoven throughout. Our hope is that the episode allows listeners to hear the materiality and politics of running through Katie’s experience.
Katie’s doctoral dissertation concerns the rise of the fitness tracking technologies and the rise of the “Quantified Self” movement. Specifically, she studies the sociocultural politics of fitness tracking technologies within fitness communities and institutions. Recently, she has published scholarship on, among other topics, the importance of sociomaterialist theories and a feminist Physical Cultural Studies (PCS) framework for critiquing discussions of the “obesogenic environment,” as well as the marginalization of women’s sports fans within sports fan communities.
The following are just a few recent examples of the available critical scholarship on the cultural politics of running:
Sound Acknowledgements: This episode includes sounds downloaded from Freesound, a wonderful archive of various sound clips maintained by the Music Technology Group of Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain. The specific sound clips incorporated in the episode can be found here.