Running on the Dark Side

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Yin and Yang. Light and dark. With the intense sun of most runners’ social media lives, you better believe there is an awful lot of darkness below the surface.

It’s always sunny in Social Mediaville! Other than a few of those whiner friends who you keep forgetting to block, Facebook is a land where everyone is always smiling and looking fantastic. When it comes to our runner friends and (let’s be honest) ourselves, we’re always running fast and feeling fan-effing-tastic in Social Mediaville. We tweet about how that race we ran was actually just a tempo and we could have totally gone faster if we wanted to. According to every status update, nothing ever hurts on our perfectly toned, tanned and runnerific bodies.

But come on! None of that is true. There is most definitely a very dark side to all of our running lives. Behind the cheery Instagrams, post-run selfies, and the one good race photo among thirty taken in every race, there is a runner who feels pain, poops in inappropriate places and just plain struggles. There is a dark side to our seemingly endless motivation, dedication, hard work and fit bods that lurks behind our sunny social media lives.

The Dark Side of Motivation

Judging by social media don’t we all seem like we just love to run? Every status update seems to declare, “running makes me SO happy!”  And while running certainly does make us happy, it’s not the total truth. Pursuing a running dream is far more serious business than just loving to run. For most of us, running isn’t paying the bills, but rather a hobby … a very all-encompassing hobby. So that means there is a lot of tension in our lives between our running-life and our non-running life; we have to fight for the time it takes to train to pursue our big running goals.

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“Oh my god! Heather, like, never comes out anymore. Like, who wakes up that early to, uh, run on a Sunday morning?!” Image via wikimedia

To put in the day-in-day-out training, we often have to let things go like socializing with friends, extra work on our careers, and housework. I can’t keep track of the number of running friends I have who joke about how their non-running friends have given up on them because they never want to go out late! And don’t get me started on housework. Those runner friends who are running incredibly fast with their perfectly fit bodies might be steaming that their co-worker who started after them got a promotion while missing their old friends as they foam roll on a Friday night in a filthy house.

The Dark Side of Dedication

Judging by social media we look like we are so dedicated! People are in awe of our ability to get it in no matter what! But what no one sees on Facebook is the morning limp caused by the angry plantar fasciae, or how sometimes we have to stop the car and get out because sitting for too long causes searing pain in our ass or the mental and physical ravages of overtraining. While most people are wusses judging from the overabundance of motivational memes on social media, us dedicated serious runners are often motivated to a fault and push ourselves to the brink and occasionally beyond. Before you become the 67th like on your friend’s post about her thirty-second hard workout in a row, think about the price she’s paying for that dedication.

The Dark Side of Hard Work

Judging from social media, it sure looks like we work really hard (albeit effortlessly, of course!) Our bodies our efficient running machines and we are invincible! But these (effortlessly!) hardworking running machines are still bodies, human bodies that become all that more human because of running. Unlike robots, these machines cannot be controlled. Sure we sweat, but we also pee, poop and emit gasses and mucous and saliva and often these things happen at very inopportune times or sometimes without our knowledge they’ve happened at all! While Shalane Flanagan looks like a gazelle in her official photos, she’s surely experienced much darker times on the run that she’d rather not have photographed. As have we all. Also, unlike robots, when these machines breakdown it’s not going to be a simple turn of a screwdriver kind of fix (no matter what that gadget salesman or chiropractor might tell you).

The Dark Side of Fit Bods

What do most non-runners envy about their serious runner friends? Their hot lean bodies and we serious runners are happy to rub our shirtless selfies in their virtual facies. Oh, I meant painstakingly curated shirtless selfies. We might share one accidentally awesome race photo that accidentally made our abs appear 65x more defined than they actually are. Or we might take a post-run selfie 47x until we get the angle just right. And for those of us who actually are blessed to look awesome in 72% of candid photos (NO ONE looks good in all of them – not even close!) there’s a dark side to that too.

Some of those runners whose physiques we so admire, spend tons of time managing not only their physical training, but their nutrition too and this often means they are not able to enjoy many other facets of life. Or some continue to train through injuries and when they otherwise shouldn’t for extreme fear of gaining weight. Still others may not actively manage their leanness, but that leanness comes at the price of infertility, bone density loss, and other health issues. Of course, not all lean female runners have a disordered relationship with food or running, but the point is that, on the dark side, some do and even those that don’t sacrifice time and energy they could spend on other things to manage their body shapes.

Going back to Shalane, next time you admire her gazelle-like physique remember the blood, sweat, tears and innumerable other sacrifices she has made to get it. Of course, the point of all those sacrifices was not to get a lean body, but to perform her best. The lean professional runner body that many covet is the incidental side-effect to a life dedicated to athletic performance! When non-professional runners see these images it’s hard to remember that athletes like Shalane dedicate their entire lives to shaping their bodies into lean mean high-performance machines.

So next time you’re cruising around Social Mediaville feeling like every runner but you seems to have her you-know-what together all the time, remember there’s a dark side lurking beneath the surface where even the happiest seeming and most successful runners have their struggles.

What lurks in your running dark side? Are you always putting your sunny side out on social media?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life. Currently recovering from my third pregnancy, heart surgery, diastasis recti, low iron/vitamin D, sciatic nerve impingement, overtraining, mono. What can I say? I'm stubborn.

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8 comments

  1. This is very topical, especially considering what’s going on with college suicides. People have always compared themselves to others, but social media makes it easier to do. I remember in college one of my friends was talking to one of her friends about our weekend. Her friend said that we had so much fun on our campus and hers is so boring. We were a bit startled because just the day before we were lamenting our boring our campus was. If social media had existed, not only would we be thinking our boring our college was, but also how much more fun everyone else is having. This NY Times talks about this and Madison Holleran’s (a runner) suicide at UPenn: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html?_r=0

    Two years ago, Lauren Fleshman wrote a very nice column about her abs and how the photos of her at a runway show are not how she normally looks: http://asklaurenfleshman.com/2013/11/keeping-it-real/

    Every smiling face has a deep story.

    1. I totally thought of Lauren’s post when I was writing about the 700 selfie takes! And I totally agree with you about suicides and comparing ourselves. I think it’s natural for people to take all of the stuff that see on social media at face value, but for sanity and self esteem’s sake we really need to remember there is a very active dark side to everyone’s posts and in fact, every one.

  2. Oh the morning limp and searing ass pain! You nailed it. I don’t remember the last time I could walk normally during my first steps in the morning.

  3. Sing it Salty! As I have been waxing and waning between training hard and hanging up my running shoes for a while I totally relate to this. So much so I try not to hide this dark side anymore, no matter what level you are at it is real and can happen for a day, a week or even longer. I always laugh when I read, switched my race to a tempo halfway through since it wasn’t my day. If I had the capability to run my tempo pace after hitting goal pace for 7 miles in a half…… Let’s just say I would be a pretty happy camper. The truth is sometimes the conditions, our bodies or just an off day won’t cooperate. No shame, I would rather walk away saying, I ran my heart out than, it wasn’t going to be my best race so I dogged it.