On Purism: Running as Gift

For a long time now, I have considered myself to be something of a purist.[1] Current debates within running circles have prompted me to reflect about the benefits and limits of a purist outlook on the sport and more widely, which I share here as part of the ongoing conversation.

Running as a Pure Sport

I think most people would view running of a competitive nature as a pure sport. In essence, you race a certain distance and, if completed, there is a result: a time and, provided you run with others, a position. Sometimes, the time is more important (e.g., an open track or road race against the clock); but, other times, just completing the distance or the position is more important (e.g., an ultra-distance event or cross-country race on difficult terrain). Although there are occasional complications and tactics, running is pure and simple. Its simplicity as a form of exercise has been of great benefit to many over the last year; and it will be interesting to see if people keep running, both recreationally and competitively, when other more ‘exciting’ sports and activities can be played and undertaken again.

For all its apparent simplicity and purity, I can understand how save for the most competitive races (e.g., the Coe-Ovett middle distance rivalries of the 1980s), some might see running as dull – or at least not sufficiently interesting to justify the exertion. Running of a more serious nature requires a certain mindset and successful individuals tend to be disciplined and goal-driven individuals who embrace the pure aspect of the sport.[2] Signing up to run multiple laps of a tartan track or a mud-laden cross-country course is, to some extent, evidence of such a disposition. The simplicity and the purity of competitive running is not for everyone.

Defining Purism

In my search for greater theoretical analysis concerning purism, I came across a book written by a philosopher, Stephen Mumford, Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion (London: Routledge, 2011). Mumford writes to defend watching sport as a virtuous activity by conceiving of sport as art. He argues that a ‘purist’ mode of watching sport enables this. As part of his argument, he distinguishes between partisan and purist views of sport. For Mumford, ‘the purist is a fan of sport, and may love deeply the sport concerned, but has no allegiance to any particular team’ (10). This contrasts with the partisan who does have such an allegiance. While the partisan is more interested in the competitive dimension of sport and its purpose, namely winning, the purist focuses on the aesthetic; thus, purism is ‘detached aesthetic pleasure’ (12).

This conception of purism struck me as astute; but there was one further definition which really resonated with me. Mumford argues: ‘The purist is one who values the sport itself and wants to see it played in the best way possible’ (16). In a year where few of us have competed in sport and been confined to watching professionals ply their craft, we have marvelled at the aesthetic quality of sport, but also been frustrated when it has not been played in the best and purest way possible. For those of us who both practice as well as watch our sport, such marvelling and frustration has likely been compounded by not being able to play in the same way ourselves.

Back to the Shoe Issues…

I know that this has been the case for many of us in running circles over the last year.[3] Such emotions have been made more acute by the continued debate over new brands of ‘super shoes’.[4] While many of these shoes are now available for general purchase, new prototypes continue to be manufactured and worn by certain elite athletes. There are a whole range of issues here; but I want to consider whether these shoes are an affront to the inherent purism of running: do they allow the sport to be played in the best way possible?

As a self-professed purist, I have been somewhat surprised that these shoes have entered the sport relatively unopposed. Twitter is not an ideal forum for meaningful debate; but, unlike the seeming majority, I feel Tim Hutchings has been one of the few to ask some serious and valid questions about the mind-boggling times we have been seeing on there. While Hutchings does not advocate the banning of these shoes, he asks whether we need a new era of records to reflect the relatively seismic improvement in times, which comes – at least in part, if not in whole – from these new carbon fibre plates.

In the back-and-forths that I have observed on social media, however, I have never seen the issue considered in terms of the purity of the sport. A few points come to mind.

Firstly, on an aesthetic level, some (although not all) of the brands of trainers are ugly; they are closer to a pair of springs than a pair of shoes! Gone in the West are the days of barefoot running but the technology in these new shoes, I believe, outstrips anything we have seen since records seriously began.

Secondly, another facet of the purism of running is its historical aspect. It is a fundamentally atavistic sport: this is to say that performances are meaningfully compared to those of our ancestors. Others might disagree with me here, but I believe these is something to be celebrated and, as far as possible, safeguarded. There are landmark times in the sport which have suddenly become more attainable. At a more ordinary level, the fact that to qualify for Championship Entry for the Virgin London Marathon, a male now needs to run 1:12:30 as opposed to 1:15:00, I think, partially reflects the benefits of these shoes.[5]

Thirdly, purism leaves little place for confusion or ambiguity concerning performance; but I feel that these have never been higher. Personally, I want to applaud great times and running in the best form possible; but I am sceptical about the extent to which this is attributed to the plates. Moreover, since some people are seemingly high-responders to the shoes, while others are only low-responders, the playing field is not as level as we might desire. Significantly, this is without going into questions of equal access to the shoes at both professional and amateur levels in terms of availability and affordability, respectively. 

Suffice to say that the purist in me is still processing my own response to a carbon-fibre running world. I admit to having felt some disillusionment with the sport – not helped by a harsh lockdown winter – where I was lamenting running going the way of other sports where one’s gear has such a significant impact on performance. At other times, I have felt indifferent, although, in my case, these shoes will not have so great an impact in my principal discipline of cross-country. I sympathise, however, with those who prioritise road-running, and who cannot fork out £200+ for these shoes on a regular basis. Yet, part of me is coming round to accepting them and moving with the times literally and figuratively. It seems that they are here to stay: the market will stabilise and perhaps we have to accept that we are moving into a new running era.[6]

I realise that, for many, this commentary will seem, at best, resigned or, at worst, deeply negative. While I can swing between extremes of seeing things as sublime or awful, negativity – particularly surrounding running! – is not usually in my psyche. I would like to think that this comes from being an athlete who is trying to live out the Christian faith. I shall happily defer to sports scientists researching the impact of the shoes; but I want to offer a few brief theological considerations by way of conclusion.

Purism and Gifts

There is a well-known quotation attributed to the American athlete, Steve Prefontaine, that often circulates the night before major races in the calendar: ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift’. [7] The inspirational element is undeniable: if an athlete does not make a maximal effort in a race, s/he spoils or even impurifies the gift and ability given. Yet, as I have returned to this quote, after some years of thinking about notions of sacrifice[8] in a classical and theological key, this quote has also confounded me. Sacrifice can have a positive sense; sacrifices can make something holy and fit to belong, which is clearly not the idea here. While Prefontaine’s idea is admittedly clear – not giving your best is to forsake or waste the gift – I wonder if we can modify it slightly. My offering would be: ‘To give anything less than your best is to imperfect the gift’.

Here, I take a cue from the biblical scholar, John Barclay, who has worked on language of gift/grace (both translations of the Greek word, charis, from which we derive ‘charity’) extensively over the last decade.[9] Barclay offers six different ‘perfections’ of gift/grace discourse: ways of drawing a concept to its end-point or extreme,[10] while allowing for more than one ‘perfection’ to be possible.[11] For this debate, however, Barclay’s most helpful contribution has been to challenge Western notions of a pure gift: a gift is never one directional; some element of reciprocity, usually involving a return, is involved.[12]

Here is where notions of purism regarding gifts – among which I certainly consider running! – begin to unravel and emerge as illusions. Although we may think that what we are giving has been manufactured by us, much of our gift will have come to us through others. On a human level, these would include people to whom we are communally attached who enabled us to have opportunities or with whom we developed the gift: for instances, coaches and training partners. I would also argue that gifts are not created out of nothing and that this points us towards a divine giver and source of the gift. Therefore, super shoes or not, the idea of a pure gift, and indeed running as a pure sport, must be rejected.[13]

Nevertheless, I would still make an appeal to purism of another sort: one which focuses on playful, friendly competition and liberates us from concerns of time. I think this has been the common ground in the debate: all parties want to ensure that the virtue and aesthetic of competition remains intact. Again, it can be argued from a theological perspective through the doctrine of creation: we were created to play, and this is a gift that we should be looking to ‘perfect’: to celebrate in full by giving nothing short of our best.[14]

So, for those of us operating in running circles, whether we are on board with the super shoes or not, let us ensure that there remains a level of purity and equality within the sport of running: that it remains a gift which liberates and does not corrupt. Running is neither wholly pure nor perfect; but when played in the best way possible, it is above all, a gift. Let’s keep it that way.

[1] Incidentally, in some parts of the world, the pronunciation of ‘Muir’ causes a few challenges: suffice to say it rhymes with ‘pure’.

[2] As a fairly strong ‘ISTJ’ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I suspect that the majority of runners would have preferences in at least two of the three S, T, and J categories.

[3] Here, I particularly want to thank my main training partner in Edinburgh over the last year or so, Tom Cunningham; and my principal training partner by dialogue despite distance, Mark Vardy, with whom I have discussed these matters in some detail.

[4] I wrote about this topic 18 months ago on a piece about ‘progress’ and the debates have not really abated since then: https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2019/11/06/progress/

[5] Any Power of 10 ‘stalkers’ of mine might know that my official HM PB is 1:13:15, so I suppose you could say this is somewhat personally motivated! I think it still illustrates a basic point, however. (I am also still somewhat hesitant to commit to marathon training.)

[6] I am unlikely to buy any, however, until I (hopefully) run some road PBs and move out of (somewhat self-imposed) ‘PhD penury’.

[7] As with many sayings of this nature, there is little evidence that Prefontaine actually said this. For some entertaining and light-hearted discussion, see this thread: https://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=7559599&page=2

[8] I particularly have my Edinburgh colleague (and indeed more of a marathon expert than me), Patrick McMurray, to thank here. He has written a very interesting thesis on sacrifice and kinship in Romans that will hopefully be published in the coming year.

[9] In particular, his sizeable and technical, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015). Barclay has recently distilled its content and added a few extra angles in his Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). I would certainly recommend both – although the latter is more accessible. These books have focused mainly on the divine aspect of grace, but he also promises a future contribution on the human dimension of giving.

[10] Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 28.

[11] In the case of the letters of Paul, Barclay argues that Paul perfects the ‘incongruity’ of grace in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection: ‘God works in the absence of worth, to create something out of nothing’ (151). He acknowledges that other interpreters have argued that Paul perfects grace in other ways though.

[12] Ibid., 23–25.

[13] Another runner, Russell Bentley, wrote a passionate piece about why he will never buy the shoes, which I appreciated: https://russellrunner.com/why-i-will-never-wear-performance-enhancing-shoes/.
Early on, he claims: ‘Every run I have ever done, every race I have ever run, every second, was 100% me. Not 95%, not even 96%. When I next run a performance I am proud of, I want all the glory, I don’t want to share it with my enormous, expensive shoes.’
I do not know Russell and whether he would be sympathetic towards notions of running as a divine gift; but, even allowing for hyperbole, such an outlook overlooks the role of others in the running-gift network.

[14] The most developed articulation of this I have seen is by Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (London: SCM Press, 2014). Harvey argues powerfully about the ‘contingency’ of the creature within creation and the place of sport within it: neither creation nor sport is strictly necessary; but they are beautiful because of their playful aspects.


2 thoughts on “On Purism: Running as Gift

  1. How easy it might be to confuse ‘purism’ with ‘conservatism’! I was wondering if when the first shoes came to the aid of bare foot runners that there might have been those that said, ‘it’s not fair that those who have 2 drachmas for these new fangled shoes have such an advantage’. …….. and did I ever mention….. I played Seb Coe at table tennis? Nice that he got a mention!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I wondered a little about bringing in the ‘c’ word, Richard – even more so ‘traditionalism’… ‘atavistic’ was my way compromise. I’m not an advocate of barefoot or minimalist running shoes, but some people still are, and of course, many runners go bare foot by necessity. Zola Budd wasn’t all that long ago either…! These new trainers seem to be next level though.
      And, yes, your pal Coe does get a mention. There was maybe a reference to his organisation at the end as well about corruption; but let the reader understand and interpret!
      Have you done much work on the purist movement in art? I saw that was a thing as well as ‘moral purism’ in Kant…


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