Normally when someone asks me a question, I try to see both sides of the picture. I avoid choosing an answer because, at the end of the day, I want everyone to agree with me. Not so with this month's topic posed by Trail Runner magazine in their blog symposium. I finally have an opinion! Social media, though seemingly impersonal, humanizes the competition for the interested "masses" and will thus serve to strengthen the trail running community.
I've heard a lot of people, including myself at times, criticize social media. When immature people use the internet as a way to interact, two negative things can happen. Let's get those out of the way. First of all, people can use social media as an anonymous platform for criticizing people. Second, people can become too consumed with the ease of gathering all of their information online and forming opinions without actually meeting and talking to people within the community. Here's the thing, we can't do anything about those immature people but they most definitely form a minority. When these people interact poorly on a social media platform, the majority of people step in to teach them a lesson or a moderator bars them from participating in future conversations.
Okay, now that that is past us, we can move on. It is almost impossible to talk about social media's influence on trail running without mentioning the website iRunfar.com started by Bryon Powell, now a contributor for Trail Runner Magazine as well as others. What started out as a personal blog became a running news source and, after a few years, Bryon quit his job to maintain iRunFar full-time. Now it's the website we all know today where we get world-class race coverage and articles by a number of both elite and lesser-known athletes. Other people and companies have used social media to fulfill a similar niche in the trail- and ultra-running scene, but iRunFar is arguably the most well known among the trail-running community.
The amazing thing about iRunFar's contribution to the trail running community is that you can feel like you know an athlete without even meeting them! Through watching athlete interviews pre- and post-race you can know quirks about individual athletes that you would never be able to pick up on through print media alone. At the risk of seeming creepy, you can know things like how Karl Meltzer is, shall we say, quite colloquial... or maybe unedited when he talks. You can know that Geoff Roes is modest and has a gravely voice. You can quite easily see that runners like Rory Bosio or Jorge Maravilla emanate joy in their daily endeavors and it positively impacts their running as well.
Why does this matter? Because knowing these things humanizes these runners who are at the forefront of our sport. Suddenly you can't just make some mean comment in an online forum because if you do, most of the community, including those who have never even met the athlete you criticized will come out in support of that person. People across the country or even in other countries can be united in their knowledge of a given race or certain athletes who are doing well. They are no longer just elites, they are real people who have real feelings.
For the sake of demonstrating my point, let's look at a controversial athlete who was in his prime just before social media became more widespread: Lance Armstrong. People don't really think of him as a man, he's more a machine, or a symbol of athleticism (among other less positive things). Because not a lot of people really know him personally, and because people generally like to take down the person on top, an overwhelming majority of people seemed happy to see his life's work stripped away from him because he made some really big mistakes. I am most definitely not trying to defend him, but I think if people knew more about him, they might not have felt so noble in tearing him apart.
When Rickey Gates wrote an incredibly humanizing article about Lance in Trail Runner Magazine (January 2013), a lot of people wrote in saying that they were appalled that Rickey wrote a "puff piece" on such a terrible guy. At first I was kind of shocked that people were so quick to criticize both Lance and Rickey. Heaven forbid, that someone reach out to a guy when he's at his low point in life and invite him to go trail running. Maybe if we had seen more athlete interviews with Lance throughout his career and read heartfelt opinion pieces on what he believes about his sport, then people would have responded to recent events more moderately.
In addition to that fact that social media allows people to know top runners more holistically, it also gives people a chance to interact with others who share a passion for the trails. I live in Denver, Colorado right now and I have the luxury of knowing other like-minded runners. But most people don't have that. A lot of people live in places where meeting other trail runners is difficult and meeting ultra runners is even rarer. Even when you go to race, it can be hard to get to know the competition, because everyone is preparing for the race in their own way. Afterwards people are tired and like to retreat to the comfort of talking with their own friends and family. Social media platforms allow us to connect with the trail running community as a whole and on all of those days between races.
If reading or watching an athlete interview doesn't make you feel more invested in an athlete's success, then chances are they have a blog that you can read. Every writer has a different voice and sometime's when you happen upon some athlete's blog entry and you happen to realize that they think about some issue the same way you do, you can feel incredibly connected or perhaps even derive some motivation for your personal training. When I look at an athlete's blog for the first time I like to go back and read the first blog post. Geoff Roes, for example, has been blogging since 2007! It is empowering to be able to look back and see how an athlete has changed throughout the years. You can see how they endure through hardship and how they experience breakthroughs.
Even as you prepare for individual races you can probably find some other runner's blog entry reviewing the race and talking about their experiences. You can see if they plan to run it again and how they are training for it. Some runners even take videos and pictures during a race and put them on YouTube or Vimeo for other runners to enjoy or learn from. If it's not possible for you to become familiar with the course beforehand, using these resources can take away a lot of the race day jitters and can help you plan for race more effectively. Suddenly that person that you may have never met has helped you get the success that you want to achieve for your own racing.
It would be easy to just list a whole bunch of reason's why social media positively effects trail running, but to list them all would take away from the most important reason: Social media brings people together through humanizing other competitors and allowing communication pathways between people across continents, of different abilities, and in varying life situations.