[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I was twelve when I started running. My first running shoes were a heavy pair of grey and black Nikes with those weird shock absorber things in the heels. I eventually upgraded to Asics, until I went to college and had to wear Adidas, per the athletic department. Since graduating, I've run almost exclusively in Altra's because I enjoy the zero drop feature alongside the more natural, wide toe box.
But when I started running, I didn't really care about shoes. I had whatever my parents bought me, and we were always on the lookout for a deal, buying last season's model at a discounted rate. I ran in cotton Soffe shorts, leggings, basketball shorts, stiff Kohls athletic shorts, whatever I had. I had, and still have, sports bras from TJ Maxx, and socks from who knows where. I ran in big sweatshirts in the winter, and in bright yellow t-shirts in the summer, so cars could see me. Nobody around me had expensive gear, and gear didn't really matter. What mattered was running.
I used the watch face of one of my father's broken watches to time myself when I did intervals. I'd just start on a whole minute: 7:25, let's say, and see where I ended from there. I didn't have a GPS watch, but my dad would drive along the country roads where I grew up, measuring the distance using the speedometer in his blue pickup truck. Sometimes, I ran for time and sometimes I ran just because. None of it was altogether expensive though, which is part of why I could do it. There were no big membership fees to participate. Not a lot of gear to buy other than shoes and some Under Armor leggings. My parents did spend a considerable amount of time (and gas money) driving all over Wisconsin to watch me race. I ran my way to college with nearly no data regarding my runs or my heart rate or my VO2 max. I just ran.
When I got to college, I was handed a pile of gear: bras, shorts, t-shirts, uniforms, warm weather gear, cold-weather gear, socks, hats, anything I might need. I asked for new shoes whenever I needed them, and they'd show up in a matter of days. We kept records of everything: performances over time, resting heart rate, weight fluctuations, lifting regimens, rest days, injuries, sleep. I got a GPS watch to measure my runs, but it was nothing as sophisticated as the GPS watches today. More data helped me train smarter, to some extent. More gear was helpful, as were better shoes. Resources can make anything easier, and with more resources, I ran faster and trained harder.
Now that I run for the hell of it, I'm noticing just how much stuff I need ("need") when I run, especially for long days in the mountains. My shoes and clothing are just the start of it. Hydration vests, salt tabs, nutrition (packaged or not), sunscreen, anti-chaffing balm, a water filter, emergency supplies. Food alone can be costly--during my last race, a 100K in Arizona, I burned roughly 10,000 calories. Not only that, but I invest in a gym membership and a strength coach in a desperate attempt to avoid injury. I go to hot yoga, in a desperate attempt to stay limber. I have a massage gun and a basket full of tools to roll out with, most that I've been given or simply acquired over time. I live in California, where gas prices are closing in on $6.00/gallon, but that doesn't stop me from driving an hour and a half each way to the mountains every weekend to chase my addiction.
And the costs don't end there. My last race cost $300 just to sign up for, not to mention the cost to travel, lodging, food, etc. I'm not complaining, either. There is nothing else I'd rather spend my money on than experiences, and racing is one of my favorite things to experience. But in the hyper-specific world of running and ultra running, there comes a point when we should all pause and consider how inaccessible running is slowly becoming. A lot of people could never swing a $300 race, or a $190 pair of running shoes. It's a privilege to have the time and resources to train. And for all the companies purporting to support the wilderness, for all the organizations encouraging everyone to opt outside or get back to nature, all of them are trying to sell us something in order to get out there. Nothing is free, after all, but you don't need expensive gear or a shiny GPS watch or the latest, greatest piece of gear to go outside and run.
One of my favorite things about running is the idea that anyone can do it, and most people can. Running is, after all, an extension of a natural human activity. But it isn't free of the consumerist urge that drives our economy, and it would be foolish to expect it to be. But the idea that anyone can run is becoming less and less true. And the idea that anyone can run a race is limiting at best. I have been caught in the mind trap of thinking I can do anything if I work hard enough-an ideology easy to get caught in, especially when everything is going well. But not everyone can afford to run, and in making running more profitable, we are making it more inaccessible.
We could charge less for races, or charge fees on some sort of sliding scale. You could run cheaper, local races, or just do one race a year, or even not race at all. It's possible to find cheap gear at co-ops or through discounted places like Running Warehouse. But the gear probably isn't the only thing keeping people away from the sport. This study shows very real barriers to exercise in general for low-income populations: cost, lack of childcare, lack of time, low awareness, fear of walking/running alone outside, lack of access to facilities, and working odd/long hours to name a few. Even when I was young with very little money, I had safe places to run, and the support of a million people who wanted me to succeed. If I hadn't had that, I would have never started running at all, despite my personal finances.
Running might seem like a sport with a low barrier to entry, but it's not. Not everyone can run, and not everyone can afford it.
P.S. Read one runner's breakdown of the cost to do an ultra marathon here, read about the most expensive "luxury" ultra in the world here, or check out my friend's nonprofit to help inner-city LA kids get outside here.