Are Runners Obsessive, Narcissistic Masochists?

It’s what Pam R Sailors thinks about, when she thinks about running.


I did not begin running in a quest to lay bare the essential core of my identity. In fact, it’s more accurate to say I started running not toward self-knowledge, but from self-loathing. My decision was nothing more than a New Year’s resolution that happened to stick. I’m not unique in this regard; formal studies and informal polls consistently find that health and fitness is the primary motivation for running, for men and women, at both the competitive and recreational levels. Yet an extensive literature and folklore exists extolling the great powers of self-discovery in running, especially distance running. Even so, distance runners often exhibit several less than ideal character traits. Maybe the presence of these traits leads certain people to become runners or maybe running creates or exacerbates such traits. Either way, if running is indeed self-revelatory, some aspects of the selves revealed might be better left covered, since the self most often uncovered exhibits, to use Aristotle’s terms, both excess and deficiency. More precisely, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics prescribes everything in moderation, saying that “if something is pleasant and conducive to health or fitness, [the temperate man] will desire this moderately and in the right way; and he will desire in the same way anything else that is pleasant, if it is no obstacle to health and fitness, does not deviate from the fine, and does not exceed his means”. Given the recent spate of deaths of people running marathons, or the anecdotal tales of former runners hobbled by years of pounding the pavement, one could make the case that running may well be an obstacle to health. The many examples of professional runners using banned performance enhancing substances, as well as recreational runners participating in races without paying the entry fee, show that runners may deviate from the fine. And a close look and listen at the starting line of any race will provide evidence that many of those lined up have exceeded their means, both physical and financial. Still, perhaps these negative indicators can be outweighed by the purported power of self-discovery afforded by running.

One does not have to delve deeply into the literature of distance running to encounter claims about the seemingly miraculous power of running to illuminate the essential person within. George Sheehan, who wrote popular columns and books about running, frequently suggested that the activity promised some sort of self-discovery. In his Running and Being, he says, “When you see me, that lonely figure out on the road, I am looking for my territory, my self, the person I must be. There I am no longer the observer watching myself think and talk and react. I am not the person others see and meet and even love. There I am whole; I am finally who I am.” Runner’s World, one of the most widely read popular press running magazines – the sort of publication read most often by casual runners – regularly makes similar claims, with John Bingham suggesting, for example, that “Who we are is there before us. All we need to do is look.” And apparently, this is meant literally, since Bingham sets up the claim with the story of catching sight of his reflection running in the front window of a store.

For those who are more adventurous than the Runner’s World crowd, or perhaps whose selves are more deeply hidden, only the extreme challenge of ultramarathon running will suffice. “Ultramarathon” refers to any race longer than 26.2 miles – one of the most difficult is the Badwater, a 135 mile run through Death Valley, California in the peak of the summer heat. In his book about his experience of running Badwater (To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance), Kirk Johnson wrote about imagining that the rigours of the race would peel away everything but the essential core of his very being. “I imagined a golden ray of light that would shine down, and I would spread out my arms into the glow and say, ‘I have arrived at what I am – this man, standing here at this moment in time – no more and no less.’ I would be burned clean.” Johnson would be disappointed later, finding that the extremes of the race led not to clarity and harmony, but to embarrassing moments of clarity about aspects of himself he might rather not have been forced to acknowledge. Describing the moment of which he is least proud, he says “I felt alone and overwhelmed and close to the point of dissolution and in some petty, small, selfish and nasty way, I needed everyone else awake and suffering, too. I’d become the demanding, prissy, egocentric athlete I’d always hated, wallowing in my self-pity and demanding that everyone else share my experience because it was so precious and important.” It seems his dismay is not because his “real me” has not been laid bare, but rather because it has, and isn’t pretty.

Even when a runner believes that the real self has been revealed and transformed for the better by running, that transformation may not be so positive or visible to others. Andrew Sheehan, son of previously mentioned George, has written the story of growing up through his father’s progression from non-running physician to probably the most popular person running and writing about it in the world (Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself). He suggests that the self-knowledge purportedly fostered by running may have eluded his father to a great degree. Although the elder Sheehan claimed that running “made him stop drinking, freed him from anger, got him in touch with himself, and made him a creative being,” the younger notes that he and his siblings were always amused by “the degree to which he fell short of his self-description”. The lack of self-awareness, and the presence of a near complete self-focus, implied here hint at the obsessive/compulsive nature of many distance runners. In fact the elder Sheehan himself recognised this feature, saying “Why I began running is no longer important. It is enough that it generated a desire to run. Then the running itself took over. Running became a self-renewing compulsion. The more I ran, the more I wanted to run.”

Several people have commented similarly upon the addictive character of running; a few (often runners themselves or psychologists studying runners) have drawn the comparison between runners and those suffering from obsessive/compulsive disorder. Scott Tinley, a former champion triathlete, noted in an article in Triathlete magazine the striking presence of obsessive/compulsive characteristics in runners. “Many athletes have delusions of grandeur, dreaming of winning the world championship after their first season. We are never satisfied; we think in a linear mode, trying to understand and control everything we do.” Berger and Mackenzie (in Psychology of Running)noted obsessive/compulsive traits in a female jogger they examined for their psychodynamic analysis, attributing to her “intense, highly focused rigidity; driven preoccupation with technical detail; over-reliance on intellectuality with a shrinking affective capacity; worry and marked self-criticism; over-concern for moral and professional responsibility with emphasis on what should be done; and constant routine activity performed with the use of a schedule and checklists”.

More anecdotally, Andrew Sheehan commented upon the appearance of obsessive/compulsive traits in his father, which increased proportionally to his involvement in running. And, although it is unlikely that he recognised it in himself, George Sheehan’s own words reveal the high focus, self-criticism, and unending quest for perfection of routine activity, as he relates a conversation with his seatmate on the airplane trip home after the National AAU Championship Marathon, where he finished in the top third. “What do I do now? More of the same, only better. Run another and learn that much more about myself and the world and Who made me. Run another and another. Bathe myself in pain and fatigue. Reach for energies I have yet to use. Run another and another and another. Make my truth out of that experience, out of what happens”. Sheehan’s mention of devoting his life exclusively to the attainment of his own goals and of bathing himself in pain and fatigue suggests two additional character traits often found in runners, narcissism and masochism.

Arnold Cooper discusses this connection (in Psychology of Running), suggesting that one of the reasons people are motivated to take up running is that they have “narcissistic and masochistic needs”, which are “beautifully gratified by running distances which are clearly beyond the intended uses of the human body”. Cooper describes narcissism as “behaviors derived from interest, concern, and satisfaction with oneself,” while “masochism refers to the strange human propensity for seeming to be able to extract some kind of pleasure or satisfaction out of pain”. Both occur as part of the normal development of children, as they work to attain awareness of themselves as separate individuals with needs, desires, and relationships, exerting their autonomy as they realise that they are neither totally dependent on the mother nor in possession of all of her powers. This latter realisation oddly leads to masochistic behaviours, as infants obtain pleasure from such acts as head-banging. The pleasure is derived from the control involved – that is, the infant takes pleasure in the pain because it is not imposed from the outside, but instead proves the power of the infant to control his or her own circumstances. In this way, babies (and runners), preserve their sense of worth through actively and purposefully seeking out pains that cannot actually be avoided, and deriving enjoyment from them. It’s a bit like shouting “I meant to do that”, after taking a fall or running into a particularly sharp piece of furniture.

Again, it’s George Sheehan who nicely, if unintentionally, describes this element of running. “Like most children, I think I control my life. Believe myself to be independent. I am certain I have been placed on this earth to enjoy myself. Like most children, I live in the best of all possible worlds, a world made for running and racing, where nothing but good can happen. And, like most children, I am oblivious to all of the work done by other people to make it that way.” It is not possible to attend a marathon or read a magazine targeted at runners without noticing how many needs runners seem to have and how many people and products there are readily available to satisfy those needs. Never mind the socks, shoes, shorts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and gloves, the fully prepared runner also may avail him or herself of energy bars, sports drinks, protein supplements, GU, treadmills, daily logs, ID bracelets and necklaces, altitude simulators, arch braces, knee straps, motivational and training videos, speed and distance monitors, cardio-monitors, and, of course, 14 K jewellery bearing stick figures of runners or the magic number “26.2” (with a diamond for the decimal point). Even running “barefoot” requires buying minimalist shoes. It is a daunting task, indeed, to follow Aristotle’s injunction not to exceed one’s means when presented with all manner of products which promise to enhance the life of every runner.

The narcissistic quest for control also plays itself out in runners’ focused attention on every aspect of the functioning of their bodies. Even when runners claim to enjoy running with others, Cooper suggests that the claim simply masks “their preoccupation with their own bodies and their constant monitoring of their state and performance. Runners are permitted a regression of self-involvement which is reminiscent of children exploring themselves with accompanying grunts of pleasure and concentration.” Paula Radcliffe’s autobiography (Paula: My Story So Far) is as much a catalogue of the countless illnesses and injuries that have befallen her as an account of her racing exploits. Fortunately for Radcliffe, she is surrounded by a supporting cast of physicians and physical therapists, always on the ready to prescribe another treatment for her maladies. Ultramarathon runner Kirk Johnson says deciding to make the preparations required to run even a marathon “is an act of hubris, a statement of bald self-assertion and ego”. And, one doesn’t run a marathon without great assistance from others, which fact leads Johnson to continue: “If running a marathon, not to mention an ultramarathon, is an act of base and selfish egoism, then the idea of assembling a sycophantic band of worshipers to tag along and supply one’s every need [is] surely pathological.” Or, we might say, narcissistic.

Along with the narcissism comes a pronounced tendency to masochism. In the most difficult moments of a run, Sheehan felt “challenged to choose suffering, to endure pain, to bear hardship”. I first noticed this embrace of pain while acting as a spectator (or, as Johnson would have it, a sycophantic worshiper) while a friend ran the Chicago Marathon. It wasn’t the people who were able to run the distance relatively easily who interested me, but the people who managed to finish only with the most extreme levels of pain. A postcard (distributed by Nike) commemorating the race asserted that “Bloody nipples are a trophy”. Cooper suggests that from the painful experience of running great distances, bloody nipples and all, adults derive pleasure that echoes the head-banging masochism of infants. “The inevitable experience of pain and the description, by at least some runners, of the pain as an integral part of the running experience, seems to be a repetition of the infant’s desperate need to create everything – even their own pain. Further, the sharp experience of oneself through the bodily pain, concurrent with a blurred awareness of the world, helps to strengthen what may be in runners a weakened sense of clear self-definition”.

And, so we’ve come full circle back to the claim that running provides self-knowledge, that one’s true self is revealed in the act of running. And what of the self that is revealed? Is it one that we would embrace? In many cases, we may answer in the affirmative, but certainly not always or without qualification. In some cases, the revealed self may be one that fails to obtain the mean between the detailed self-criticism found in obsessive/compulsive disorder and the extreme self-focus and delusions of greatness found in narcissism. Or as Aristotle would judge, one that does not experience the desire for something conducive to health or fitness moderately or in the right way.

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Pam R Sailors is Professor Of Philosophy at Missouri State University. She writes about philosophy of sport and bioethics.