PhD outline

Distance athlete's æffect on urban rhythm:
how do ultrarunners run in automatized cities?


Millions of persons run today in different urban scenarios: they just put their clothes on and leave. But it is crucial to feel the body when running. And this does not imply that this attention and perception is always a given. In July of 2015, an athlete in Frankfurt finished an Ironman (a triathlon that takes 11 hours on average to complete). The participant died after being convalescent due to over hydration/hyponathremia. The issue raised here is that certain sport practices demand a more thorough type of health care, a kind of learning that becomes vital: that is, of life or death.

Running, however, is seldom a high risk activity. It generally contributes elements to fight against obesity, depression, and a long list. But it's also used as a lucrative activity by an industry that produces sport supplies and an apparatus of organization that hosts a variety of events: short races, olympic marathon distance (42.195 k) and ultramarathons that go up to a an amount that may seem infinite such as the 246 k Spartathlon, and even races that can last 48 continuous hours.

The longest challenges, aside from posing the question of public physical (and mental!) health, need to use the urban and wild spaces in a agile, free, and articulate way. This also detonates in a exploitation of natural and touristic resources that staggers between environmental care and decay. UNESCO for example looks to take care of Mont Blanc, place of the emblematic ultramarathon Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, as a World Heritage Site.

Runners experiment the activity in many different manners: as meditation in motion, to listen music, take off some colesterol from blood, experience the vitality of their body/mind, to clear their head and/or gaze at the green landskape in a fraction of the city. ``Just buy a good pair of shoes and you're ready'' say many who promote the activity that is less sedentary and pretty cheap: (almost) for free one would be tempted to say.

Research topic and subject of analysis

It would seem at a first glance that all the social and biological mechanics of functioning of running just works in auto-pilot. And however, several controversies open from different sides. The popular book ``Born to Run'' suggests that the Mexican Indians, the Raramuri of the Tarahamura mountains, run today in the same way as it has been during four centuries.

The custom/trend to run arises half a century ago, together with sport accessories and recommendations to use shoes to that end. In a wider specter, these activities are inserted in a vast world of shortages and excesses. On one side, shortages of active options to the dormant body in an economic system in which desk jobs prevail, and leisure of passive consumption. On the other side, excesses of search with vivid attention, fun, fatigue and the exploration of the limits of the body when activated. The bodily biology opens up to new sensations. The body becomes a centrifugal machine: it becomes necessary to analyze the outcoming bodily fluids, the salinity of transpiration, urine color indicative of hydration, fecal matter that shows the gastric processes. The body as centripetal machine seeks for a nourishment that allows running for hundreds of kilometers, and the knowledge to not die trying.

The individual and collective bodies take the challenge to affect their ability and desire to act. There are even those who hold that it is not even necessary to use shoes to run, it would be enough to just simply use your legs, and barefoot feet. This is supported by several athletes, academics and even a small fraction of the industry that look for innovation (or going back to basics) with minimalist footwear: with low or no heel height.

Is it really necessary to use shoes? Some studies suggest that there are movements that avoid injuries: for example to run landing with the ball of the feet (metatharsi), instead of using the heel. This type of bodily mechanics is one of the topics that the paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman has researched for over a decade. Runners learn technical resources and make them their own from different sources: nutritional, mechanic, motivational. But each person use them, make them, and tailor the resources in their own way: they singularize them, they learn how to run in a unique way. In this point the experimentation of athletes become key. The whole of the runners world would also affect the urban rhythms, slowing them down and accelerating them, intervening in the physical city and the way spaces are used. In sum, the objectives of this research are as follow.

General Objective Researching into how people learn to manage resources/knowledge and take risks to do activities that the majority ignores. Runners of ultramarathon are not superhumans: they develop a know-how and find interest in the methods of running to an extreme extent.

Specific Objectives

Materials and methods

This work looks to a wider spectrum of mechanisms of escape from the inertia of the productive system, a production of machinic uselessness, where cars and public transportation circulates, overpopulates and congests, all which controls movements in favor of an economic and political order and power.

Ultrarunners are the case study. However, the implications of the topic go beyond this social world. A good amount of ultrarunners are so conscious of the need for natural food that they have a bigger inclination to eat more fruits and vegetables than average people and in some cases are even close to or even long term vegetarians. This is related, but apart, from massive consumption patterns, of how to avoid the dangers of canned foods, with conservatives, refined sugars, processed flour; and a political view that implies requesting the land to be distributed and cultivated to food people and not animals.

The proposal is of qualitative research. On one side, it will nurture from secondary material in texts and videos made by and about the participants of ultramarathon races. On the other side, first hand material will be carried on with participant observation. As study material the general training method shall be reviewed and at least the ethnography of one specific competition. These elements pursue to give new life to the ideas of how people move, beyond a mere translation function, and how urban spaces can be circulated, expanding their uses.

Conceptual approach

The general problems of mass production and consumption have been noted even from the dawn of the industrial ages. The topic of massivity has ran from the marvelous rise of the car industrialization in the early XXth century going back to the actual need to decongest traffic and search for new patterns of mobility and a sense of participating in the environment instead of driving over all ecosystems. This does not happen in a neutral and clean socio-political situation. These conducts are part of a broad systematic pattern. Deleuze & Guattari (2010: 527) signaled that things as different as monopoly and the specialization of most of the medical knowledge, the complication of the automobile motor, the gigantism of machines, do not correspond to any technological need, but rather to economic and political imperatives. Certain objects and conducts of today’s societies have built and shaped urban landscapes in a ever growing manner. Many of them blocking and constraining transit of people, of resources, and even being a blockage for ideas and customs. It becomes increasingly widespread and evident the way in which vehicles stagnate in traffic during long inner-week-hours and amounts of cars lost in traffic through the world. Billions of people also follow, or intend to do so with tidy regularity, a standarized daily work-schedule from 9 to 5. Roads can function as boundaries when they striate space into fixed compartiments of places of circulation, but roads can also be connectors of smooth space that open to the world and to infinite paths (Brighenti, 2009: 64).

While several flows tend to become a little more at stop, there are also counter-movements that move against the said stagnation: all together many different currents of flow could be taken into account, but mostly two different types coexist: those which favor movement, and those that tend to collapse. They could be called rythms and anti-rythms. We can percieve variations in possibilities of movement by passing through spaces and becoming part with the surroundings.

we experience the contours of the landscape by moving through it, [...] every path or track shows up as the accumulated imprint of countless journeys that people have made as they have gone about their everyday business. Thus the same movement is embodied, on the side of the people, in their ‘muscular consciousness’, and on the side of the landscape, in its network of paths and tracks. In this network is sedimented the activity of an entire community, over many generations. It is the taskscape made visible. (Ingold, 1993: 167)

Some people prefer to walk through a forest; others enjoy driving a car. Many urban personae relate to the city in varying degrees. Some authors, as Goffman and Von Uexküll, have seen to how much and the type of relation to the surroundings so as to create an environment, which they call the surroundings, or more technicaly: the Umwelt, the involving space from which signs of alarm are expected. As it happens in ethology it so applies in humans: “the size of Umwelten varies considerably according to the species”. Of interest here is that this area can move, and can expand and contract according to whom is at the center of this phenomenom. These perceptions, shared and negotiated, make up to a pluralism of views and reactions.

Additionally, every social world, in Becker’s terms, attracts a number of resources, knowledge as well as consensus and resistance. Some social worlds more than others depend on, and have an influence in productive systems. Here it is claimed that the ultrarunners environment impacts on ways of living, and are on the tip of a certain curve of behaviour, that is: of discipline, deprivation, potential mental disturbance and generally extreme experiences, all of which affect the way cities are lived in.

Research questions and workplan

The above leaves the way closer to attempt a series of questions. Would it be possible then to see freeways and cities as something else than a mere containment of controlled flows? Or said in a more positive way and onto a slightly other physical direction:

Can we consider roads, paths in general, and other technological artifacts as enablers that shape human experience and social relationships? And this can even be considered as a double track proposal: How do human experiences and social relationships shape pathways, views, resources and technologies? Even if two seemingly separate sides merge to form a socio-technical assemblage, they in fact hibridize: hence the importance to rescue all agents, humans and non humans, involed with simetrical weight. The double sided view separates analitically what actually forms a network of dependencies.

There are many available resources to study the ultrarunning scene even from a distance. Secondary material involves both texts1 written by participants, and journalists; as well as videos2. Part of this material has already been read and viewed. Field work allows for direct contact with the ultra world and for day to day updates on normal practices and non-structured interviews. The first-hand material is expected to be a strength of the proposal since the candidate is a long-time runner, with more than two decades of experience in several distances. Having already completed the marathon distance the candidate is highly likely to fulfill races of at least 50 kms. Longer distances (80, 100, 150) could and are expected to be attemped later on. Regardless of the kind of participation, be it by running or simply attending to events as observer, the contacts have already began: I already gained information on specific yearly ultra-distance races with different attractives: the german Rennsteiglauf with an average of 15000 participants, the chilean Rapa Nui trophy at the exotic Easter Island, and the important NGO that prepare races for awareness to fight aganst human trafficking: Muskathlon, both in South Africa and also crossing the border from Bulgaria into Greece. The relevance of what appears in the environment to ultrarunners is not always obvious in a third party written description, or even in conversation. The possibility to participate in the same training and competitions is to be part of the “same capsule of events” as other ultrarunners. What changes is not only the events but rather their at-handedness, which allow for a closer possibility of involvement.

Two possible outcomes of the study involve: on the one hand, the chance to get in-depth insight on the technological analysis of these practices and events. On this matter, time for research at the Sciences Po would be a gain. The direction of the project would benefit from the perspective of considering the mechanical-chemical aspects of ultra in relation to scientific humanities, specialty of Bruno Latour’s team, with whom the candidate has taken an online MOOC course, early 2014. On the other hand, the second possibility should aim at spending time together with specific communities of ultrarunners.


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  1. FIXX, James F.; JUREK, Scott; KOSTRUBALA, Thaddeus; LEONARD, George; McDOUGALL, Christopher; MURAKAMI, Haruki; NUNES, Valmir; ROHÉ, Fred. ROLL, Rich.

  2. BENNA J.B; COEMAN, Tom; DUNHAM, Jon; EHRLICH, Judd; FRANKEL, Davey Frankel & LAKEW, Rasselas; HEISENBERG, Benjamin. RICHARDSON, Tony; ROTHWELL, Jerry; STEWART, Rob; STUART, Mel.