Is narcissism in ultrarunning an oxymoron?
I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for being sorry. I apologize as this article might just have an apologetic tone. Since becoming involved in ultra running I have sung its praises, held it on a high horse and boasted of its unique and illustrious community. The truth is, I’m beginning to doubt that this group is unlike any other group out there. It has its tricksters, whiners, hotshots, grumps and its snivellers. However, all my psycho-philosophical research on the merits of ultra running has not been in vain. I merely think that the honeymoon period has past and I have come face to face with the reality of human nature. And for the majority of the western culture, this reality can be described as narcissistic.
Ironically, the roots of narcissism actually have somewhat of a romantic underpinning. According to myth (i.e. irrefutable Greek legend):
Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate
advances of the nymph Echo. As a punishment, he was doomed to
fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable
to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away and changed into the
flower that bears his name, the narcissus.
Today the term has quite negative connotations, which include vanity and conceit, egotism and selfishness. Psychiatry and psychology even recognize it as a severe personality disorder in its extreme cases. One year ago I could not have imagined putting narcissism and ultra running in the same sentence because my belief was that ultra runners were part of a unique culture with a fierce sense of community. Today I am not so sure. This leads me to investigate and ask whether narcissism is an oxymoron in ultra running.
On one hand, it depends how ultra running – and consequently, the “ultra runner” - is defined. Most would say that anything over the marathon distance of 42.2 km is an ultra. Is a 50k an ultra? Is someone that runs one 50k a year or in a lifetime an ultra runner? Or must one run 100 milers to be considered an ultra runner? The lines of distinction are further blurred when terrain is considered as many runs on trails are much tougher than those on road, take longer and, at least in Ontario, are often bunched together with longer distance races. It becomes confusing with a myriad of “runners” blazing down a trail these days in a race. I have often found that it is only after the shorter distance races end, and a scant crowd is left on the trail, that you can be certain that the runner who brazenly declared their right of way on the narrow track six hours ago was not an ultra runner.
Is such a runner a narcissist or are they merely immersed in the spirit of competition? After all, it is a race. This brings me to my second point and this concerns how narcissism is defined, as that “non ultra runner” that I just described may very well be an “ultra” runner. In its worst form, and according to popular psychology, narcissism is:
Characterized by inflated or grandiose view of self, the quest for
excessive admiration, an unreasonable or exaggerated sense of
entitlement, a lack of empathy, an exploitative attitude toward others,
a proneness to envy or wish to be envied, frequent fantasies of
greatness, and arrogance.
Although I cannot quite claim to know that many ultra runners personally, I do not think that any of the exploits I have witnessed would put runners in this extreme category of narcissism. I doubt that anyone who was that into themselves would want to endure the physical and emotional trauma that is an inherent part of ultra running.
Narcissism in its less severe form more closely resembles an over-zealous competitive spirit. The area becomes a little grey when trying to distinguish between healthy levels of competition. One runner’s idea of what it takes to win might be markedly different from another’s. And for some runners, the stakes could be quite high with qualifying times for world ultra competitions and sponsors to appease or woo.
I admittedly had a horrendous time trying to defend ultra runners as anything but self-serving individuals in my graduate work. An interesting question that did arise, and one that I find quite intriguing, is how ultra runners behave in the world outside of the running community. With the challenges of trying to define rules for exactly what constitutes ultra running and an “ultra runner,” behavior outside of races may be a good indicator of what ultra runners are really like – self-absorbed, true community minded individuals or somewhere in between.
The answer then is a firm “I’m not sure” as to whether narcissism is an oxymoron in ultra running. One thing I am learning is that many ultra runners are rather uninterested to learn whether others think they are – or they are not – self-absorbed, community minded, somewhere in between, or whether they are officially an “ultra” runner or officially a “non-ultra” runner. In the end, most ultra runners are quite happy just to be running.
Hmmm…isn’t this then proof that narcissism is indeed an oxymoron in ultra running?
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