Forgive the glib and sensationalist blog post title, but we’re going to look at what’s usually referred to in tabloid parlance as an “online spat”.
In truth, it’s the story of the lively response to a book reviewer’s passing reference to parkruns, the free, volunteer-organised and resolutely lower-case 5K runs that take place at 9:30 on Saturday mornings in 9 countries.
Far be it from me to be pass-remarkable on runners who vent their displeasure on social media, of course. (I should point out that Fit Magazine were good enough to reply to me to confirm that their 5K race in Dublin on 9 March was indeed probably only 4.8K in length at most, and that they genuinely regret the unfortunate error.)
Anyway, this other online disagreement in the running community:
It all starts with a new book by Richard Askwith called Running Free, in which the author, “an opponent of the commercialisation of running”, encourages runners to “get back to nature”. (I quote the publisher’s blurb.)
Askwith’s book was reviewed in The Independent (of London) by Alexandra Heminsley, who has herself written a book about running called Running Like A Girl. The success of her book, recounting her progress from beginner to London Marathon finisher, has seen Heminsley feature in running publications and interviews with the likes of Marathon Talk, the popular weekly running podcast.
On the whole, Heminsley finds Askwith’s analysis of the modern-day running industry to be “perceptive and empathetic” and his rural, barefoot escape from it “a much needed breath of fresh air”.
However, Heminsley’s brief overview of the book’s critique of commercialised recreational running has irritated parkrun’s U.K. race directors. I reproduce the controversial passage in full:
“Askwith is as hard on himself as he is on readers about falling for the seductive nature of the industry. But he makes no bones about what is going on: the simple act of running, as instinctive to us as eating or having sex, has now become an act of surrender, not just to the idea of constantly “bettering oneself” with ever more impressive times and distances, but to consumerism itself. The clothing, the high performance foods, the endless electronics for recording pace, route and heart rate – even the events themselves, including the comprehensively sponsored local park run and the branding monster that is the Tough Mudder – are now all part of a slickly functioning juggernaut designed to extract as much cash from us as possible.”
Heminsley is clearly presenting Askwith’s ideas here. But she does so in her own words rather than quoting from the book, or at least that’s how the passage reads. And the construction of that final sentence implies that parkruns (which are free to participants) are complicit in the money-making “consumerism” of the recreational running industry.
Cue indignant comments and tweets aimed at Heminsley by parkrun fans, event directors… and a certain Tom Williams, managing director of parkrun UK and co-host of the same Marathon Talk podcast that praised and welcomed Heminsley so warmly in their interview:
— Tom Williams (@parkruntom) March 14, 2014
In response, Heminsley pointed out quite reasonably that she praised the “totally free” parkrun in her own book. Still, the unexpected backlash against her review has understandably irritated her:
Piece in the Independent was a review, not my polemic. But hey, thanks for the support, running community who I’ve tried so hard to promote.
— Alexandra Heminsley (@Hemmo) March 14, 2014
No doubt the whole thing will be cleared up as an unfortunate misunderstanding. But given that the notion of a ‘running community’ can sometimes be overstated to the point of oppression, some friction and disagreement between two prominent running personalities is in itself, as Heminsley says of Askwith’s book, a breath of fresh air.
UPDATE: Richard Askwith addressed this book review and his position on parkrun in an online chat hosted by The Guardian.