When self-confessed nerd Mark E Johnson took up running, he was surprised to find so many of his fellow geeks pounding the pavements. But then it began to make sense …
When I was growing up in Wakefield, running was for off-season rugby players. When I was growing up a little more in Leeds, running was also for middle-class thirty- to fortysomethings, suddenly aware that their bodies might go soft and amorphous without a bit of care. But when I finally took the plunge and decided to sacrifice myself on the altar of moisture-wicking fabrics, I became aware of a whole new breed: the unexpected runner.
When I say “unexpected”, I’m trying to be delicate. I make my living writing about video games and I held on to a weekend job at a comic shop for seven years just because I liked it. The result (or cause) of this is that most of the people I know are nerds of one stripe or another. And still I was surprised by the number of geeks I stumbled across, once I was paying attention, who are quietly, unexpectedly runners. Dungeons & Dragons players, hardcore gamers, genre and comics writers. Whole swaths of the population who you may have presumed to be busy doing things that involve thinking and sitting down are quietly nipping out at strange hours to do unexpected running.
There are a couple of ways you can slice this seemingly odd collision of running and nerd culture. One is that if two million or so people in the UK run, then presumably some of them are going to be a bit nerdy. I don’t have hard statistical evidence with which to carve up the demographics, but if something is popular, then there’s no reason it can’t be popular with the geekier cross-sections of our society. But I’ve heard that football is pretty popular too, and experience tells me that the number of regular, active footballers in my geekier circles is comparatively minuscule.
An undeniable factor in drawing unexpected runners out of the door is the convenience that prompts people from all corners of society to lace up their trainers. If you’re not naturally inclined towards exerting yourself but acknowledge that it’s a good way to keep your body from conking out early, then running is about as efficient a way to get it over and done with as you’re likely to find. It’s cheap, it bends around your schedule and has a high impact/time ratio. For many nerds, this is appealing.
Competition is entirely optional, too. For most runners, even organised races are less about going head to head with others than they are about beating personal goals in a structured environment. And for those of us who suffered quietly through PE and lunchtime footie matches at school – competitive as we may be in other aspects of our lives – that’s just fine.
There are also more positive reasons for running and nerds fitting together. There are mountains of data to be climbed, if you feel so inclined. I know that’s not everyone’s bag, but certainly for gamers and techier geeks, humps of performance-based stats can be obscenely engrossing. Distance, time, pace per minute, ascent, heart-rate, calories burned – there is software to order all of the above.
After my third ever run, I got the first free running app I came across so I could track my distance. I was quickly surprised by how immersed I became in the fine detail of my runs, not to mention how obsessive I got about improving those numbers. Getting lost in a subject of interest comes with the geek territory.
There is even software that makes explicit the gaming element that comes with monitoring and (inevitably) trying to better your stats. Zombies, Run! is an app that turns your runs into chase sequences where you are harried by the undead. Strava tracks your runs (or bike rides – unsurprisingly, cycling is a big crossover sport for geeky runners) and logs your performance on them against that of other users. This is like pixie dust for sprinkling on otherwise grinding runs.
Beyond all that, though, is the introspective nature of running. Sure, there are clubs and there are races and there are running buddies. But for most, running is a solitary business. It’s a chance to turn inward, to escape the roar of everyday life. While the cliche of nerds as loners is at best outdated and at worst just out-and-out wrong, most of us are happy spending time with ourselves. Running, perhaps beyond all other forms of exertion, allows us to embrace that. To turn things over in our heads, uninterrupted. Or, more rarely, to escape even the noise in our own brains for a little while. It’s that meditative quality that, I think, is the key for many unexpected runners.
• Mark E Johnson is a runner, nerd and writer. He tweets at @Spinface.