March/April 2011
Mark Oppenheimer

The Race That Is Not About Winning

We Need a Certain Kind of Teenage Antihero to Remind Us That We Are Not Alone.

Discussed: A Disheartening Absence of Pile-Ons, Unwitting Baby-Daddies, The Ignominy of Mediocrity, Geographical and Metaphorical Cluelessness, Runner’s World, The Valorization of Flight Over Encounter, Resort-Town Nymphs, Nazi Dentists, Playing the Tradesman, Running No Matter How Bad It Feels
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

I. We Need Short Shorts.

There is a lie that cross-country coaches tell their distance runners. “Running is a team sport,” they say. “Even though it can seem like you are out there by yourself, you have to train as a team, support each other as a team, work as a team. Running is not a solitary sport.”

A big lie. Running, like swimming events, like weight-lifting or gymnastics, is a solitary sport. That you might interact with other people during training, that there might be social aspects to practice, is rather beside the point. Training for an athletic contest is almost by necessity social—any exception will tend to attract very weird participants: consider competitive eating—but the fact that the runner sees other people now and again, even every day, does not change who he is, or what he does. He is a loner, and he runs alone.

I say “he” because my subject is the specific kind of boy who takes up running, and he is very different from the girl who is his counterpart. This boy, whom I know well, is just not good at any other sport. He may have tried baseball, but could not throw; he may have tried soccer, but could not kick. He is not coordinated or strong or big. So he runs.

No American eight-year-old thinks it would be cool to be a distance runner someday. If he becomes one, it is not the realization of a dream, but the acceptance of reality.

That the average American running boy is the anti-jock is just as well; the preening, performing lacrosse egotist will not receive the necessary public affirmation from distance running. In cross country, even championships are a bit disheartening, even when you win. There is no World Series–style pile-on. And there will be no cheering, for cross-country running takes place almost entirely out of sight of the fans, who can see the action only at the starting and finish lines. And, therefore, there are no fans, save the runners’ girlfriends. But they have no girlfriends, because they are runners.

Or perhaps they are runners because they have no girlfriends.

Either way, it is completely understandable why Michael Cera, the Canadian actor who plays varsity runner—and unwitting baby-daddy—Paulie Bleeker in the 2007 movie Juno, has become the premier runner in contemporary filmdom. It has been argued that he plays the same character in every movie; in a bitchy article in Wired magazine, the writer accuses Cera of always playing a “horny, awkward teenager.” One online commentator, the pseudonymous “sevenwords,” puts the ultimate charge fairly bluntly: “Dude plays the same socially awkward teenage dork in every movie. Time to change it up Michael.”

I disagree. While many first-rate actors have specialized in Hollywood dorkdom—Brian Backer, Anthony Edwards, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and a puzzling number of redheads (Timothy Busfield, Anthony Michael Hall, Seth Green)—they have played a surprisingly limited range of characters. They are either socially isolated by their braininess, like Busfield in Revenge of the Nerds, Hall in The Breakfast Club, and Gabriel Jarret in Real Genius; or they are basically normal kids who happen to be pathologically shy around girls, like Backer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Green in Can’t Hardly Wait. There are some variations, like the nerd/fop (Thomas as Paul Finch in American Pie) and the nerd/debater (Nicholas D’Agosto as Ben Wekselbaum in Rocket Science), but we are still waiting for a whole flight of nerd archetypes to find their representation on the screen: Where is the nerd/fashion designer? The nerd/philatelist? I can’t even think of a decent movie about a young comic-book obsessive, which is truly odd given how many of them grow up to make movies.

All of which is just to emphasize my gratitude that one of the most common real-life nerd-types, and the one closest to my heart, has at last found its screen embodiment. After all, most nerds are not brilliant computer wizards. Most nerds are not stutterers, either, and most do have female friends, if only because at large schools there are female nerds to ally with (cf. Michelle Meyrink in Revenge of the Nerds, Real Genius, and a brilliant arc on Family Ties). With Cera, we at last have an actor who effortlessly honors the American teen male anti-athlete, a boy who populates so many high-school cross-country teams. He is not a genius, he is not pathologically shy, and he is not widely loathed. Rather, he is a little shy, a little marginal, and a good bit quirkier than his classmates. He does not necessarily read constantly, but when he reads—or listens to music, or skips school to go to a matinee by himself—it is with an outsider’s wistfulness, with a hopeful eye on the world beyond high school. He is a character who resonates with a kind of kid—and that kid is everywhere—who turns to movies for reassurance that he is not alone. That boy wears short shorts, and he runs.

II. Plant Defecators and Other Role Models

I should know. I was a runner. By my senior year, I was the third-best runner on the cross-country team of the Loomis Chaffee School. We were not a good team, but we did not even have the distinction of being truly terrible. We were instead a mediocrity, like my beloved New York Yankees for most of the 1980s, consistently in third or fourth place in a division of seven.

All runners are at heart mediocrities, bad even when they are good.

In general, teenage distance runners have no sense of themselves as part of anything bigger, any grand tradition. During my four years of competitive running, I never subscribed to Runner’s World magazine, never learned the names of any marathoners, never aspired to do anything with my running beyond earn a varsity letter, make some friends, and maybe have a dalliance with one of the girls on the girls’ cross-country team. We were shiftless and indifferent.

So were our leaders. Sophomore year, our assistant coach was Phil Dunlop, a former standout from our high school who was now on an involuntary leave from Yale. After one season with us, he returned to conclude a legendary Yale career, which included being falsely accused by a dean of defecating publicly in a large potted plant. Glenn Glazier took over the year Dunlop left. Glazier later retired from teaching and entertained dreams of becoming an FBI agent; he now posts libertarian musings to his Facebook account. Junior year our head coach was an elite marathoner, taught a great elective on Shakespeare, and had been admired by a decade’s worth of boys she had coached, including the one whom, after his college graduation, she married.

This was the kind of information that made it very hard for fifteen-year-old boys to concentrate on a practice of fartlek speed games and repeat miles.

Smart, horny, some of us stoned some of the time: our team cultivated none of the blood-guts-and-tears machismo that characterized, say, our school’s football team, which won even less often than we did. What was it to be a cross-country runner? It was to be invisible to the rest of the school. It was to run away from school every day, through the middle-class streets of a nondescript town, nodding occasionally at townspeople, talking amongst ourselves, discussing Hamlet or fractals or Say Anything… or our coach’s legs. It was to participate in the one sport that valorizes flight rather than encounter. Runners are cowards, and cowards have a choice: they can either bulk up and become fearsome themselves, or they can learn to flee. Cross country was training in cowardice.

III. Manning Up

Michael Cera runs. He runs in Superbad, escaping the police with his friend Jonah Hill, and he runs in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, after a derelict played by Andy Samberg verbally assaults him on the steps of downtown Manhattan’s Grace Church. “You ever hook up with a dog?” Samberg asks. “Don’t. It’s not worth it.” He advances on Cera. “I like you so much.” Cera turns on his heels and takes off. “Run away,” Samberg says, looking after him wistfully, “run away, little canary....” Cera runs through the woods in Youth in Revolt, escaping his own alter ego: a cooler, more dangerous version of himself, one who wears a beret, smokes cigarettes, and is always urging him to be more sexually aggressive with the little resort-town nymph Sheeni Saunders, herself quite forward.

In Juno, Cera’s Paulie Bleeker is an actual cross-country runner. Sex happens to him only by happenstance, as the aggressive Juno MacGuff gets bored one day, orders him to disrobe, and then mounts him.

For all his running, never once is Cera chasing anybody. (The closest he comes is in Juno: just after crossing the finish line and failing to locate Juno in the stands, he runs to the hospital where Juno is giving birth.) He is never the pursuer. But then again, he is rarely the pursued. In Nick and Norah, nobody chases after him when he runs away, and in Youth in Revolt he is pursued only by a phantom, an id he cannot vanquish and is not sure he wants to. That is the essence of his running: a contest with himself, a test to see if he can become a man—if he can, to use the term of art, man up.

It is not surprising, then, that Youth in Revolt and Nick and Norah are based on young-adult novels, just as Cera’s more recent movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is based on a graphic novel. This is all art for young people trying to negotiate the path to being older people, and trying to figure out what kind of older people they want to be. Cera’s characters are always adolescing, and adolescence is nothing if not a race into time. You’ll always get to your destination, and really you are the only one who can speed up or retard the process of maturation—nobody can stop you from getting where you want to go, but nobody can help you get there, either. Like adolescents, distance runners have rivalries only with themselves. They don’t talk about beating that boy or girl nearly so much as they talk about beating their own “personal best.” They worry about starting too fast, getting winded, falling behind, sprinting to catch up. Like sexual adventuring, like deciding when to drink and when to drug, running is a series of decisions made alone, in one’s own good time. And, similarly, although one can keep running for life, it’s never quite as exhilarating as for the young.

IV. Bellyful of Borstal Slumgullion

When I was a runner—when Michael Cera was just an infant—my teammates and I had to look to other movies for heroes. In the mid-’80s, the summer before I started high school, I rented Marathon Man. Babe Levy, played by Dustin Hoffman, literally survives because he can run for miles and miles without stopping.

Running in Marathon Man is also a key part of Babe’s nerd armament. The son of a man hounded to suicide during the McCarthy era, Babe is an anonymous New Yorker with an obsessive running habit at a time when that was still a mildly eccentric pastime. (At the time the movie was filmed and set—in the ’70s—running was something between curiosity and craze. In 1977, James Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running announced the sport’s apotheosis as a true fad; seven years later, Fixx’s death by heart attack, while jogging in Vermont, furnished many skeptics with proof, however spurious, that running was in fact not so good for you after all.)

Babe is also that most socially deadly of all occupations: a graduate student. He is studying for a PhD in history at Columbia, and plans to symbolically resurrect his own history by doing research in his father’s field. One hears whispers of dramatic irony here, as Babe tries to vanquish his father’s burden while unknowingly falling victim, just as his father did, to the forces of reactionism: McCarthy killed his father, and now, it turns out, the Nazis are after the son. The elderly fugitive, Dr. Christian Szell, played by Laurence Olivier, thinks that Babe may have information about a cache of diamonds Szell stole from Jews during the war; Szell suspects that Babe may have learned something crucial from his brother, Doc, a secret government agent Szell has murdered. In one famous scene, Szell tortures Babe with dental instruments, but Babe escapes Szell’s henchmen by outrunning them, barefoot. Babe, the feckless, neurotic runner, the yeshiva bocher escaping the library to run late at night, never suspected that his nervous habit would eventually save his life.

Babe is a fictional creation, but in short order the movies were to find a real outsider Jew with a story almost as dramatic: Harold Abrahams, the Anglo-Jewish sprinter who battled anti-Semitism at school in Cambridge but won the hundred-meter race in the 1924 Olympics. In the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, a loosely truthful account of Abrahams and his Scottish teammate Eric Liddell, Abrahams incites the displeasure of his Trinity College master, played by John Gielgud, by hiring a professional trainer to help him improve his technique. This bit of cheekiness is dismissed, with a rather unveiled bigotry, as “playing the tradesman,” a move not befitting an English amateur athlete. Liddell, by contrast, crowns himself in glory when, at the Olympics, he refuses to race on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. (In real life, Abrahams converted to Roman Catholicism in 1934, a profession of faith that did not keep him from being inducted, in 1981, into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.)

In the years after I stopped running competitively, I found other runners in the movies, and they were usually antiheroes, outsiders. In Prefontaine (1997), Jared Leto plays legendary real-life runner Steve Prefontaine, who was a totally unremarkable runner his first couple years of high school, but through sheer grit muscled himself into one of the best middle- and long-distance runners ever. He died in a car accident in 1975. In The Long Run (2001), Armin Mueller-Stahl plays a South African coach who spots the running talent in a young black woman, a reluctant prodigy, as the film cliché dictates she must be.

There have been other running movies in my lifetime, like Running Brave (1983)—starring Robby Benson as Billy Mills, an American Indian who comes from nowhere to win a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics—and the underrated Without Limits (1998), also about Prefontaine’s friendship with his coach at the University of Oregon, Nike founder Bill Bowerman. But to find a movie runner with anything like the affective power of Michael Cera on a bad day, one has to look back to a character named Colin Smith, protagonist of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the 1962 film based on the 1959 novella by the English writer Alan Silitoe.

At first, Smith would seem to have nothing in common with Cera’s characters except his youth. Cera’s characters are always charming in their ineptitude. They might be temporarily led astray, even criminally, as in Youth in Revolt—and let’s not forget that Cera’s big break was a movie in which he knocks up his teenage non-girlfriend—but Cera characters are exactly the kind of people who win reprieves: from the judge, from life, from God. Colin is quite another thing: a working-class limey hoodlum who, having been caught for thieving, is serving out his term in Borstal, a reformatory. With visions of winning an annual athletic contest against a rival prison, the governor, or warden, allows Smith off grounds to train.

“You might think it a bit rare,” Smith says, in the novella, “having long-distance cross-country runners in Borstal, thinking that the first thing a long-distance cross-country runner would do when they set him loose at them fields and woods would be to run as far away from the place as he could get on a bellyful of Borstal slumgullion—but you’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why.” First, Smith says, “them bastards over us aren’t as daft as they most of the time look,” meaning that he would likely be caught, and, what’s more, “to abscond and then get caught is nothing but a mug’s game.” So he gets up at five in the morning, even when it is “raw and frosty,” shows his running permit-card to the guard, and is allowed to leave. A daily taste of freedom.

The governor gives Smith to believe that after he wins the big race, earning the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for the home team, he will be paroled early.

And now the governor talks to me when he comes on his rounds, almost as he’d talk to his prize racehorse, if he had one.

“All right, Smith?” he asks.

“Yes, sir,” I answer.

He flicks his grey moustache: “How’s the running coming along?”

“I’ve set myself to trot round the grounds after dinner just to keep my hand in, sir,” I tell him.

The pot-bellied pop-eyed bastard gets pleased at this: “Good show. I know you’ll get us that cup,” he says.

And I swear under my breath: “Like boggery, I will.” No, I won’t get them that cup, even though the stupid tash-twitching bastard has all his hopes in me.


So Smith, although happy to accept the privileges that come with his training, will refuse the grandest privilege of all, the one that would come with victory. To win for the governor would be to lose himself.

In this regard, the criminal Smith, like Paulie Bleeker, understands the truth about running, which is that since losers run, the run cannot be about winning. Even Harold Abrahams, who is intensely competitive, stands as proof that running is synecdoche for much bigger things: nobody can watch Chariots of Fire and think that it is about winning the gold, not in the way that we can watch Hoosiers and reasonably think it’s about the Indiana state basketball championship. Prefontaine would seem to be the exception here: the character believes in hard work more than in talent, and he specializes in giving reporters arrogant quips like “Let me tell you something—nobody, nobody’s gonna out-kick me.” But this ungenerosity of spirit only proves the point: to make running about winning is to betray the sport, and to become a jerk in the process. To the extent that running is about the self, it is the self nourished by solitude, not the self glorifying in narcissism. Prefontaine, at least as presented in the movie, never really gets that, and although real life does not contrive to hand us such neat moral lessons, the movie Prefontaine makes clear that an early death may be one consequence of a life so ill spent.

In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Smith leads right up to the end, when he slows up and refuses to cross the line first. He knows the governor will never forgive him; he knows that he will have to serve out his last six months, and as it happened he was punished with the meanest sorts of labor: “[He] had me carting dustbins about every morning from the big full-working kitchen to the garden-bottoms where I had to empty them…. In the evenings I scrubbed floors, miles and miles of them. But it wasn’t a bad life for six months….” As he pauses before the finish line, waiting for a prisoner from one of the other institutions to pass him and take the cup, he thinks, “As for me, the only time I’ll hit that clothes-line will be when I’m dead and a comfortable coffin’s been got ready on the other side. Until then I’m a long-distance runner, crossing country all on my own no matter how bad it feels.”

V. The Future is Past.

To be a long-distance runner, for Smith, means stopping. The runner must never run the wrong race. Running after a cheap sort of victory—a six-month reduction in time served, meted out by a loathsome despot—is foreign to the kind of boy who runs. Such a boy does not mind facelessness, ignominy, even imprisonment. He has become accustomed to those conditions, and he knows they are temporary. As surely as he will grow up, he will escape, and the future holds better things.

When I got to that future, I found that I had lost the desire to run, mostly. The urge comes, when it comes, in the fall. That is the season when the world can be too much with me, when for all my good fortune—wife, daughters, dog, job—I find myself missing that boy who was sustained by that late-afternoon fraternity of harriers, running those streets in that middle-class town. It is odd, but somehow comforting, that in this age when it is so hard to lose track even of the people we most despise, it is my beloved fellow runners who are nowhere to be found.

We were a team of outsiders waiting for our Paulie Bleeker. I think we all would have felt terrifically justified by Cera’s movies if they had been around back then. Paulie Bleeker is not quite a Jeff Spicoli figure, Sean Penn’s likeable surfer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but I am not sure I would want him to be. The majesty of the running life lies in its resistance to caricature: the cross-country team is full of eccentrics, but each is eccentric in his own way. There cannot be that one picture of “the runner” the way Spicoli gave us, for better and for worse, the indelible “surfer.” Runners aren’t like surfers, or hippies, or death-metal dudes. They are alike in that they resist alikeness. Paulie Bleeker is not calling out to us, saying, “Be like me.” Rather, he is just standing up and saying, “It’s OK not to be like anybody.”

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of a memoir, Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. He also writes about religion for the New York Times and hosts Paper Trails, a radio show about books.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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