EDIT AND CLARIFICATION:
After reading the comments and tweets about this post, it is obvious that either a) I have a fundamental misunderstanding of what these running groups are about or b) I put my point so poorly that it didn't come through, or, most likely, some combination of the two. I apologize for insulting a number of running groups in Philadelphia without having adequate information. That was bad writing/blogging on my part.
So, I'm going to put a couple paragraphs at the top here, inspired by what I've heard from you all in response, to both clarify what I originally meant and, I'm not going to lie, backpedal a little bit. I want to start with a couple axioms that govern everything I think about running:
- More people running is a good thing for both because it means more people are leading healthy lives and because it increases the popularity of the sport.
- Being a runner is not at all a function of speed or ability. It is a designation given to those committed to competing with and challenging themselves to get better at running.
- This follows from the preceding two axioms: running is democratic. Anyone can do it. All you have to do is show up.
Until recently, I lived in the city of Philadelphia and, while I was there, I saw the establishment of countless neighborhood running groups. The Fishtown Beer Runners had a reputation for drawing hundreds of people to their weekly 3-5 mile runs to Philadelphia bars, so many other neighborhoods followed suit. Manayunk Running Club, Passyunk Beer Runners, Point Breeze Runners, West Philly Runners, Torresdale Runners, Philly Runners, and Southwest Center City Run Club all follow the model of going for a short run and ending with beers.
Soon, businesses started getting in on the craze. Shake Shack--a burger and milkshake joint--started Shack Track & Field and HoneyGrow--a popular salad and stir-fry lunch stop--started hg Run Club. These groups, whether they originate in the neighborhood or from a business share the same ethos of running as a social rather than competitive enterprise.
*A brief note for clarification: Of course, there are other running groups like Achilles International, Back on My Feet, and Students Run that aim to transform lives of targeted demographics through running. While some individual members of these groups use them as an opportunity to mount their moral high horses, these organizations are no doubt a positive instance of the non-competitive running group.*
Having run competitively, though relatively slowly, in both high school and college, I always approached running as a competition. Every easy run and workout were done for the sole purpose of getting faster and running as fast as I could in the next race. It was nice to run with a team to provide some company on those runs and workouts, but I didn't run just so I could spend more time with them. In fact, one of the axioms of my college team's culture was: "The track team is not a social club."
So, when I first encountered these groups while I was working at a running store in my first year out of college, they didn't make much sense to me. Why would I run 4 miles at 11-minute pace just so I could hang out with people and have a beer or two? I'll just skip the run and head straight to the bar.
For me, running was something of an exclusive club that you had to gain entrance to not necessarily by having fast times but certainly by having the dedication and drive to actually race--rather than simply participate--and constantly improve. To a large extent, that still hasn't changed.
Yet, while my stance toward running and what constitutes a runner hasn't deviated much from that semi-elitist formulation, my stance toward non-competitive running groups has softened a bit. All it took was for me to mentally reconceptualize what these running groups were about.
They aren't about the running or the beer at the end, even. These are purely social groups hiding behind the facade of fitness. As I've become further removed from college both temporally and socially, I have come to realize how hard it is to make new friends as an adult. These running groups provide the 25-40 year old demographic with a group of people that live near to them. Sure, some, maybe even most, of the people you encounter at these groups are just there to brag about their most recent Tough Mudder or Color Run, but many are there for the same reason: they want to meet people who are similar to them.
I still maintain that dubbing these organizations "running clubs" is irresponsible and false advertising in that it severely cheapens the brand of being a runner, but these groups are ok stripped of my passionate defense of running elitism. After all, it's probably better that Americans are getting their fitness socially than not getting it at all.
Yet, with the arrival of the Philadelphia Mayor's Cup, I'm once again confronted by the false pretense that these groups are actually about running or, at least, think they are about running (which is worse?). Unlike the Mayor's Cup held annually in Boston that is a legitimate race between competitive runners and semi-professional clubs (for which I would barely qualify, by the way), the Philadelphia Mayor's Cup is a series of uncertified races between these neighborhood social groups.
Just as I was becoming comfortable with running groups as slightly annoying ways to socialize, this event re-sparks my instinct to defend running as a competitive pursuit. The Philadelphia Mayor's Cup seeks to turn racing into a leisurely, social enterprise in which mediocrity and lack of dedication are rewarded with mutual back-patting. Why are they holding this event other than to reward a lack of dedication to, you know, actually running and to prop up the delusion of participants that they are actually runners? Competition is a nice word to brandy about, but it's clear that competition will not be taking place at this event.
If running groups are purely avenues for socializing and meeting new people, that's fine. Let's just not keep confusing participants and society that a couple 11 minute miles followed by a couple drinks are what running is really about.
In the comments, please share your experiences with running groups and your thoughts on their growing popularity.