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I’m Not Curing Cancer: The Narcissism of Running

Posted by on Dec 5, 2012 | 24 Comments

Fair warning- this is going to be a somewhat disjointed post. This post is essentially about the renewed realization that what I do a runner isn’t terribly important. I shouldn’t be too excited to pat myself on the back for running any given race… there are people out there that do far more demanding things as a necessity for survival.

I recently started working as a temporary driver’s helper for UPS. The job involves helping deliver packages during the high volume holiday season. I spend my day climbing in and out of the truck and carrying packages to businesses, houses, and apartments. The packages are sometimes heavy and there are a lot of stairs. Needless to say it’s a physically demanding job. It’s like a Crossfit workout wrapped into a 6-10 hour long run… five days per week. I’m well-suited for the job because I’ve basically been training for it for years. 🙂

My driver, Eric, is an introspective and a keen observer of human behavior. We spend our days discussing a wide variety of topics. Eric is also a shop steward for our union, so he deals with employees that get injured. Since the job is so physically demanding, the injury rate is quite high.

We were discussing injuries (I was comparing the job to running). He started telling stories of workers that would hide injuries because they wanted to keep working. They were concerned about survival- this job fed their kids.

During this conversation, I began reflecting on my journey through the running world over the last six or seven years. Specifically, I started thinking about the posts I’ve written here, topics I’ve posted in forums, and comments and pictures I’ve posted on Facebook. I realized a fair amount of that activity was of the “Hey, look at me; look what I did!” variety.

And I felt deeply embarrassed.

The overt narcissism of the attention-seeking, when compared to the stories of the dudes sacrificing their health for the welfare of their families, made me cringe. I am proud of my running accomplishments; some of the races were truly difficult. At the same time, it’s just running. It’s a voluntary, manufactured adversity I created so I could congratulate myself afterward. There were no stakes. If I quit, my kids wouldn’t starve.

I haven’t had time to fully explore these feelings, but I did start to make some connections. I had a hard time verbalizing why I had no interest in running Chimera. It wasn’t just burnout… it was something else. I knew it had to do with losing the intrinsic motivation to race. Once lost, the only rationalization for running the race would be the external attention-seeking motivation- the “Look at me!” factor.”

As much as I like to joke about being an attention whore, it makes me really uncomfortable. I always managed it by mentally re-framing the attention as a teaching situation, which is the only social situation where I feel comfortable being the center of attention. This is the main reason the vast majority of my writing usually has an “instructional guide” feel to it.

Anyway, the lack of intrinsic motivation from burnout coupled with the removal of the cloak of teaching to hide behind left only one reason to run- attention. I just couldn’t do it.

The experiences of this temporary job have helped clarify that. It’s difficult to talk about running hundos in an environment where you’re reminded that there are people out there making real sacrifices. There are people busting their asses day in and day out, risking their health (and even lives in some professions) just to survive.

I’ve had the good fortune to be in a position to enjoy a comfortable life. Even as a hobo, I don’t worry about survival. My lifestyle is entirely voluntary. I intentionally manufacture my adversity, which includes my running exploits. I suspect my recent experiences will dramatically alter the frequency and tone of my discussions on my own running experiences, which is a good thing. I should have recognized the overt narcissism long ago; the vast majority of the people working to survive on a daily basis are far more deserving of accolades. Not only do they work far harder than I ever have, their stakes are infinitely higher.

Over the last seven days, I’ve been sufficiently humbled. As a runner, I’m not doing anything special. I have to start acting accordingly.



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  1. David Freese teams up with SKORA to raise money for Partners In Health
    December 14, 2012

    […] negative things to be said about our always-on, never-really-private, show-off culture. We’re narcissists, we over-promote ourselves, and we spend far too much time sharing whatever it is we’re doing […]

  2. Tyler Hurst
    December 11, 2012

    Completely disagree. Part of what makes us human is a desire to belong to small communities or tribes (whether physically, emotionally, spiritually or what have you) of shared interests with people who think the same way.

    I blog about my life and running all the time, but not because I love myself in an unhealthy way, but because that’s what interests me and I like writing about it. Readers of my stuff can either ignore what I have to say, learn from it, or, and this is often the case when it comes to running, be inspired to try new things.

    And if you’re ashamed to be yourself, then I feel pity for you.

    • Jason
      December 11, 2012

      Read my latest post. 😉

  3. Alex
    December 6, 2012

    Everything is just everything. That is, anything can be described in those sorts of terms, broken down until it means nothing. And that’s fine. Nothing really does, ultimately. We’re all going to die and our bits and pieces will break apart and be used for other odds and ends in the universe ad infinitum.

    So sure, running is just running. But it adds beauty, value and meaning to life, to the conscious experience we get before our carbon atoms decide they have better things to do.

  4. João Pedro
    December 6, 2012

    I am a reader. Never wrote a comment but heres one from another person.
    I’m always looking for “running” anyplace anywhere.
    In here i mean “articles” and thing’s that make’s me learn or run better my next run.
    Even if it’s just walking barefoot to relax.
    I’ve read some of the answers and i enjoy it.
    And i really like your reflection about yourself.
    Although we are from diferent places bla bla bla something’s may diferent but alike.
    Just like you describe the persons who are working there. What’s there challenge and obstacule?
    That’s one of the thing’s that running is doing for me.
    My life started to be directed by my running and not the other way arround.
    My life is a lot better. I now what i want from live.
    I’ve worked for the money i have bills like everyone else in this planet.
    One day my life went down because those challenges where my work.
    Nothing else matter. Work work work pay pay pay consume consume consume.
    Exercise for me was dead i was dead.
    That wasn’t me anymore. I had forgot who i was.
    Mr Jason in my opinion be thankfull for your chalenges, be thankfull for what you created, and done by yourself and with others.
    Those thing’s made you reflect about life and many others i believe.
    Reading your book is on one of my list of thing’s to do if i can.
    Now imagine those people who doesn’t live in society like we do.
    They are just simply fighting for survival or to eat.
    All of us have our challenges.
    Running is now my way of life. Make’s who i am every day.
    I correct my mistakes in life to be a better person.
    Running can be a great many deal’s of good thing’s.
    I love to see the meaning of running in diferent cultures as well. I never get tired.
    Keep’s me motivated and running.
    Best regard’s from this reader.
    I hope my english isn’t too bad 🙂

  5. MQ
    December 6, 2012

    Blogging about narcissism is like having a tantrum about immaturity, screaming about anger, crying about “hysteria”…

    • Bare Lee
      December 6, 2012


      • Steve
        December 8, 2012

        Also like

  6. Rob Y
    December 6, 2012

    True running isn’t going to cure cancer but if everybody took some time out of their day to focus on themselves; go for a run, blow off some steam I honestly think this world would be a much better place! People are so focused on work, family, etc… (and rightly so) that I think quite often they put their own health at risk by forgetting their own needs. I think a huge part of what individuals need is time to exercise, to stay somewhat fit and have a small moment to reflect and have some personal time. That is why I champion and celebrate running; not because of what events I’ve finished or have planned to do; but I’m demonstrating that it’s important to do some things for yourself every now and then! We only get one shot at this short life so do some Epic $hit!

  7. Bare Lee
    December 6, 2012

    You do the attention-seeking well enough to get people to actually read your blog, so I say stick with what you know and do well.

  8. chris donkey
    December 6, 2012

    If you enjoy it and want to spread the word of your enjoyment – do so. If you dont – dont. Sometimes we can over analyse.

  9. Ed Ettinghausen
    December 6, 2012

    You nailed it Jason. Thanks for making us think a bit about perspective. You’re right, it’s just running.

  10. Shel
    December 5, 2012

    You’re a stand up guy, Robillard. This is a full circle moment that I hope all ultra runners and adventurers get to have. When I got here, I was deeply ashamed for myself too, and now if I race it is quietly. I do not write reports or tell people about it. I go for fun, and I can have equal fun making up my own adventures or not racing it all. Running does not make you a valuable human being, but being a guy who can step back and appreciate others, and the truth, does. Keep enjoying life and keep that gratitude alive! Happy holidays

  11. Ben W
    December 5, 2012

    You are right, Jason. Running is not that important. But, it is not nothing. Running somehow does something for people that is important.

    You have been able to communicate that.

    Your site, and your general presence on the web, has done something more important. You have helped draw people together.

    Your writing gives people like me perspective. I am not stuck listening to d*cks who think they know everything.

    Your posts don’t communicate narcissism. Maybe you suffer from that, but it sure doesn’t seem like it.

    When you write about running, I see someone I could become, if I worked my ass off. I like that. When I read about some others, I think….no way. Why even bother.

    So, I think you give people like me some hope. Hope that I can do more than I realize. Whatever direction you decide to take, more power to you.

    But, it seems like you are beating up a straw man in this post, not Jason Robillard as I have read him. Cheers : )

  12. Are Ultrarunners Narcissistic and Self-Centered? « Vanessa Runs
    December 5, 2012

    […] Read Jason’s post about The Narcissism of Running. […]

  13. niki_in_france
    December 5, 2012

    I’m a bit drunk and probably shouldn’t comment but… I think we as humans are sometimes victims of our ability to adjust to just about anything. Put us in a difficult, even abusive, situation and that becomes our ‘normal’. Also we compare ourselves to our peers, not to people in general.

    Running is awesome, running races is more awesome. You, Jason Robillard, are truly awesome!

    Then again so are people who cure cancer. And I bet there are cancer curers out there who come home after a long day in the lab and watch the marathon on telly and think, I am a lazy little shit, I can could never do anything like that. Am I making any sense?

    I think the trick is to keep perspective AND at the same time realize how amazingly uniquely unrepeatably awesome you are!

    Reminds me of a quote I love from Niels Bohr “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

  14. John
    December 5, 2012

    Jason, I’ve been following you for awhile. I enjoy your posts and you’re usually spot on. This is one of my favorites. As a working man(Navy) and ultrarunner it can be tough to balance both sides. Overall, I think being a runner ultimately makes us more humble and human, however, sometimes we take it too far. Reminds me of that post that went something along the lines of “being a runner doesn’t make you Mother Theresa”. It’s great that we run, however, we don’t need to wear it on our sleeves, etc. It’s a great thing to do and quite an accomplishment on a daily basis but should not be bandied about to inflate ego and reputation, etc. I believe that just being a distance runner and living the accompanied lifestyle should be enough of an example without trumping it up. That said, most of us are guilty of said narcissism onceit in awhile so don’t be too hard on yourself.

  15. Dave
    December 5, 2012

    Don’t beat yourself up Jason! You are correct to say “It’s just running” and I guess in the big picture it doesn’t really matter that much. Really, any discussion of topics beyond that which keep us alive are superfluous. I really don’t want to read a blog about shelter and gathering food though. Well, maybe hunter-gatherer dot com, but that’s it.

    It is the superfluous which entertains and can even educate us. Serious topics can be tiring and downbeat – not much fun to read. Hence they won’t be read. Keeping it light and self-effacing, you can tell a tale of hardship and redemption (e.g. during a race) and give inspiration to people in similarly difficult (but less frivolous) situations.

    As for your fear of coming across as a chest-beating douche, I wouldn’t worry. Take your WS100 race report; it was obvious that you were very proud of your accomplishment. But you have made it abundantly clear that you are no Olympian, and are not afraid to give the blow-by-blow when races go horribly wrong.

    If you have some good ideas on how to achieve world peace, climate stability, equitable food access, and world-wide happiness, feel free to post them. But in the meantime, I really am interested to hear about your latest barefoot trail race in a Batman costume.

  16. Jen
    December 5, 2012

    Really enjoyed this, Jason. A lot of food for thought, and like Army Amy, I think the term “manufactured adversity” is quite apt.

  17. Army Amy*
    December 5, 2012

    I like the way you describe racing as “manufactured adversity.” I was thinking about that during a race earlier in the year but not quite in those terms. “Why am I running? I could just stop. This is so silly.” But I kept on running.

    I think you are right that running achievements (as fantastic as they may be) should be kept in perspective. My husband is a soldier and spent the last year deployed in Afghanistan. That year helped me put things in perspective. Running is something I do to de-stress, to have fun, to be proud of myself, but it isn’t, as you say, curing cancer. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it or be proud of ourselves. (My husband encouraged me and was my biggest cheerleader during my running exploits.) We can show our thankfulness for what we do have by taking advantage of our opportunities and making the most of it.

    Great post!*

  18. Erskien Lenier
    December 5, 2012

    Best post you’ve done so far! People ask why I rarely post about my exploits over the 85-150 miles per week I run every week… What they don’t know is that a part of why I run so much is so my family can have food on the table as I have never been able to pull down enough money to stay ahead of what’s needed month to month consistently in the consulting work I’ve done for both the high end bicycle road racing and high end automotive industry for decades to feed and shelter my family of 5 plus 3 small dogs. Running leaves our car in the garage not sucking food and rent money and leaving enough for the incidentals needed by the kids and wife that I can’t see but she does day to day. The hard part for me is I’ve always wanted to be in a position to help others financially as I know and meet so many that are being gutted by this season in life. That’s a large part of why I adopted things like the mobile phone business as an add on that can both help us and those falling through the cracks. My running serves mainly as a way to commute to my office. My weekend runs are for sanity’s sake… to get away from the concrete jungle and auto exhaust 5 days in a row…

  19. trissa
    December 5, 2012

    This is, by far, the most “educational” article you have written…because it involves our humanity and ultimately, how we treat one another. Thank you in buckets for being real.