Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The "Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" No More: Marathons and Social Worlds

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The "Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" No More: Marathons and Social Worlds

Article excerpt


"The loneliness of the long-distance runner" is a term used to describe marathon running as a solitary sport. The short story of the same name was written by Sillitoe (1959) and adapted for a 1962 film. The story focuses on Colin, a poor Nottingham teenager from a dismal home in a blue-collar area who has bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime. The boy turns to long-distance running as a means of achieving both an emotional and a physical escape from his situation. This story suggests that due to the gruelling nature of marathon or longdistance running, participants' exhibit a certain dedication to the sport that provides them with a means of separation from other aspects of life. The escape is achieved through many months of training and preparation before the actual race is held.

It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that through this dedication and physical effort, marathon runners may develop a strong identification with this type of activity. Such identification may help them to shape the way they define themselves as individuals and their resultant social identities (Axelsen & Robinson, 2009; McCarville, 2007; Shipway & Jones, 2007). Indeed, research by Shipway and Jones (2007) illustrated this point when they concluded that many marathon runners highly identify with this sport and share a unique ethos and social world.

This dedication to the sport and the unique identity that marathon runners acquire, are what Stebbins (1982) first described as serious leisure. This descriptor denoted the systematic pursuit of a leisure activity (whether amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer) by participants who find it so substantial and interesting that sometimes they launch themselves into a "career" that is centered on acquiring and expressing its special skills, knowledge, and experience (Stebbins, 1992,1997,2007).

For many serious leisure participants, their involvement in marathon running becomes so fundamental that it creates new experiences and challenges, social interaction, image enhancement and the creation of further knowledge. Thus, by using the concept of Stebbins' serious leisure, and its link with the social world construct (Unruh, 1979; 1980), this study explores and explains the sociocultural dimensions (norms, values, and social dynamics) that are associated with the worlds of marathon runners.

The key areas of research that will be considered are (a) exploring the strength of identification that participants have with the activity, (b) discovering the markers of identification for runners, and (c) improving our understanding of the process of entering the social world of this serious leisure pursuit.

Literature Review

Serious Leisure

Stebbins (1992) used the term serious leisure to describe people whose work and leisure merged together because of the need to engage in ".. .the steady pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or career volunteer activity that captivates its participants with its complexity and many challenges" (p. 53). Serious leisure is seen as a systematic pursuit, for deep satisfaction that participants find to be substantial and interesting; many devote a major part of their lives to acquiring and expressing the special skills, knowledge, and experiences of their serious leisure activity(Stebbins, 2000b). For many people, serious leisure gives them great pleasure and satisfaction as well as providing, "...personal expression, self-identity enhancement, and self-fulfilment" (Stebbins, 1992, p. 253). Integral to Stebbins' concept of serious leisure are six distinctive qualities, one of which is the production of a unique ethos and social world.

Social Worlds as an Integral Component of Serious Leisure

Unruh (1979, 1980) explained the nature of a social world, which included aspects of individual involvement, structural features, and different levels of analysis. In his research, he acknowledged the earlier works of Shibutani (1955,1961) and Strauss (1961,1978) who provided a theoretical basis for his understanding of the, "unique character of social worlds as a unit of social organization" (Unruh 1980, p. …

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