[ JSS 2.1 (2012) 10–28] doi:10.1558/jss.v2i1.10
(print) ISSN 2044-0243 (online) ISSN 2044-0251
‘That is Why I Gave In to Age My Competitive Ability, but Not My Soul!’ A Spiritual Journey in Endurance Running Noora Ronkainen1 Department of Public Health, Aarhus University, Denmark and Department of Sport Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Tatiana V. Ryba2 Department of Public Health, Aarhus University, Denmark
Abstract: In this article, we explore the spiritual dimensions of endurance running. Utilizing existential psychology as our theoretical framework, we approach spirituality as a broad concept encompassing both religious and humanistic worldviews. Through the first author’s reflexive narrative and a discourse analysis of a Finnish runner’s magazine, Juoksija, this study aimed to gain a deeper understanding of how distance runners negotiate dominant discourses on sport and religion in the process of making running existentially meaningful to them. The research results suggest that spiritual aspects of running underlie, but are rarely given voice in, the performance discourse that is dominant in Finnish running culture. The spiritual and/ or existential dimensions become especially meaningful, however, when transitioning from elite-level sports. We suggest that discovering ‘spiritual running’ can be a protective element in athletic retirement, enabling runners to sustain running as a central part of their identity even after retirement from competitive sports. To highlight the fluidity of spirituality, this paper is written as a multi-voiced representation of the spiritual meaning of endurance running current in Finnish running culture(s). Keywords: spirituality; running; career transitions; identity; discourse analysis. 1. Department of Public Health, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark and Department of Sport Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Noora is a PhD student at Aarhus University. 2. Department of Public Health, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3 Lancaster Street, Sheffield, S3 8AF.
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Introduction Have you ever known anything to truly satisfy the existential itch in your mind? Nothing ever has. Nothing ever will. … What you are truly after neither has form nor is without form. It cannot be grasped or attained or obtained or conceptualized or even described. … In other words, there is nothing to get. (Hagen 2003: 26–7) This research explores the spiritual meaning given to running by Finnish endurance runners. Our article aims to show the negotiation of meaning in runners’ careers through reflexivity, analysis, interpretation and theorizing, and to deepen our understandings of the runner’s subjectivity. While we understand subjectivity as a product of cultural and historical discourses, in this paper we do not focus on the analysis of power mechanisms operating on and through running bodies. Rather we seek to explore the process of everyday meaning making, which, although positioned (Hall 1994), is also necessarily a dialogue (Chaney 2002) within one’s discourse communities (Borg 2003). ‘The unique nature of dialogic relations’ (Bakhtin 1986: 119) is foregrounded by a certain unpredictability of the process, because in each case the construction of meaning builds upon one’s sociocultural situatedness, the range of one’s available interpretive repertoire, and the ways of moving in and between the dominant and subjugated discourses. To paraphrase Bakhtin (1986: 208), in this paper we present a ‘multiplicity of independent and unmerged voices’ of Finnish runners, ‘each with equal rights and its own world [that] combine, but do not merge, into the unity’ of the running community discourse. This article is based on Noora’s MSc research, which was supervised by Tatiana.3 Noora’s voice is expressed in the first person, and the authors’ merged voices are expressed in the unified ‘we’. The textual voices from the runner’s magazine Juoksija, analysed in this study, intersect throughout the paper in the quotations with the writers’ pseudonyms attached. We begin with Noora’s reflexive narrative and then proceed with a review of literature. We subsequently discuss the study’s theoretical framework and the use of critical discourse analysis in our inquiry. Finally, we share the key findings and discuss the practical implications of the study.
3. A Master’s thesis in Sport and Exercise Psychology, University of Jyväskylä, 2011. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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Spiritual Running My own thing. (Noora) I am a runner. Running became an integral part of me during my first period as an exchange student in Prague in the winter of 2007–8. When I arrived in Prague, all my belongings could be fitted into a backpack and my knowledge of the local language was limited to fewer than 20 words. I was an active person, and enjoyed cycling, roller-blading, weight training and also a little bit of running. The limited exercise facilities in Prague were probably the initial reason I started running more. I lived in the very centre of Prague, but I could run down by the river Vltava, which was three minutes away from my dormitory. I still have vivid memories of runs down by this beautiful river, the lights of Prague castle reflecting on the water, and my footfalls on the cobblestones and the wooden blocks of the old railway bridge. At first I ran some three to four times per week, but soon I became fascinated with it and realized I did not miss the other forms of training. Running became a friend I knew and the language I understood. Moreover, it made me aware of my deeper thoughts, ideas and feelings, as well as the sensations and joys of the movement of my body. During the process I had started with my running, I was immersing myself in pneumatology, the theology of the Holy Spirit. In particular, I was affected by readings from the Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, who depicted how mystical, spiritual experience could be found in the ordinary Christian’s everyday life (Rahner 1979). As a Protestant (Lutheran) Christian, I was not very familiar with Rahner’s theology, and his writings were new and inspirational for me. Fascinated with the idea of encountering the sacred in everyday activities, I reflected upon it in my running. I became aware of how some of my runs were moments of strong presence. When running, I sensed myself and the beauty of my surroundings in dimensions not accessible during other events in my everyday living, such as a tram trip across the city. Through my running I started to discover what Rahner (1979) meant by the spiritual in the ordinary, and our blindness to the sacred and mystical in our everyday lives. After becoming a committed runner and immersing myself in western European runner culture through competitions, running groups, athletic clubs and coaching, I started to feel a vague alienation from the cultural worldviews and practices dominating these environments. Other runners were talking about performance and optimal training, not the joy and wonder of running. The dedicated observance of optimal heart rates and running distances felt contradictory to my own values and experiences of © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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running. I began this research to explore the existential and spiritual sides of running, which seemed to be silenced in the running culture(s) in which I participated. During the two-year research project I ran with runners from different nationalities in three different countries, talked with runners at races, running clubs and during training, conducted a series of conversational interviews with a Finnish religious elite runner, and experienced the joys and sorrows of a runner’s life from winning a student championship to experiencing a long-term injury. Spirituality was not the first topic in my encounters with other runners, but I found out I was not alone with my experience. Contemporary Spirituality in Finland It is definitely a higher power, everyone names it the way they want! (Pertti) Finnish language presented the first research challenge as there is no proper translation for the concept of ‘spiritual’. The two possible Finnish translations are usually understood to refer either to the psychological/mental (‘henkinen’) or to the religious (‘hengellinen’). Although most researchers argue that spirituality is contemporarily understood as something broader than religiosity (Sagan 2006; Webster 2004), in many Finnish minds it seemed to refer to institutional religion. This may reflect the long-term monopoly of Christianity over spirituality in the Western world, especially in Nordic countries, relating it directly and exclusively to religion (Robinson 2007). Discussing my research with other Finns was quite problematic because Finnish respondents often seemed to be either confused or uncomfortable to talk about spirituality. I wondered whether this was because those I spoke with had not had these experiences, or were confused by the terms I used, or simply felt that such thoughts should remain private. Despite the withdrawal of religion and spirituality from public discourse in Finland, 77.2 per cent of citizens were official members of the Protestant Lutheran Church at the end of 2011 (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland 2012). Moreover, a survey in Finland in 2000 showed that 74 per cent of Finns had individual belief in some kind of god, spirit or life-force, and this figure had not decreased since the mid-1970s (Kääriäinen et al. 2003). Even if the Finns’ reported belief in a god and the frequency of prayer was above European averages, their participation in collective religious practices was among the lowest in Europe (Niemelä 2003). This reflects well the emphasis on the individual in the Protestant tradition and © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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Luther’s teaching that the Church is not a necessary mediator between God and the individual (Buss 2000). Finnish religion is characterized by late-modern individualism and the subjective search for the meaning of life from multiple sources. This quest is oriented towards holistic wellbeing, where the physical, psychological and spiritual co-constituted the meaningful life (Kääriäinen et al. 2003). In Anglo-American discourse, where spirituality is often understood as a broad concept that encompasses humanistic dimensions (La Cour and Hvidt 2010; Walter 2002), running has become one manifestation of contemporary spirituality. In American endurance running culture these sentiments have been expressed from Christian pre-understanding (Joslin 2003; Kay 2007), but also from a secular starting point where running ‘became a proof of existence of God’ (Sheehan 1978: 230). The theme of spirituality is visible in multiple American blogs, as well as in Runner’s World, the leading American runner’s magazine. However, our observations in Finland seemed to support Walter’s (2002) suggestion that this broad discourse of spirituality might be primarily an English-speaking phenomenon. Similarly, La Cour and Hvidt (2010) assert that there is no such thing as generic spirituality; rather the experience is rooted in a discourse created in a specific cultural-linguistic context, which determines whether the person elaborates this feeling as secular, spiritual or religious. In the northern European context, where religious discourse has largely been withdrawn from public life, contemporary people might not be able to relate their experiences to either religion or spirituality. Moreover, people may think about their existence in secular, spiritual and religious terms quite simultaneously, constituting their subjectivities in flux that shift positions and fuse at different times of their lives. In our research, the challenge was to understand how running gains meaning as secular, spiritual or religious experience in Nordic athletes’ life-worlds. The Search for Meaning in an Athletic Career As an ex-athlete working in an office, I realize my mind craves running. (Timo) Reflecting back on the years of my own running career, I recognize significant shifts in my running practices and the meaning of running, which are inextricably linked to the fluidity of identity formation. These shifts, which occurred as I was moving from ‘exerciser’ to ‘runner’ to ‘athlete’, tended to cause confusion. Sport was never my career choice and only recently have I © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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constructed my athletic identity. Although I liked that I was developing as an athlete, I did not always feel at home in the competitive sport culture. The dominant discourse in this culture represented us in terms of records and training programmes. For me this was only a small part of the meaning and experience of running. The other part seemed to be silenced. From the preliminary analysis of Juoksija magazine and my discussions with fellow runners I quickly traced the importance of career stages in the meanings that were attached to running. The runners I trained with were mostly talking about their times and future goals. It was mostly mature runners who wrote and spoke about the spiritual dimension in running. Phrases such as ‘as an ex-athlete’ and ‘since I am not competing anymore’ often preceded the more existential reflections of running. Consequently, the original research objectives were expanded to an exploration of the existential meaning of running aligned with the athletic career perspective, and investigating how spirituality was connected to runners’ career stages. In a recent meta-review, Stambulova (2012) summarized the key review papers on athletes’ career development and transitions published during the past decade. In the sport psychology literature, athletic career is defined as a multi-year, voluntary, goal-oriented participation in competitive sport at any level, including local, national and international, as well as amateur and professional. Athletic careers contain a succession of stages and transitions, occurring more or less predictably (e.g. from junior to senior, or a careerending injury; Wylleman et al. 2004). A significant body of sports research has been accumulated on career transitions and, especially in the Western discourse, on athletic retirement. This research has produced descriptive and explanatory models of the athletic career, and also contributed to development of intervention models and career assistance programmes. The main focus of career research is on athletes’ resources, barriers and coping mechanisms during the transitions (Stambulova 2012). Moreover, the researchers appear to be in agreement that the prevalence of athletic identity over other social identities and roles has a significant effect on the quality of the retirement process from sports, suggesting that athletes with a strong athletic identity experience more psychological difficulties during retirement (e.g. Murphy et al. 1996; Brewer et al. 2000; Lavallee and Robinson 2007). However, there is little research on how existential aspects of sport are (re)constructed at different transitions in the course of an athletic career. Recently, a promising insight into these questions was presented by Finn and McKenna (2010), who utilized Folkman’s (2008) meaning-focused coping (MFC) model in investigating coaches’ perceptions of elite English team-sport athletes’ transitions. According to the model, in meaning-focused coping the person draws on his or her secular/spiritual/religious beliefs, © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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values and existential goals to motivate and sustain coping and wellbeing in difficult times (Folkman 2008). The study participants recurrently emphasized the value of MFC strategies and indicated that the athletes’ ability to manage meaning and fuse positive into negative situations had a significant impact on transition success (Finn and McKenna 2010). This paper contributes to the existential literature on the spiritual aspects of sport. Notably, our article offers a Nordic perspective on the issue. Since in northern Europe religious discourses differ significantly from the ones in America, we believe that the existing body of mainly American research is unlikely to represent the life-worlds of athletes in Nordic countries. As noted, there is a scarcity of research on how religious and spiritual beliefs shape the meaning and experience of Nordic athletes’ sport participation. We attempt to provide a Nordic perspective into this subject area. In addition, we aim to identify alternative discourses on running and religion that offer ways of resisting the dominant performance ethos of sport, and so potentially offer a means to safeguard athletes’ wellbeing in career transitions. Theoretical Framework The starting point of this research is the fundamental existential assumption that humans are embodied spiritual beings (Merleau-Ponty 1962; Kierkegaard 1980). While most sport psychologists may not easily accept the spiritual dimension in sport since ‘alternative, rational explanations exist’ (Crust 2006: 25), we are critical of the psychological approaches, underpinned by positivism, that fail to study psychological phenomena as grounded in the person’s life-world. The existential approach in sport psychology challenges the view of psychology as a natural science (Giorgi 1970); instead, it recognizes a spiritual dimension in personhood, and advocates a holistic view of the person as a synthesis of the body, mind and spirit (Nesti 2007). While existentialism cannot be considered a unified perspective, the universally human concern of finding a meaning to one’s being (Heidegger 1996) has been seen as a core concept in existential thinking (Webster 2004). Studying athletic careers from the existential perspective can enhance our understanding of how the search for meaning in one’s life may manifest itself in career crisis, transition, burnout, substance abuse, desire and resilience, among other psychological issues. In this study we decided to define spirituality within a broad existentialist framework, which includes both religious and humanistic worldviews (Maslow 1970; Webster 2004; Helminiak 2008). Since there is no previous research on spirituality in Finnish sport culture, we felt it was necessary © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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to be open to a wide range of experiences. For Sagan (2006: 150), the spiritual aspect of the human condition is ‘the search that each human being undertakes to find a sense of peace in one’s relationship with the universe’. In Helminiak’s (2008) framework, the spirit refers to the meaning and values by which a person lives, and the deliberate concern and engagement with these is spirituality. In the following sections, we present our analysis of how these aspects of spirituality emerged in the columns of the Finnish runner magazine Juoksija. Methodology Contextualizing Juoksija We examined the Finnish runner’s magazine Juoksija (‘the runner’) for the years 2001–10. Juoksija publishes 10 issues per year and is the only printed magazine in Finland for runners. Juoksija was founded in 1971 and is the oldest independent magazine focusing on endurance sports in Europe. The magazine covers both competitive and leisure running, and also dedicates space to seasonal endurance sports such as cross-country skiing, orienteering and cycling. The magazine uses a personalized style of narrating and has gained a reputation as the expert voice on endurance sports (Juoksija-lehti 2011). Juoksija attracts a wide audience of readers: athletes, coaches, sport professionals and leisure runners. A typical reader of the magazine was depicted as a middle-aged exerciser who, in addition to running, also practises cycling, cross-country skiing and weight training (Juoksija-lehti 2011). Over the 10-year span studied, we found a variety of data discussing spirituality, as outlined in Helminiak’s (2008) and Webster’s (2004) broad existential frameworks. These texts included editorials, interviews, columns and research-based popular articles, and discussed both competitive and leisure running. In order to tap into the personal accounts as articulated by the runner him/herself, we decided to focus on the columns, which consisted of 34 texts written by 17 different authors. The majority of the authors of these columns were male, except for three females, which also reflects the male dominance of the editorial board of the magazine. In exploring the content of the magazine it became apparent that the diversity of authors and perspectives has been increasing, which partially reflects the significant increase of the popularity of running over the last decade (Ministry of Education 2010).
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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Critical Discourse Analysis Our inquiry drew on discourse analysis as outlined by Gee (1999). In analysing the runners’ columns, we examined how language was used to create ideas or information, the inconsistencies of meaning in these constructions and what these particular accounts achieved. Although the written texts are not explicitly interactional, they are part of a discourse community (Borg 2003), and thus can be understood as dialogical in nature. The authors of the columns, as members of the Finnish discourse community, actively communicate with the readers who share goals and purposes within the discourse community (Swales 1990). Most of the texts appeared in narrative format with event sequencing and personal storytelling. However, in our analysis the focus was on examining the discourse, the institutionalized use of language that extends beyond the individual and includes a set of meanings, representations and stories that produce a particular version of events and social world (Burck 2005). Gee argues that the meaning of words is not stable but ever-changing, and modified according to the specific context of use (i.e. the situated meaning). The situated meaning is derived from (often unconscious) ‘theories’ and ‘explanations’ of the meaning of a certain word, which Gee refers to as cultural models. Furthermore, the situated meaning is not constructed in individual minds, but negotiated between people in social interactions. The producers of a text interact with readers by constructing possible subject positions within the text that offer a preferred interpretation or meaning, while undermining and excluding others (Burck 2005). It is generally acknowledged that readers, especially with similar cultural backgrounds, will derive a common interpretation of the text (Alasuutari 1995; Locke 2004). Identifying the cultural models in use in the runners’ columns enabled us to draw a picture of the runner culture(s) created in Juoksija magazine, and carefully trace the dominant discourses, as well as points of resistance to these preferred meanings. In Gee’s (1999) framework the meaning in the text is constructed through six building tasks of the language: • • • • • •
semiotic; world; activity; socio-culturally situated identity and relationship; political; and connection.
During our preliminary investigation, the significance of connection building in the language associated with athletic retirement and reflection © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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on spirituality in running became a strong theme. While active athletes were strongly drawing from the discourses of achievement and mechanisms of performance, the ageing runners may be viewed as attempting to unsettle this discourse. In their binary positioning of competitive–retired, they contrasted discourses of work and play, pursuit and experience, and doing and being, as the dominant and the silenced. Noora knew two of the columnists personally, and they identified themselves as religious persons. Moreover, three other writers referred to transcendence (a god/creator) in their columns. From the other authors, their self-identification as atheist/spiritual/religious persons remains unclear. Without sufficient information of these writers’ worldviews, we tentatively analysed their texts within the existential psychological framework of spirituality outlined earlier. Runners’ Voices The polyphony of the meaning of running is expressed through the following voices. The runners – Pekka, aged 41, and Timo, aged 32 – have been among the most successful Finnish middle- and long-distance runners in the past two decades. They have both terminated their competitive careers in sport but remain active runners. Timo also coaches. Jukka, aged 34, is a world-class orienteer who retired and worked as a coach, but after a break decided to continue his athletic career. At the time of writing his columns he was an active athlete before first retirement. Tero, aged 71, is an endurance sport enthusiast who previously ran competitively. Pertti, a lifestyle runner, has completed 100 marathons. Jouko, who has not provided any information about his background, writes a reflective column on spiritual aspects of running in Juoksija. Heikki, a sport journalist, who does not run himself, provided an alternative viewpoint. All names of runners are pseudonyms. Reflexivity Over the research period, I wrote a reflexive journal on a frequent basis, as well as an occasional running log, and I struggled to find words to describe my thoughts and experiences of running. I was running on an almost daily basis during these one and a half years, except for a break due to a stress fracture, which forced me to stop running for nine weeks. With the injury, I gained more first-hand experience of the agony and suffering that many runners go through at times when they are unable to run. I desperately missed the experience I could only access through running. When healthy and running, due to this research project, I became more aware and © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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sometimes too analytical of my own experience. The research sometimes made me lose the play and freedom of running. To get an insight into competitive running culture in Finland, I contacted one of the columnists from Juoksija magazine, whose writings were included in the research data. This top national-level runner lived in my home city, and we had a series of face-to-face conversations and e-mails in which we explored the evolvement of his running career, the meaning of running for him, the role of spirituality in his life and his experiences of competitive running in Finland. At the time of our encounters he was at a critical moment of his athletic career. His results were not improving and he was considering retirement from elite sports. It was a life situation I had not experienced, but I could feel the hardship he was going through. These meetings were crucial for the development of my understanding of the research questions, and they oriented me to investigate the relationship between spirituality and athletic career stages in the analysis of the runner’s magazine. This runner also knew personally some other writers and knew stories from their running careers; thus, his contribution was a valuable insight into the persons behind the texts. Analysis and Discussion It is the question of living; the art and poetry of movement. (Jouko) In our analysis, we detected the theme of spirituality in various contexts, described from both humanistic and religious worldviews. A strong theme of running as a connection referred to the self, the world, nature or the transcendent, depending on the writer’s existential framework. Themes of running as presence, a mystery, and a way of finding meaning and value in life may similarly be interpreted from purely humanistic frameworks. Explicitly religious wordings emerged from the texts that constructed running as the purpose and gift of Creation, and running as the nurture of the soul. Running was also depicted as the human being’s natural way of moving, a continuum of nature. Existential values in running, such as freedom, authenticity, will, hope, creativity and faith, emerged in several texts. Our central finding was a connection between discovering existential aspects in running and a decline from peak competitive performance. Although leisure runners also discussed the spiritual dimension of running, these aspects were most strongly present in the texts of those runners who had been forced to re-evaluate their running practices in athletic retirement. © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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The inevitable performance deterioration due to ageing forced competitionoriented runners at all levels to re-evaluate the meaning of running. The ex-athletes who shared their personal stories about finding spiritual meaning in running had maintained a strong runner identity after the transition and continued running despite the deterioration of their competitive abilities. For these runners, running had a value in itself beyond the outcomes attached to running in dominant sport and exercise cultures (such as good health, performance, fitness, appearance). Moreover, the themes of running as presence, freedom, ‘the loved one’, ‘my own thing’, ‘beyond rationale’ and the manifestation of a ‘rich inner world’ emerged from the ex-athletes’ columns. Running as an Object of Love I cannot say for sure at which point my relationship with running evolved into love. In the beginning, the most important aspect was the competition against other kids. A little later the focus was on testing my own limits in training and competitions. At some point, the outcomes attained through running were possibly directing my actions too much. Now I am starting to feel that the records are over on my part, unless new racing distances are introduced. The material goods no longer play a big role for me either. Despite this, this year I will probably still go out for more than 600 runs, approximately 10k each. You have a good reason to ask me why. … The answer is very simple. I just happen to be physically and mentally hooked on running. We may call it love. I’ve surely run more than 80,000 kilometres, but still I enjoy every stride. (Pekka) The athlete’s love for his sport was the central theme in Pekka’s columns. The process of how the meaning in running had shifted at different stages of his athletic career was strongly built into the language. The initial reasons for starting to run were quite different from the ones that kept him running after athletic retirement. Timo recalled from his youth how ‘at the beginning I hated running. I could not understand why it fascinated people.’ However, after his athletic retirement he discovered how he had a deep longing to run: ‘I am never going to stop running. I run, thus I am alive.’ Both Timo and Pekka had continued running, and Pekka even did speed work and strength training similar to that undertaken by active athletes. Timo also, while he had significantly downgraded his mileage, maintained that ‘for the Sunday long run you always have to go’. Thus, both runners continued to draw on © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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running subculture discourses (Allen-Collinson and Hockey 2007), and the practices used in competitive running culture continued to be significant for them. The Meaning of Soul in Human Life As a young man, and often in one’s forties and fifties, a naturally strong person feels himself to be immortal, and believes he will still keep going until he is 100 years old. In reality, everyone slows down at some point, and it is not always easy to accept that. When a runner is confronted by it, the evil elf of sport, Age, will come to him and make him choose: ‘You have five stacks in front of you. At the left there are your friends, then your health, competitive abilities, soul and in the far right the stack of your property. One of the stacks has to be cut down by more than a half. What is your choice?’ (Tero) In this story of the visit from the ‘evil elf of sport’, going over the peak of physical performance was constructed as a culmination point for existential reflection. Tero’s reflection supported the notion of performance as the dominant narrative in competitive sport (Carless and Douglas 2009), where ‘many very competitive runners would, without any consideration, throw away their friends, health and then their souls’. In this runner culture, the meaning of running culminated in striving for peak performances in races. Tero, then aged 64, wanted his readers to know that the ‘evil elf ’ would inevitably catch all runners. He was frustrated with the absence of deeper reflections in the Finnish runner culture, asserting that most runners ‘obviously do not have a faint idea of what soul means in human life’. Interestingly, two older writers used the word ‘soul’ in their columns, while it was absent from the younger runners’ writings when exploring spirituality. This might partly reflect demographic change in society where the role and visibility of religion, as well as the use of religious vocabulary, is decreasing. The Runner’s Invisible Inner Life The runner’s rich inner world was a strong theme in the texts. The rationale for running often remained hidden to others. Running in the rain, slush, wind and temperatures of –20°C in the Finnish winters was enough for others to consider these runners crazy. However, even if a run in extreme weather ‘might not develop anything other than sisu’ (a special Finnish word © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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for mental toughness), the runner still had to get to his ‘loved one’ (Pekka). Timo maintained that it was difficult to answer why, but continued to explain that, ‘there is no need to. The runner does what he does.’ Pekka and Pertti acknowledged the discourse of exercise addiction in relation to their running. For an active athlete it was culturally acceptable ‘to train the amount that the people close to you would consider insane’ (Pekka), while in his post-career years Pekka noted that significant others had frequently demonstrated a lack of understanding about his running. However, as noted in previous research findings on running addictions, this labelling of the serious runner as ‘negatively addicted’ (Leedy 2000) or ‘exercise dependent’ was transmuted to the positive, and valorized by subcultural insiders (Allen-Collinson and Hockey 2007). This was illustrated by Pekka: ‘For me personally, it is enough to be accepted by very limited circles.’ Putting the Athletic Career into Perspective Despite some criticism of the dominant sport cultures and coaching practices, both active athletes and ex-athletes constructed their participation in competitive running in profoundly positive tones. Autobiographical stories of traumatic experiences in competitive running do exist in Finnish sport literature (Vettenniemi 1994), but they were absent from the magazine. Several authors in Juoksija construct their sport participation as a means of learning important life skills and an access to experiences inaccessible in other areas of life. Timo and Pekka both maintained they had a strong competitive instinct that was satisfied in their athletic careers. However, during those careers they had also developed meanings in running that had proven significant beyond the competitive context. Timo had realized that a runner’s greatest misery was ‘not the defeat, but the situation where one is not able to run at all’. Pekka reflected on how ‘at some point the things achieved through running possibly affected my actions too much’, but he did not construct the competitive and the existential as mutually exclusive. For him the existential dimensions had developed during his active career, and had subsequently become the dominant meaning of running after the career termination. Conclusion I have a long journey ahead in searching for the runner’s wisdom. It is that deep knowledge of oneself in all levels. My stress fracture revealed © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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to me that the most important is to be able to run, to be there, no matter what the performance. Now that I have started again after the break, I get tired more quickly and the small muscles in the feet get sore from the impacts … I also sometimes feel I’ve lost the feeling of the Earth and my strides are not in harmony with the terrain. If I can get this connection back I think I will learn to run again. Others would probably call my ‘connection’ a proper running technique. (Noora’s running log, 6 February 2011) This research, which traversed runners’ writings, was also a personal journey to my own running. Exploring these texts gave me words to connect with my vague contradictory feelings concerning my runner identity. I realized how powerful the dominant discourses were in defining for us what was ‘normal’ behaviour within a specific culture and what were the ‘acceptable’ meanings. In the mainstream road running culture, runners locate and identify themselves and others with their performance (Smith 2002). This research enabled me to find alternative discourses from ex-athletes’ stories, which resisted the dominant discourses and enabled me to read critically the culture in which I participate. In the columns we analysed, the Finnish runners themselves did not define their experiences and the meaning of running as spirituality. Like La Cour and Hvidt (2010), we conclude that, in contemporary Nordic cultures, people might not relate to this concept, which in many Finnish minds refers to religion. Only a few runners interpreted their experiences within an explicitly Christian religious framework, while several talked about broader existential dimensions – which may not qualify as spirituality through a strict theological lens, but could throw light on how these runners come to understand the fundamental meaning and purpose of their lives and running. Thus, from the existential perspective on spirituality adopted in this research, we conclude that the spiritual aspects of athletes’ sporting experience should not be disregarded in the Nordic context. Our analysis revealed that the existential reflections on running mainly emerged from more mature runners and ex-athletes. Their accounts reveal running as a significant part of their existence, a cherished part of their identity, and a source of happiness and wellbeing. While career transition research has emphasized multiple non-sport-related identities as significant for successful coping (Brewer et al. 2000; Stambulova 2012), our research revealed positive experiences of transitions where sport-related identity remained central after termination of the competitive career. Our findings contribute to the missing dimensions in athletic career research, namely the significance of the inner experience and existential meaning in sporting © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
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activity, which may include a spiritual dimension for the sport participant. Our research results suggest that the spiritual dimension was a significant aspect for understanding how the runners in this study coped with their transition out of competitive sport. In order to understand how athletes go through transitions, psychologists need to understand the meaning athletes bring to their identification as an athlete and a runner. Moreover, we suggest that athletic careers in different sport subcultures might be significantly different, and psychologists should be aware of the subcultural career paths when working with retiring athletes. In accordance with Nesti (2007), we suggest that the dimension of spirituality is significantly different from sport psychological concepts of intrinsic motivation, self-confidence or achievement orientations. Our concern is that the disciplinary discourse of sport psychology, which reduces athletes’ spirituality to cognitive functions, fails to capture athletes’ lived experiences, and silences alternative discourses that consider the mystical, the transcendental and the unexplainable as meaningful dimensions of athletes’ subjectivities. Sport psychologists need to be sensitive to athletes’ own frameworks of interpretation, which may include religious and spiritual beliefs, and complex identity constructions, as well as meanings in sport that transcend the dominant cultural values. We suggest that the existential perspective is a prominent framework for exploring the critical moments of athletic careers. With the central interest on personal meaning and subjectivity, existential psychology opens up the field of sport psychology to the neglected aspect of spirituality. As a limitation, it is important to note that the texts in Juoksija were written with a certain audience in mind, and we know little about these runners’ socio-cultural situations. Thus, the content of the magazine is insufficient evidence for drawing conclusions about these runners’ overall adaptation to post-career life. While these runners mentioned the challenges and failures in their running careers, as well as in other areas of life, the overall tone in the transition stories was positive, as would be expected from a popular magazine that aims to promote running to a wide audience. In future research there is a need to explore and make visible alternative discourses in sport, such as spirituality. These alternative discourses may also enable athletes to find meaning in their sport after their performance decreases, and to go through the transition from competitive sport with less psychological distress. Since most athletes have a great number of active years ahead when they end their competitive career, we are in agreement with Tero’s suggestion ‘to give in to Age the competitive ability, but not one’s soul!’
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26 Noora Ronkainen, Tatiana V. Ryba
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