Not long ago, Runner’s World published a story I wrote for them: “11 Celebs We Seriously Wish Would Start Running (or Come Out as Runners).” You will not be surprised to learn this was 100 percent pure clickbait. The theory was, people on the internet — Facebook users and newsletter recipients who care about running and fame, which is everybody, right? — would see the headline and a photo (Aziz Ansari, maybe, or Shonda Rhimes) and click onto and through the story before they even realized what they were doing. And then, somewhere along the way, profit.
Clearly, it worked! Runner’s World remains operational. Celebrity sells. (Who knew?) But what I really want you to know is that, as shameless as it was, the story came from a pure place. Which is:
One day, not too many weeks ago, I was watching the second season of Master of None, the Netflix series in which Aziz Ansari and friends explore life, love, and the pursuit of pasta in New York City. Somewhere in episode 9 — “Amarsi Un Po” — I was struck by Ansari’s physicality. He’s short, skinny, and so full of energy that I thought, "Damn, I bet he’d be a good runner!” And just like that, a story pitch was born.
But as I began writing, casting about for appropriate celebrities to include (Elon Musk? Benedict Cumberbatch? Is there a politician no one hates?), I kept asking myself: Why? Why are we so fascinated by celebrities who run?
Part of it, obviously, is that we human beings are just fascinated by celebrities in general. So if we see a big name, like comedian Kevin Hart, on the cover of Runner’s World, we’re probably more likely to buy, or subscribe to, the magazine. And even if we see a lesser light, like composer John Adams or Lego artist Nathan Sawaya, featured in the RW web column “I’m a Runner,” a certain set of us will recognize the name and click out of curiosity. Featuring celebrities is a commercial calculus that’s so established it’s almost never doubted — the only question for publishers being how much or little of it to do.
I don’t know where RW stands on the too much/little spectrum, and I’m not sure it matters much. What I’m more curious about is the origin of our own running-reader curiosity: Why does this work? Why, apart from some hardwiring that only a neuroscientist can explain, do we care at all? What do we get out of reading these stories? Guess what — I have some hypotheses!
Competition: For some of us, finding out that a celebrity runs is just the first step. Immediately, we want to know: Are they faster than us? Slower? Do they run longer races, or any races at all? If they’re better — stronger, tougher, faster — we can experience some righteous jealousy. If they’re not, well, then we’ve got one up on them — fame and fortune are no substitute for disciplined training and/or natural talent! And if we’re about the same, then hey, check it out, we’ve got something in common with Michael Fassbender.
Thing is, those reactions are but momentary blips. I don’t know that they’re enough to sustain broad-based interest in celebrity runners, especially because, if you have any level of maturity, comparing your performance to that of anyone else, celebrity or otherwise, gets old quickly. It just doesn’t matter.
Proximity: When I started wishing Aziz Ansari would run, I had to admit that part of me imagined crossing paths with him one morning in Prospect Park, where I run at least a few days a week. But what then? Aside from the jolt of seeing an actual celebrity in the flesh (huffing and puffing or gliding effortlessly?), not much would happen. Maybe we’d nod at each other, me recognizing him, him acknowledging a fan. And that’s it. We wouldn’t become running buddies, we wouldn’t pace each other or challenge each other; we would just go on with our respective runs, he would forget about me, and I would probably report the sighting back to my wife.
Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe Ansari — or Adrian Grenier or Kristen Schaal or one of the other celebrities who allegedly run regularly in Prospect Park — would actually be seeking out a running partner. I mean, it’s gotta be tough when you’re famous to find someone (rather than hire someone) with whom you can engage in regular activities like running in the park. Maybe a newcomer like Ansari would want the advice of a slightly more experienced runner like me? Maybe celebrities’ lives are frustratingly closed off, and they crave the ability to forge new friendships with civilians?
Ha ha. No. That’s ridiculous.
Normalcy: As big as running is, it’s also still a bit weird. Sure, 17 million people finished races in the U.S. in 2015, and as many as 64 million went jogging in the spring of 2016, but to be a runner is to do things that most people would prefer not to: Get up before dawn; go out in the rain; go out in a blizzard; change into a singlet and skimpy shorts at the office so you can make the biweekly 7 p.m. 5K; forget to rub anti-chafing cream on your nipples, run them raw, scream in the shower as the salt from your sweat flows into the wound, and find the whole excruciating process strangely satisfying.
And so the idea that celebrities — those people whose lives we wish we had, whose public images are the very definition of the mainstream — might engage in the very same bizarre behavior makes our own weirdness seem slightly more normal. Maybe Heidi Klum has earned a black toenail or two from long runs up and down the west side of Manhattan. Maybe Reese Witherspoon yowls in delicious pain every time her IT band connects with her Trigger Point foam roller. Maybe Shia LaBeouf maps out public restrooms — you know, just in case — for a 15-miler across Los Angeles. The miseries, the inconveniences, the fashion faux pas — all are okay if we can point to an A-lister who opts in as well, right?
But maybe weirdest of all is that we runners willingly spend enormous amounts of time alone. Americans are lonely enough as it is, but we go out, several times a week, and spend 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, more, on our own. We may listen to music or podcasts or the rumble of car traffic or the hollow knock of red-bellied woodpeckers hunting for food, and we may be diligently working every part of our bodies—lungs and legs, heart and arms, toes and hips—but we remain wrapped up in our heads. Alone with our thoughts. Running, but also just being. The world goes away, our machinelike bodies themselves can fade into the background, and all that’s left is the mind, the indivisible soul, disconnected from its environment, its community. I run, therefore I think, therefore I am. Who chooses that? Who chooses to engage in an activity that is the purest form of self-isolation?
It’s not that celebrity runners normalize that choice. It’s simply nice to imagine that, no matter how famous you are, you can also still engage in self-abnegation. You can be the most recognizable face on the planet, and still seek comfort and satisfaction in the company of your own mind, with an audience of zero (excluding paparazzi, of course). And we, we hideous, unknown mortals, don’t become more like celebrities because they make that choice — it’s they who become more like us. (That might even be a thing!) Or really, we all become the same, we all acknowledge what non-runners have yet to learn: that everyone has access to this pathway to temporary enlightenment, and that the journey there begins with just a few quick steps.
So! The next time you click a link because you see Ellie Goulding in Nike gear (or Justin Trudeau in very short shorts), or pick up a magazine because you vaguely recognize the comedian on its cover, you may absolve yourself of guilt over any imagined superficiality. You are not a fame whore. You are a runner, and you understand that what connects us all is not box-office receipts or Grammy nods but the beating of our hearts, the breath in our lungs, and the ache in our thighs. What are fame and fortune when we’ve got running shoes and the open road ahead? Plus, you could totally house them in a 5K.