Lifestyle02 Jun 2021

The Athletic Life: one degree of separation and a few strides of familiarity


Runners (© Christel Saneh)

Kate CarterWhatever their background, age or speed, runners are always on the same side. Does any other sport really have such a sense of community, or common experience?

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


There are about 7.6 billion people on the planet, yet the theory runs that no two people need scan through a chain of more than six social connections before they find a common one.

Back in 2008, Microsoft researchers decided to investigate how true this rather implausible-sounding theory really was. Using billions upon billions of electronic messages, they worked out that any two random people in the world really are apart by only six degrees of separation. Or, to be more precise, 6.6 degrees. After all, who doesn’t have 0.6 of a friend?

Today, however, I can exclusively reveal my own study – peer-reviewed by 0.6 of my friends – which proves conclusively that any two runners, anywhere in the world, will find a common connection in less than three steps.

OK, so the evidence I put forward is more anecdotal than an entire conference on folk tales, but every time I put it to the test it holds true. If you’ve ever found yourself somewhere far from home and fallen into conversation with a fellow runner – whether at the start line of an overseas race, in a hotel gym, or on public transport where you find yourself sitting next to someone sporting a familiar race T-shirt – you’ll know the phenomenon well. Within a few minutes, you’ll find they’ve met someone at your running club, you know a few of their running buddies, or you actually finished within about two seconds of each other in a marathon one time. Come to think of it, you had thought they looked familiar, maybe it was from one of your race photos?

Running is near-magical for forging connections and common ground. Two runners together will never suffer from lack of conversation even if, on paper, they have absolutely nothing in common, were born in different hemispheres and are generations apart in age. Because runners can always talk about running. It’s getting us to stop that’s usually the problem.

Does any other sport really have such a sense of community, or common experience? The most popular sport on the planet might be football, or it might be cricket, or perhaps it’s basketball, but with all those sports comes rivalries, or tribalisms – a sense that you can all too easily be on a different side of a line. With running, we are all, always, on the same side of the line.

Perhaps it’s simply because we are all almost entirely only competitive against ourselves and a clock, so regardless of what the clock tells us, we really do feel that we are in it together. One person might take a few minutes more to get round a particular race or run, but it’s the same course, the same weather, the same hills to slog up or the same sun that beats down on us. That’s enough for a profound sense of camaraderie, no matter what the individual result may say.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in parkrun, where the community element is infinitely stronger than any individual performance would ever be. If you start talking parkrun with another runner, it’s almost always to talk about how friendly it is, or how good the cafe next to the finish is, or what a beautiful loop it is – it’s almost impolite to ask how long it took someone to do it – and who, really, cares anyway?

Then there are bonds forged in races, or on long runs. If a friend paces you to a PB, or supports you round your furthest distance so far, there’s a deep sense of gratitude that goes beyond the expected. Even just going through the same experience – a particularly horrible course or a day when the weather tests you all severely with freezing rain or boiling sun. Whenever that race is mentioned again between the participants, they will get a distant look in their eyes, and nod at each other, like world-weary veterans remembering a long-ago campaign.

But it’s also just very simply about sharing a love for something that makes us feel better. All runners know that there are few things (injuries aside) that can’t be made better by a run, and are often keen to spread the joy to others, like running apostles. In fact, given that today’s Neilsen research finds that four in 10 people consider themselves to be runners, it makes me wonder why this planet seems to be full of people who don’t get on. I mean honestly, has anyone considered just getting the United Nations to host round tables where hostile participants are only allowed to discuss running?

I’m not claiming that running could create world peace but … well actually, I think I might be. The combination of the magic of common connections, plus the endorphins – surely it wouldn’t be a bad place to start.