Feb 22

Marathoning with McLuhan

Date: Saturday, February 18th

Location: Myrtle Beach, SC

Event: Dasani Half-Marathon

17 months ago I started running as a way of manage stress. What began as a bucket list challenge has morphed into an addiction. Last Saturday, I completed my second half marathon in Myrtle Beach, SC, giving myself a weekend off from work and graduate school. I worked hard prior to the trip, so I could leave behind grading, memos, projects and deadlines. Somewhere around mile 7 of 13.1, I started running with Marshall McLuhan. He wasn’t physically running the race with the other 7000+ runners; instead, his ideas from Understanding Media dominated my thoughts. I started seeing our race as a UM project, media as an extension of man. Consider this post a series of moments when I became aware of our extended presence.


re: clocks –> From our division of time into uniform, visualizable units comes our sense of duration and our impatience when we cannot endure the delay between events” (McLuhan, 2011, 199)

Thousands of people stand in line at a start line at 6:29am on a Saturday morning, waiting for the moment when a sound indicates it is TIME to start the race. We were at least 3 minutes from the starting line, so when we heard the gun go off, we stood still for a minute. Slowly a group started to jog, then we stopped, jogged again, and stopped. The first attempt was met with laughter and comments, “just kidding,” but later attempts to start were met with sighs, grunts, and frustrated attempts to get around the person in front of you. Even with chip timing, which starts your race time once you cross the start and ends at the finish, we could not endure the three minutes it took us to reach the beginning of the race.


“Literacy is itself an abstract asceticism that prepares the way for endless patterns of privation in the human community. With universal literacy, time can take on the character of an enclosed or pictorial space that can be divided or subdivided” (McLuhan, 2011, 207)

Timex Ironman GPS Run Trainer cc image REI

A race course is littered with visuals that segment activity into TIMEd increments. Runners wear watches, many highly advanced. Recently, my husband and I purchased a Timex Ironman GPS that provides detailed data about our: total time, calories burned, elevation, total ascent and descent, altitude, best pace, average pace, max speed, average speed, and distance. Imagine what McLuhan would think of this kind of subdivision. At any moment, we’re able to look at my left wrist (yes, I wear the watch) and enclose and characterize our experience. Around mile 3, crowds were screaming so loudly that I missed a beep notification. I looked down expecting to see a different set of numbers on the watch and was momentarily disoriented by a different display. Throughout the race, beeps of various pitches and duration indicated other TIME-hungry runners nearby. We laughed as we confused our beeps with one another. Still, instead of listening to our bodies to determine how we felt and were doing, we cling tightly to our watch and its ability to tell us how we are doing.


“Clothing, as an extension of the skin, can be seen both as a heat-control mechanism and as a means of defining the self socially” (McLuhan, 2011, 163)


Running Gear, an Extension of Man and Marker of Social Identity

T-shirt from Zazzle.com

CLOTHING or gear, as runners call it, is a market that greeted runners at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. Walking into the massive hall, runners first passed racks of jerseys, long-sleeved and short, shorts and tights, hats, sunglasses, and even metallic sweat hair bands. The message of this medium is, “Wanna be a runner? Look like a runner.” The longer I run, the more running-CLOTHING I acquire. Initially, I was comfortable running in any, old T-shirt. Later, I started getting dry-wicking shirts that were fitted and sleek. Although some features, like sweat-wicking socks, are nice to prevent blisters, they are not essential. Running gear becomes a way of outwardly defining yourself as a runner. Message: I’m no longer a newbie. I know what I’m doing now.


“With the photograph, in the same way, men had discovered how to make visual reports without syntax” (McLuhan, 2011, 258).

Perhaps the most shocking thing I witnessed during the marathon was the presence of Smart Phones. I’m all for ubiquitous computing…heck, I’m one of the most mediated people I know. But texting while running? I’m certain that this cannot be safe with 7000+ sharing a two-line section of pavement through a commercialized city. (Last summer, I walked into a glass wall just walking and texting in BAL.) Yet, runners were doing it. One woman stopped around mile 8 to take a picture of the surf in a brief respite between oversized hotel buildings. And many runners used their camera phones to take a picture of the finish line while they strolled through plastic walls of the final stretch. The need to chronicle that they did, indeed, finish a marathon/half-marathon became greater than the need for an unmediated experience at their finish line.


“The power of radio to involve people in depth is manifested in its use during homework by youngsters and by many other people who carry transistor sets in order to provide a private world for themselves amidst crowds” (McLuhan, 2011, 400).

Message appearing on the Myrtle Beach Marathon Site

Message appearing on the Myrtle Beach Marathon Site

The above message appeared on the Myrtle Beach Marathon Website, indicating that runners should not have been using headphones or iPods. Hmm…I can witness that many failed to read this tiny print. I was surrounded by white wires and shouting-over-their-too-loud-volume runners. Somewhere around mile eight, I heard one woman mention to another, “We only have like seven more songs. I’m so glad. I hate when we start, and we have thirty songs. That’s so long.” I smiled at both her attempt to quantify TIME with NUMBERS (seven songs) and her use of music to drown out the experience of running a race. McLuhan talks about the radio as a way of providing a private world while in a crowd. iPod use strikes me as an attempt to do just that, to drown out the crowds of people while numbing oneself to the grueling task of running 13.1 or 26.2 miles at a time.


“‘The most valuable thing in classical mathematic…is its proposition that number is the essence of all things perceptible to the senses’ ” (Spengler, qtd in McLuhan, 2011, p152)

At this stage in my running career (Caution, McLuhan says, compartmentalizing makes this work), I consider any finish a success. More recently, my goals have been “run across the finish line, instead of limping” or “be able to walk later that day.” For runners, though, NUMBERS matter. If you tell a runner, “I ran a half.” He/she will say, “what was your time?” After my first half, I wanted to scream when I heard that. “What?!?!?” I thought, “I ran a half marathon. Who cares?” Over the next twelve months, I succumbed to the pressure, making pace time goals and finish time goals. Those NUMBERS become part of a sophisticated ranking system in running that involves: order, age groups w/orders, pacing guides, personal records. They become a way that runners can perceive and sense their presence and the presence of others in a literate, running culture. Ironically, NUMBERS also become a way of numbing presence for the runner. NUMBERS afford a ranking system that can make accomplishments seem miniscule in comparison.

Image of us running around Mile 6 of Myrtle Beach Half Marathon

cc image Aunt Sandy



McLuhan, M. (2011) Understanding media: the extensions of man.Critical edition. Ed. by Terrence Gordon. Gingko Press: Berkeley, CA. Print.


1 comment

  1. Susanne Nobles

    Such great connections here! The idea of time particularly strikes me. I choose not to wear a watch all summer because i feel so time-bound during the year teaching at a high school where I have to be in a room at an exact time to start a class … even if what i really need to be doing is going to the bathroom! I would love to live in a world before we made time a medium, and I try to create that world for myself each summer. (Of course, my husband always wears a watch, so I can ask him for the time :))

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