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Running as Ritual: Runner and Professor of Sociology Andrew Roth Combines Sport and Research While Running 100-Mile Ultra-Marathons

In a unique combination of hobby and research Andrew Roth, a visiting professor of sociology at Pomona College and long-time Claremont resident, draws on his own experience running ultra-marathons (completing 34, ranging in distance from 50km [31.1 miles] to 100-miles) to study the 100-mile distance run as a kind of "rite of passage.

In early November, Roth finished 10th overall in a 100-mile ultra-marathon in the Sonoran Desert outside of Phoenix. That’s right: 100 miles on foot. He did it in 22 hours, 40 minutes, and 10 seconds.

Being open to what it’s like to be in your own body, says Roth, is for him the link between his passion for running and his academic research. Citing sociologist Emile Durkheim, Roth notes that since running is both a sensory experience and a social one, it can be studied as ritual.

After running the Javelina-100, Roth presented his findings on the act of running as ritual, in a talk entitled “100-Mile Ultra-marathons as Ritual: Insights from Durkheim, Van Gennep and Turner,” to the UCLA class Self & Society taught by Professor of Sociology Linda Van Leuven.

“Rituals,” says Roth, “act on the body to affect the soul, and second, that in order to be effective rituals must bring together groups of people, who in coming together affirm their individual identity as members of the group and collectively as constituting a group.

“Van Gennep is famous for analyzing rites of passage in terms of three stages - separation, transition, and incorporation. I propose that 100-mile races (and ultras in general) are a kind of rite of passage and that they can be analyzed in terms of these three stages.

“Victor Turner, an anthropologist, talks about how initiates and other ritual participants are "liminal" figures -- they fall "betwixt and between" the ordinary, normative social roles of the society or group to which they belong. I draw on a variety of examples from running to show how, in long ultras, the runner is a sort of liminal figure.”

“My most important point is fundamentally sociological: At a race like the Javelina 100, there are individual runners. However, for each official competitor, there is a web of social relations that allow her or him to run.”

For Roth, the Javelina-100 is his reward for a lifetime of hard work. He started running with his father, CMC Professor John Roth, a 1962 graduate of Pomona, on a daily five-mile run. “I’d actually run a shorter loop than my dad,” says the younger Roth, “but I thought of it as training for baseball, which was my sport back then.” It wasn't until he entered Claremont High School a few years later, that he discovered a love for running.

Roth talks about “flow” in running: the idea that competition is not in beating someone else, but in understanding that your competitors bring out the best in you and that you do the same for them.

“That’s one of the things that makes running a very social event,” Roth says. It’s in this idea that Roth’s passion for running crosses into his life as a sociology professor. He has made an art of balancing his love of running with his love of teaching and research.

“My understanding of running and participating in ultra-marathons is informed by my background in sociology,” says Roth, explaining that the common sense view of the sport is that there’s one person running, and this leads to all the clichés of the “lone” long distance runner.

“But in a run like the Javelina-100, while there’s one person running, many people are making that run possible. It’s very social.” In that desert course, he says, for example, runners are with other people a lot of the time. They follow a 15-mile loop in one direction, then turn around and run it in the other until they’ve covered the 100 miles.

“You’re always passing and cheering people on all day long and into the night,” says Roth. “People are supporting you all along--either at the race or in the months leading up to it.” His wife, Liz, was his crew at the aid stations along the race course, providing a change of clothes, water, food, encouragement, or whatever else he needed.

“Running itself and especially doing 100 miles is an intense sensory experience,” says Roth. “It requires a lot of cerebral planning and thinking, but at some point it becomes purely a bodily experience. When you run that long, you cast off a lot of incidental things and you whittle it down to the very basic thoughts, aims and experiences so that all you want to do is get to the next aid station or keep your fluids up.”

At Pomona College, Professor Roth teaches Introduction to Sociology, Environmental Sociology, Sociology of Documentary Film, Qualitative Research Methods, and Sociology of Mass Media. He is currently working a paper connecting his experience on the relationship between running and racing, and teaching sociology. When complete it will be a chapter in a book that he and Linda Van Leuven are co-editing on the topic of the body in academia. "The contributors to the book will all write about how their experience of their own body affects their classroom teaching."

Roth, who earned his Ph.D. from UCLA, spends his free time sharing his expertise and passion for running with students at CHS, where he periodically serves as Assistant Coach for the cross country teams.