Surf culture has a distinct set of rules that govern the pecking order at lineups, where groms (new surfers) and kooks (bad surfers), not to mention non-locals, give way to all those not situated in such categories. Even among those non-grom, non-kook locals, a recognition of respect and, therefore, wave permission succession is given to the surfers who have accumulated the most time in the water (over years, not the day), developed the skills to make the most of each wave, and a hefty dose of straight aggressive posturing no doubt. From my landlocked understanding, you simply don’t drop down the face of a wave without the express, if not verbal, permission of those around you. It’s not necessarily a “fair” and “just” setup by the way pure egalitarians view such concepts, but culture itself isn’t predicated upon fairness and justice. It’s about what works for those residing in the boundary waters of said culture, fairness as it’s victim.
The specifics of surf lineup culture are somewhat understandable, in regards to eschewing fairness for a functional process. Waves themselves, being a permanent resource in the long term, but a resource of scarcity in the moment, lend to a cut throat sense of immediacy, of blood in the water panic, of extreme fear of missing out for all hoping to catch a wave that THIS TIME JUST MIGHT BE THE PERFECT WAVE. Get barreled. See the future. Look god in the face.
Twenty surfers floating in a limitless flood of water, but positioned JUST SO for optimal chances at ONE WAVE, over and over again. The possibilities do end. So each surfer sits in the lineup, searching for the least crowded sets, the algorithim of best waves situated during extreme times of days where most are working, asleep, or otherwise not in the water. Otherwise, the pecking order cascades down upon them until they sit trying to reconcile the functional processes of culture with the sheer luck of an unexpected perfect wave rolling through exactly when their lottery numbers are pulled.
It’s an ugly way of working out scarcity economics, but it does work, if sometimes a bit violently. At special breaks, the establishment of pecking order leaves the water and asserts itself in parking lots and as far inland as necessary to keep local liquid utopias uncrowded and tribal. Coordination to keep out non-locals entails walkie-talkie communications, knives in tires, looks that kill or at least threaten to do so. The dry land stereotype of dirty haired surfers too brain-soaked with ocean to think clearly gives way to military coordinated lawyers and foot soldier extremists hell-bent on solidifying the culture of lineup privilege through waves of violence separated by lulls of intimidation.
The end result is a functional culture, not so much pretty, or fair or just, but functional no less. To outsiders, notably the solid-footed of us, standing on ground high above sea level, on high-horses as such, our perspectives are viewed through the lenses of morality. We are anthropological amateurs, imposing impractical morality upon functional processes. And yet, we have our own cultures marred by their own imperfect forms of process, give or take degrees of severity.
Running culture, fortunately, doesn’t bring to mind such stark divisions or necessary permissions doled out sparingly, for our resources to partake truly are endless, in so far as the land runs to the water’s edge. There is no jockeying for access to the best trails, the clearest rail-trails, the hilliest road. The ground is accessible to all, by all. Admittedly, race entries to huge marathons sometimes necessitate an actual lottery system to keep resources manageable, but in comparison to the organic wave created culture of surfing, this is an institutionalized necessity and not an athlete established agreement. Maybe the most similar example that comes to mind is a pecking order at workout starting lines, where the ones who go furthest the fastest find themselves up front, toes on the line, after other runners parted the way for them to be there. This is less a cultural agreement, however, and more a physical necessity for everyone to find their way forward without the risk of tripping over legs not spinning as quick. The bottom line is that runners simply don’t vibe each other, if only because the needs to vibe each other off the road, out of the workout, back to the trailhead parking lot don’t exist. The running pursuit exists more in the limitless resource within our bodies than in any shared external object. We are free to run as individuals, by our own rules, rather than the demands of culture, of gathered beings, working things out between each other.
With all that said, let me pose one cultural proposition, one boundary of behavior…one wave to catch. It is this.
When I am sick, physically and psychically broken, and unequivocally unable to run….no one else is allowed to run either.
I know, it seems harsh. It seems unfair. Unjust even. But isn’t that the crux of culture? This unfairness, doesn’t it define us as a group, if so flawed and absurd in our own special way? What is a culture of runners if we can’t point to our ridiculous notions and say, “This. THIS ridiculous thing we do is what really draws a line between us and you.” If we must draw that line, and if no one else will propose a line of their own, then I say this line shall be drawn the moment I feel a sore throat and achy skin and opt to not tie on my shoes and head out the door and down the street.
It’s horrible really, wanting so badly to run, NEEDING to run even, but not being able to do so, and then even worse, watching a healthy specimen of an athlete bound down the street with a fluid grace, a perfect snapshot of right angles formed by elbows and knees feeling the sun and wind caress all exposed skin with the most gentle whispered touch. Meanwhile, you are rubbing sandpaper with each breath, each shifted position. They are rushing river and you are stagnant pond. They are minds filled with the joy and promise of what is to come and you are weighed down by the fog of knowing you will be sick like this till the day you die. It’s not fair, that others run when you can’t. It’s not just that your potentials go unfulfilled while theirs find new success. It’s plain bullshit that you’re sick and they’re not.
So let me reiterate this agreement I’m asking you to sign. When I’m sick, you can’t run. You can’t put your abilities in my face when I’m unable to return the favor. You can’t get better, experience more, take advantage when I’m getting worse, experiencing nothing, entirely disadvantaged. You can’t, COMPLETELY UNKNOWINGLY, add insult to injury with your unbridled joy. You just can’t.
Look, when I can’t run, the world can’t either. It’s not fair and it’s not just, but come on, if we need some cultural absurdity to help separate US from THEM, I personally can’t think of a better proposal on the table. As I rest my body, I rest my case.
And although no one has yet signed this unwritten agreement, and the parameters are so undefined as to be non-existent, just know this, that as I’m sick and you’re running, I’m going to vibe you. I’ll side eye your fluid form. I’ll squint until you’re only a sliver of movement. I’ll look away as you click off effortless 6 minute miles, just so you know how unimpressive they really are. I’ll mutter to myself, “this fuckin guy. stupid ass runners”. Like I said, I’ll vibe the shit out of you bruh, grom, kook. But hey, at the very least, I’ll stop at knifing your tires in the trailhead parking lot…I mean, because I think I’m starting to feel a little better, so maybe such drastic measures aren’t needed….not right now. For your sake, or your tire’s sake, I hope I feel better soon.