Embracing other Cultures at World Championship Mountain Running Competitions

This past weekend, as you may know from some of our other Trail News articles this week, I raced at the Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Poland. For this article, I’d like to tell a story not about the race itself, but instead about the unique cultural aspects of a World Championship event that often doesn’t get told. From my experiences at the 2015 World Mountain Running Championships in Wales, the 2017 Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Italy and now Poland in 2018, I find an exciting story in how we as racers make friends with athletes from all over the world. Roughly 20 countries attended the championships in Poland and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to talk with members of almost all of athletes from almost every country.

After the race is when much of the cultural mingling happens. Firstly, the stress of the race seems to die down after we eat a wonderful post race dinner, and people seem more open for small talk. At dinner, we consume enough waffles to stack as high as Śnieżka peak, the highest peak in our race! After being fully satisfied on our sweeties, athletes relax into large cushy chairs and take drinks in the hotel lounge area. The lounge is like a jumbled map, where counties have sectioned themselves into little groups at separate tables. The Irish table is next to the German table, the Italian table is next to the Czech table and I’m with Team USA, not too far away from the British and the Swiss teams.

The countries may be in their separate tables, but there’s a post race tradition I’ve experienced at the world events that soon breaks down the borders between teams and encourages people to mingle. This tradition is the gear exchange. Essentially, this is where athletes bring their country’s team issued gear to the after-race festivities and try to trade it for the gear from other teams. At the previous two championships in Wales and Italy, I didn’t trade much gear and I missed out on more than just cool gear. I missed out on a one of a kind opportunity to be immersed in a different country’s culture with only the crossing of a table. In Poland, however, I was ready to swap gear.

I leave the comfort of my big cushy chair and my Team USA friends. I first approach the Italians. I have all of my gear in a bag ready to trade. I say “Caio” to Francesco Puppi, the 2017 Long Distance Mountain Running Champion. After a short conversation, Puppi’s running back to his room in the hotel to get his racing singlet to trade for mine. The US racing singlet is seemingly the most valuable item to trade! Now I’ve talked to Italy. Check. Who’s next? Ireland? Germany? Switzerland?

Through the process of visiting nearly every table, I acquire 11 pieces of gear from other countries. I’m likely eligible for the award for taking home the most clothing of any athlete! But most importantly, I’ll have made a new diverse group of friends. I now have almost the entire Argentina team hoping to see me at the 2019 Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in their home country. I have a new Irish friend who I’m excited to race with in Scotland at the Ring of Steall. And most unexpectedly I might be famous in Ukraine because of how enthusiastic the Ukrainians are of taking a countless number of selfies with me. Not sure what that was about but Team Ukraine is super nice!

And it’s not just the gear exchange that contributes to this story of cultural appreciation. It’s also in the small moments that develop from spending several days with the other athletes. I notice the Argentinian’s drinking Yerba maté from their traditional gourdes on the bus returning from the closing ceremonies. The Italians are singing their national anthem without any shyness, as usual after their men’s individual victory. And perhaps the most memorable moment of kindness from this week was when my teammate, Joe Gray, overheard an athlete from team Mexico struggling to speak English with the staff at the hotel dinner. Joe used what Spanish he knew to figure out the situation and the Mexican athlete was soon happily on his way towards the food. It’s the small moments, such as these, that tell me how the world championships cannot only be a story about a race. They have many stories of friendship and learning across cultures, which I will remember as I hold my new team silver medal. Now I feel pride when I put on an Irish jacket or an Italian racing singlet. And I’ll have fun explaining my way through US customs while wearing my Argentinian sweatpants, Mexico shirt, and an Irish jacket.

Photo by Magdalena Bogdan

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