Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 81 (March 1998): 13-14.
"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased," says the author of the Book of Daniel, and well does he describe late-twentieth-century North America. For not only are we in the midst of an ongoing explosion and expansion of knowledge (so-called), but more people than ever have taken up jogging. These are not entirely unrelated phenomena: a good bit of recent intellectual endeavor has been devoted to the study of jogging. Shoe manufacturers, for example, expend untold millions of dollars in their efforts to design the perfect jogging shoe. Yet to my knowledge the unique way that joggers address one another—what I have termed the "jogger’s wave"—has heretofore been neglected both in the academy and in the media.
I should state at the outset that I do not pretend to a detailed knowledge of joggers’ habits or of the psychology of jogging. Nor do I feel competent to contribute to the intense, longstanding, and emotionally charged debates waged between "joggers" and "runners." I nevertheless write with some confidence, for since 1986 I have observed waving joggers on the East Coast (Manhattan and Virginia Beach), the West Coast (Orange County, San Bernardino County, and Santa Rosa, California) and in eastern Canada (Ottawa, Ontario, and several cities in Quebec). I have observed joggers’ waves dispensed in primarily Spanish-speaking communities and in multicultural cities. At present I live in Quebec where, of course, I jog in French. This study celebrates diversity.
One crucial thing readers must keep in mind is that the jogger’s wave is distinct from other waves that are more familiar to the general public. We are all able to distinguish, for example, the "taxi hailer" and the "phony Miss America" from the polite, gently sweeping gesticulation employed by neighbors who would rather wave than speak to one another.
There is also the well-known "gosh-I-haven’t-seen-you-for-a-long-time-and-actually-I-had-just-about-forgotten-you-existed" wave that occurs primarily in shopping venues, most especially in clothing and grocery stores. One thing that makes this wave difficult for researchers to study is that it is utilized only when its employers are startled and have been placed under instant stress—that is, they are forced to come up with small talk for at least several seconds. Unlike some other waves, this one amounts to much more than a simple physical maneuver or polite convention. For even as these wavers exclaim, "Ohhh . . . hiii," their waves send a silent message that goes something like this: "I would much rather not stand here in the cereal section and ask you perfunctory questions but . . ." The odd thing is that even though both participants would rather forgo the experience, they nonetheless involve themselves in it, albeit usually briefly.
Like the "gosh-I-haven’t-seen-you-for-a-long-time-and-actually-I-had-just-about-forgotten-you-existed" wave, the jogger’s wave sends a clear unspoken message—actually, several messages. It says, "We both know that we are too busy to jog but we find time to do so anyway"; and "Yes, I have suffered from shin splints too"; and "I agree—joggers are superior." Thus, in addition to being a social nicety, the jogger’s wave conveys deeply held sentiments and beliefs shared by most participants.
Fortunately, the jogger’s wave is easily described. Joggers approaching one another will usually begin preparing their waves when they are between seventy-five and fifty yards apart, at which point both joggers will drop their eyes to the ground. When the space between them is down to twenty-five yards they will look up and into one another’s eyes or sunglasses. At fifteen yards the right or left forearm, depending on which side the other jogger is approaching, will be held momentarily horizontal. At about the six or seven yard mark, both joggers will rapidly flash their right or left palms at each other, with fingers usually held together. This wave is sometimes accompanied by a gentle "hoomph," a "hey," a "how ya doin’?", one head nod, or, in July and August, a sweaty sputter. It is generally considered indecorous to add anything more boisterous that these salutations to the jogger’s wave.
If the jogger’s wave is simple to describe, it is, in practice, among the more complex waves North Americans employ. First of all, it is rarely dispensed in the presence of automobiles. This is why, for example, the jogger’s wave is not employed on the streets of Manhattan, but one can see it exercised in Central Park. Another point is that the jogger’s wave is used most frequently near bodies of water. This can be observed in Ottawa, Ontario, where joggers’ waves are distributed most liberally on the bicycle paths that follow the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River. Exceptions to this general rule are areas where paths that are contiguous with bodies of water are crowded. Orange County’s Balboa Island, for instance, is, of course, surrounded by water. Yet because its main sidewalk—which comprises the island’s perimeter—is often packed with walkers, tourists, and so on, joggers usually refrain from waving there. (As this essay does not pretend to be an exhaustive study of the jogger’s wave, but only an introduction to it, I shall not surmise here as to why joggers usually restrict their waves to relatively uncrowded spaces.)
Another important thing to understand about the jogger’s wave is that it is not administered to all joggers. Indeed, it is reserved for competent, highly skilled joggers. The long-standing consensus among accomplished joggers is that slothful pseudo-joggers who barely get their feet off the ground—those whom I call "huffpuffers"—are unworthy of the wave. (Young children, the elderly, and persons on the high end of "middle age" are exempted from huffpuffer status.) Instead of dispensing waves to huffpuffers, seasoned joggers will usually adjust their sunglasses or walkman headphones or take a sudden interest in some peripheral event when approaching and passing them.
Other than proficient joggers, the only others who are sometimes awarded a jogger’s wave are obviously serious bicyclists. For bicyclists to receive the wave they must be fully uniformed in bicycle-racer’s gear and they should be grimacing. Studies have shown that most joggers respect power-walkers, but not highly enough, generally speaking, to honor them with a wave. Vulgarians such as roller-bladers are beneath notice.
It should be noted that joggers who, for whatever reason, do not dispense waves to others worthy of them are socially deficient. Like line-cutters, talkative theater-goers, and church ladies who promise to supervise coffee hour but fail to show up, non-waving joggers are, quite properly, held in low esteem in the serious jogging community.
If my account of the jogger’s wave is accurate, it seems that Bible-believing joggers should be concerned about it, for it is doubtful whether the ethos that surrounds the wave can be squared with Scripture. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, "And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as the your Father which is in heaven is perfect." The Phillips translation puts it like this: "And if you exchange greetings with your own circle, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do that much. No, you must be perfect, like your Heavenly Father." It seems, then, that Jesus would probably disapprove of the jogger’s wave.
The question is whether any Scripture passages can be cited in support of the jogger’s wave. The Bible has a good bit to say about jogging (or "running"). We are told in First Kings, for example, that "the hand of the Lord was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel." Unfortunately the writer does not tell us if the prophet waved to anyone in the course of his jog.
The Scriptures clearly allow Bible-believing joggers to be competitive. "Know ye not," queries St. Paul, "that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run that ye may obtain." Indeed, foot racing is something to rejoice in, as Psalm 19:5 makes clear.
In Isaiah we read that "they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint." And from Psalm 147 we learn that God "delighteth not in the legs of a man." So it is probably safe to assume that huffpuffers are probably unspiritual or backslidden and, perhaps, that Bible-believing joggers are not obligated to approve of other joggers’ gaits.
Clearly the Bible has some important things to say about jogging, but none of the Scripture passages I have consulted mitigate Jesus’ injunction. Joggers are, as far as can presently be told, still constrained by Jesus’ command to salute those outside their own "circle"— in this case, huffpuffers. In fact, if Jesus’ words are taken to their logical conclusion, Bible-believing joggers might be obligated to dispense waves to casual bicyclists, walkers, roller-bladers, and, heaven help us, even skate-boarders.
Preston Jones is a graduate student in history at the University of Ottawa, Canada.