Most often, communitas is discussed in a religious or spiritual context, thanks to the work of religious theorists/anthropologist Victor Turner. In his book Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, Turner establishes communitas as an experience most closely linked to rites of passage, when an individual undergoes a fundamental and spiritual change that advances them from one state of being to another, often making the individual an official member of the society. In the vast majority of cultures around the world, by far the most common rite of passage is that of attaining adulthood: bar/bat mitzvahs, confirmations, debutante balls, even high school graduations or sweet sixteen parties. In these rituals, the youth performs actions or recites prayers that transition him or her into the beginning stages of adulthood, thereby making them fully-fledged members of their society. Another popular rite of passage is the initiation rite, such as baptism, that ushers a secular individual into a spiritual community.
Communitas, however, is more than just the ritual itself. It is the feeling of becoming, of stepping out of oneself and into a larger context - a feeling that is shared with something greater than the sum of its parts. This sensation is not exclusive to religion; in fact, an excellent modern-day comparison to the experience of communitas would be any major music concert. The music is the same as what you'd hear on the radio, but being present in the live context with thousands of others who have gathered with the same purpose generates an electric feeling that draws people together. It is this secular version of the phenomenon that applies to the world of fitness.
Ever been to a giant, hugely popular race? Perhaps you've checked out the Hot Chocolate series, or any of the color runs that are rapidly growing in popularity. Thousands of people, lining up at some early morning hour, spanning every possible age group, fitness level, race, nationality, economic status, education level, and the list goes on - all there for one purpose. All sharing the same stretch of pavement, the same finisher's medal, the same larger-than-life adventure. It is an intensely unifying experience, while also being intensely personal to each individual as they find their place amongst the masses. As anyone who has worn their race swag months after participation can attest, finding another person wearing the same event shirt or jacket and reliving every step of the race or the post-race festival or the starting line excitement is one of the greatest feelings the fitness industry has to offer. Not only is there a sense of personal accomplishment, but there has been forged a connection to every other person who lived what you have lived.
Image source: The Color Run on Instagram
This is the secret power of racing: a feeling of becoming, of being a part of something greater. For the vast majority of runners, racing isn't about winning, it is about the experience of joining the community, of sharing the communitas that is generated at these events. Anyone can throw on shoes and run around a neighborhood, on a track, or on a treadmill, but the race experience offers so much more than just a new place to run. As race companies continue to get more creative, racing will continue to become more accessible to participants of all levels, and the industry will thrive on the collective energies created at crazy theme runs and massive road races. It's an exciting time to be a runner, that's for sure!
What races have give you that particular feeling of becoming a part of something larger than yourself? Have you felt the elation of communitas in another type of event? How does that feeling inspire your future?