Race for the Cure

What the runner’s trots can teach us about ourselves.

By Will Strecker, University of Texas at Austin


The Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest and longest running racing event, takes place on the 18th of this month.

The venerable race and all those that compete in it are paragons of physical excellence, fitness idols for the world to admire proudly. Twenty-six miles is no small feat, and given the kind of shape I’m in currently, even walking to the finish line would be an accomplishment.

However, despite the years of training that top athletes devote to disciplining their bodies, there is one physiological menace that cannot be tamed, appeased or abated.

It is a secret danger, lurking in the loins, that according to a study in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, affects an estimated 30-50 percent of distance runners. Rarely is this silent assassin discussed, and after asking a marathon-running friend of mine and feeling the shame seep through her otherwise composed demeanor, I understood why. It is embarrassing.

I am, of course, talking about runner’s trots, a.k.a. “the gingerbread man,” a.k.a. “mud butt,” a.k.a. “swamp ass,” a.k.a “runner’s diarrhea.” Personally, I prefer the name “the gingerbread man,” precisely because for the life of me I cannot understand the correlation between the two; in fact I like to think that there is no correlation, just a mischievous leg-sweep to the gingerbread industry.

April Marathons May Bring Brown Showers

Anyways, runner’s trots affect long distance runners and are characterized by the sudden and urgent need to poop mid-run. Ideally, marathon volunteers have preemptively placed port-o-potties around the trail, but even then, the overwhelming urge to ass-plode often leads to drastic measures.

Frequently, runners break off the path and crouch behind a bush, sacrificing their shirts to the cause and finishing the race bare-chested. More often than you might think, however, there’s no safe cover to unload, and runners are forced to try and hold in the inevitable. This, my friends, is when the utterly disgusting happens.

Yes, grown adults poop their pants. And when I say poop, I’m not talking about a cute, smiling poop emoji nestling in your skivvies. What I mean is a hot, rancid, brown liquid erupting deep from within one’s bowels, spewing like a volcano and soaking one’s shorts in a poop smoothie. Even imagining it right now is making me cringe. And, trust me, I can’t make this stuff up.

Case and point: the 2008 Göteborg half-marathon in Sweden. In perhaps the most infamous case of runner’s trots, Swedish runner Mikael Ekvall shit his britches mid-run, yet somehow fought through the loss of his dignity (maybe he had none to begin with?) and finished the race, placing 21st. His imbroglio was so dehumanizing that he earned the nickname “bajsmannen,” or “poop man” in English.

There are few things harder to look at than pictures of Ekvall, covered from the waist down in diarrhea, clearly distressed as the crowd points and laughs. Since the incident, pictures of Ekvall have become popular fodder for “Fail” memes and other disparaging internet jibes. Yet, despite the trauma, Ekvall has refused to let the abdication of his dignity stop him from racing.

Ekvall may be the poster child for this affliction, but he is far from its only victim. In 2005, Olympic gold-medalist Paula Radcliffe fell victim to “the gingerbread man” in the London Marathon. Radcliffe won the race, toppling the previous world record by more than a minute, but his PR isn’t what the race is remembered for.

Near the end of the course, the Olympian had to stop on the side of the road to defecate after apparently being hampered by “the gingerbread man” for a large portion of the race.

What makes Radcliffe’s trip to the loo so memorable, though, is the fact that the cameras filmed the entire thing.

Yes, a live TV broadcast filmed a grown woman and professional athlete pull down her pants and open the floodgate to her bowels. She still finished the run and apologized to the camera afterwards, explaining to viewers what happened as if they couldn’t guess.

In 1998, renowned marathon-runner Catherine McKieran was hit with a case of “the gingerbread man.” Granted, she never admitted to pooping, but noted that she suffered from “stomach cramps,” a common euphemism for runner’s trots. The list goes on and on.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone reading this has dealt with runner’s trots, or knows somebody who’s dealt with them. Hell, maybe someone with mud butt is reading this in a mid-race port-a-potty. Meta! But let me be perfectly clear: I do not encourage self-defecation, but exercise is cool, so don’t let the trots hamstring your desire to exercise.

Plus, poop jokes aside, there’s a lesson buried in here. Sometimes we put athletes on a pedestal, grouping them in a category separate from ourselves. The reality is that people who run marathons are not super-humans.

They are athletic, yes, but really they’re just hyper-dedicated people, people who are capable of embarrassing themselves just like anyone else, if not more than anyone else. The fact that runner’s trots occur across the spectrum testifies to our humanity. We all have bodies that sometimes fail us or make us feel insignificant or inferior. But, in the end, we are all sacks of meat, bones and poop.

So, the next time you get rejected by a pretty girl or fail your Bio test, the next time your pride is hurt or you find yourself ashamed of something, think of Mikael Ekvall. The man shit his pants midway through a run, and instead of quitting and finding a bathroom to clean up in, he finished the competition.

He swallowed his pride in the face of countless onlookers who were probably thinking, “This guy is f*cking nuts,” or “This is the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen,” or “Get some new f*cking pants, guy,” or “Is that poop?”

Because despite the internet infamy that will follow him until he dies, the “poop man” still gets to do what he loves. Only now, he does it with clean shorts.