mundane adventures in running
I remember watching Chumbawamba play at the Lumways music festival outside Winchester in 1994. I’m not really a fan, but I love the protest songs album that they did, and have always had an affection for them. Boff Whalley is their guitarist. I was intrigued and delighted to pick up a copy of Run Wild, Boff Whalley’s paean to fell running. I wanted to enjoy this book. Instead I enjoyed parts of this book.
The most moving, best written, most compelling parts of the book are his descriptions of his own runs and experiences running. Boff has done a lot of adventurous, exciting, glamorous trail running. When he talks about why he loves the trails, how he watches the seasons change and takes great joy in the sheer beauty and magnificence of nature. These descriptions of nature feel honest, sincere, heartfelt. They are well written. Through these descriptions, Boff inspires me to want to run more adventurously, to seek out what few trails London has and to be more bold when I think about running outside of the City. I’m looking for excuses to head North for work.
Sadly, Boff’s accounts of the great outdoors fall short of those of the naturalist writers he most admires, Thoreau and Muirs particularly. Boff doesn’t do himself any favours by placing such elegant prose next to his own. He seems to be inviting readers to compare his writing to Muirs, a comparison in which Boff is the weaker by some way. The plus side of Boff’s extensive referencing of other writers is that the bibliography of this book is great. My reading list has grown having read this. I’m especially grateful for having been introduced to John Muirs.
This book is not an auto biography, but includes lots of personal anecdotes. It’s also not purely about running. Boff’s chain of thought weaves and wanders. He attributes this to having “written as he ran”: the whimsical, generally charming, occasionally irksome meanderings are apparently reminiscent of how he thinks when he runs. His stream of consciousness is peppered occasionally with great insights, but more often than not with curiously irrelevant passages: peculiar asides, casually researched facts, spurious allegories which don’t really hold up.
I would forgive all of this if it wasn’t for Boff’s browbeating of city running and city marathons. First, I’d have to agree with him on a lot of points when it comes to city marathons. They are dreary, over corporatised, too full, smug fests. They are not for me. I would far rather run by myself than in a city marathon. That said, I still recognise that there are lots of good things about them, and just because they’re not for me doesn’t make them bad. Admittedly Boff repeatedly concedes that perhaps they are a good way to get people fit and active, but he seems to come short of saying they are actually positive. My beef here is that he never really tries to empathise with the people who do run them, who do get a lot out of them. He doesn’t take time to talk to the actual runners of city marathons to try and work out why they’re doing it, what they’re getting out of it. There’s more to it than he supposes.
Worse is his blanket dismissal of all city running, all road running, all running with headphones. I live in the city, I run on roads, sometimes with headphones. I don’t really have much choice as to where I run, I’m limited by time and geography, so I have to run the pavements. When I can, I’ll take paths and trails instead, or just run across the grass in the park, but it’s not always an option. Here’s the rub, Boff says I’m doing it wrong, that I’m conforming, that I’m suffering too much, that it’s not fun. I don’t get it. I still take a huge, child like joy in running through London. Where Boff rhapsodises about changing seasons, I can rhapsodise about changing crowds, where Boff rhapsodies about steep valley walls, I can rhapsodise about concrete walkways through breathtaking slabs of glass and steel. Getting lost is getting lost, Exploring is exploring, even in a city, even on roads trampled by a billion feet.
A curious thing about Boff’s book is that it focuses so much on the externals of wild running. So much of what he gets excited about is explained in terms of the Great Outdoors, rather than in terms of his experience of it. It’s all about trees and rocks and weather and how he responds to them. This is all well and good, but in my mind he misses the essence of running: the relationship between your mind and body, the transcendence of your physicality, emptying the conscious to run in a mindful fugue. If you get too distracted by nature, you end up just looking at what’s going on around you and miss the importance of what’s happening within you. I can get free on a straight, 20 mile stretch of tarmac. I can zone out and tune into my body, my breathing, my place in the world without leaving the city. The endless click of a metronome set to 180 bpm is my entertainment. I don’t need diversions, just mind and body. Boff, which do you like more, the outdoors or running?
So, read Run Wild. Enjoy the good bits; there are enough to justify the read. Try not to find yourself wishing that the editor had been a bit more insistent on him cutting down on the marathon bashing and going easy on the diversions. Get inspired and do some of the wonderful things Boff talks abou. But, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to run in the way the Boff prescribes, wild and free in the hills and valleys, don’t give up running just yet. Boff thinks that’s the best way to run, I suspect there’s more to it than Boff realises.