mundane adventures in running
I possibly spend too much time obsessing about running, whether it’s reading about it, thinking about it, doing the strength training, cross training and stretching to keep my ageing body working. Or actually running.
Since I started taking it seriously, about three years ago, I’ve felt a strong impetus to keep running, faster and further . I’ve set goals, suffered setbacks, tried different approaches to training. I’ve spent hours pounding the pavement or seeking out London’s hidden trails and paths.
It’s only recently that i’ve taken a step back and started to question why I put as much as I do into it. It’s a scary question. I remember coming out of a gym about 16 years ago after i’d been through a six month gymathon, doing lots of weights, and slowly getting buff. I stood outside in the winter drizzle, lit a cigarette and asked myself why I was bothering. And when i did, the illusion of enjoyment collapsed: once i started to question why I did it, I realised it was a fundamentally pointless conceit and something which i probably felt I should be doing rather than actually enjoyed. I haven’t been to the gym since.
My fear was that if I asked myself to much about my motivations for running my enjoyment would evaporate and I’d find myself looking for another thing to be obsessed with. I was happy with running, and was scared of having to focus my obsessive streak on something less healthy and more expensive: collecting trainers, mid century furniture, rare whiskey, vintage watches.
Still, the question became increasingly hard to avoid. My behaviour started to feel irrational to me. why did I find it hard to take a week off even if I was in pain? Why was the thought of running for two hours in torrential rain more appealing than eating a steak and drinking a glass of red wine in the comfort of my home? Why did I carry on doing something which was so painful, repetitive, and seemingly boring? And friends had started to ask me about it, especially after I started to blog about running and was talking about trying for an ultra marathon at some point. They’d either look at me with a weird disbelief or ask me out right why I was even contemplating it, why I even cared.
There are lots of places to look for an answer. There are plenty of runners who talk about their motivations on blogs and in books, who wear them on their sleeves. It should be easy to answer the question of why we run and then work out why I run.
Looking form the outside in, as someone who has no or little interest in running, you might expect running top be a mono culture. On the surface, running looks like a league table, with Usain Bolt or Mo Farah at the top and wheezing, red faced beginners at the bottom. At the top, motivations are largely about competition and wanting to win, at the bottom it’s more about fitness, in between, you might expect some some mix of the two.
But. The more you find out about running, the more diverse a world it seems. The high level Olympians and the park joggers are just a small part of the story.
There are trail runners and road runners. People who run to avoid commuting, to improve at other sports, because it’s the only way they can turn off. There are hippy runners obsessed with veganism and chia seeds. Barefoot runners. Compression suit clad gym warriors who take fitness and form to another level.
Runners compete in ultramarathons, running 200 miles in a single go, they race across deserts carrying their tents on their backs, they run fastest known time attempts, speed climbing mountains normally only attempted by serious alpinists with crampons, ice picks and ropes (7 and a half hour round trip to the summit of Kilimanjaro, anyone?). They run through mud, across assault courses and even round London Zoo, naked, to support tiger conservation programmes (really).
Then there are the Japanese Monks who run a thousand days of marathons. There are the acolytes of the late great Sri Chimnoy who meet every Saturday morning in Battersea park to transcend themselves through running, and the others who race for 24 hours round Tooting athletic track.
So it turns out, just scratching the surface, it’s a complex, complicated world. What’s my place in it? How am I different to Usain Bolt and the red faced beginner?
The first, and easiest, motivation to explain is a desire to be fitter. It’s hard to escape from the societal pressure to be healthier. It runs deeper than trying to achieve the body beautiful. Fitness symbolises spiritual purity in a secular world. The self control and dedication required to be fit can take on a nearly spiritual significance in our secular society. There’s a moral attractiveness to fitness. Concomitantly, healthiness becomes something which feels good; by being fit, you feel like you have achieved something, that you’ve become a better version of yourself. Adhering to a training plan, pushing PBs, going out for a run when you don’t want to all give you an amazing, immediate sense of self worth. You can be late on your tax return, worried about an unfinished presentation, leaving a pile of unwashed dishes behind you as you go out for a run, and still feel like you’ve accomplished something when you get back home.
The second answer to the question of why I run is the simplicity of it. You don’t need to do anything to be a runner other than just… run. Most other sports require equipment, special spaces or technique before you can take part. You have to work round schedules, to travel to places to do your exercise, to find other people to join with.
The most perfect runs can be completely unplanned. a couple of minutes of warm up and you’re ready to go, and once you’re out you don’t need anything or anyone, you can just run and enjoy.
In its simplicity, running is an utterly unmediated experience. There’s nothing in between you and the sensation of running, wherever you are, wherever you’re doing it. There’s a timeless honesty to it, that action of propelling yourself forward has felt essentially the same to everyone for ever. Our species has been running since its inception. Our resting posture, the ludicrous complexity of the anatomy of our feet (the body’s suspension system), the fact we sweat and our theoretical ability to run for hundreds of miles all point to an animal which has evolved to run. So the third compelling reason to run is the actualisation of myself as a human being; I have to run so I feel in touch with my own humanity.
There are other motivations. I like the kit. I like the game of finding out more about the theory of it and using theory to get better (or mostly avoid injury). I like finding out more about how my body works and what it can do. I like being outdoors and enjoying the scenery. I like being able to eat quite a lot without putting on much weight. I like looking healthy. I like running faster than traffic jams and getting into work faster than other commuters.
So now I’ve worked out what I like about it, I’m immediately intrigued as to what other people get from it. I have generally avoided running with other people. I ran in the London marathon and felt like I’d seen enough people to last me a year. I joined a running club and felt overwhelmed by the bonhomie. So while I’m interested in why other people run, I’ve not had a chance to explore it. It’s an obvious subject for popular anthropology. There are running tribes waiting to be infiltrated, yearning to be understood and entities in their own right and as collections of their members.
Take the Hash Harrier movement. Hashing is a style of running which originated in colonial Malaysia in the 1930s, and continues now. Around the worlds, clubs meet in pubs and bars run short friendly paper chase type races, then head back to the pub and drink beer. It fascinates me that people do this. Why do they want to run with other people? Do they run apart from in the hash meet ups? are they a uniform bunch, are they diverse? why do they enjoy running these races together instead of just going out with other people? why do they have obscene nicknames.
Participation in running continues to grow, the industry gets bigger and bigger. Pockets of niche running behaviour repeatedly become mainstream. Barefoot started as the preserve of elite athletes, oddballs and people who just didn’t have access to sports shoes, now half the stock in a running shop is turned over to minimal footwear. Perhaps by understanding more about why someone wants to join the Hash Harriers, to take part in Parkrun 5ks, to celebrate turning 40 by running 100km, the industry can better serve runners and anticipate needs.
There’s an obvious way of answering these questions. All I need to do is to sign up, take part, hang out with the other runners and try to understand where they’re coming from. The only problem is running with other people. Ugh.