In the last year, I got quite into running. Before, I’d never really given running much thought. I’d long loved other sports, especially football, but running… I dunno; it had never really had any draw for me. I might have glibly said that running seemed to me like sport minus the various elements that make sport fun. But then I was starting to feel like I needed some serious exercise, and I was busy and living quite remotely and short on disposable income and, basically, other sporting activities didn’t seem like they were options, and I had a good friend who was very into running, and I thought I’d give it a go. I ran the Belfast Marathon in May, and the Amsterdam Half-Marathon in October. I started using Strava, got pretty interested in my stats. I got philosophically interested in running too, and I read two of the more famous books on running, the journalist Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and the novelist Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I feel I learnt a lot from this whole process. I want here to get down in writing and share some insights that resulted. Most of these are, I should say right away, the insights of McDougall and Murakami, or people they cite. I’ll be quoting and commenting on parts of those two books I just mentioned, then adding my own thoughts. The books’ approaches to the topic of running are quite different, and thus, in some ways, complementary. A preliminary note on these two voices… I’ll start by saying that McDougall does do something quite extraordinary in his book, summarising and tying together a huge amount of scientific research, cultural history, biographical portraits of people living and dead, and reporting on his own personal journey of recovery and on a major sporting event unfolding in tandem, and somehow making all of this easy to understand and engaging… It's a hell of an achievement. On the other hand, I have to say I found his book totally monotonous – that unchanging tone being one of extreme, hold-on-to-your-seats emphasis. Although it’s such diverse material he covers, he seems to me to have a very limited sense of what can make that material interesting for anyone – he seems constantly concerned to ratchet up the tension, exaggerate the stakes, insist on the extremity and unprecedentedness of every detail he recounts. Even the book’s title – especially it’s full title: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen… You see what I’m saying? And then note that his previous book was called Girl Trouble: The True Saga of Superstar Gloria Trevi and the Secret Teenage Sex Cult That Stunned the World, and his subsequent book was called Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance… Not quite as bad, that one, but still. I’d say this tone is journalistic in the worst sense, but that’s maybe unfair on journalism, given just how common this tone is in this ‘sell yourself’ age. In any case, certainly for me, there’s something especially off-putting about this tone after Trump, or, as Frank Bruni memorably described him, the president who buried humility. Humility, as I see it, is a virtue not only in how one presents oneself, but also, relatedly, in how one makes claims about anything. I mean, to describe one race as the greatest race the world has never seen is to disparage literally all other great races that have ever occurred outside of the global audience’s field of vision. And who is anyone to do that? Who is anyone to judge, really, how one totally amazing unseen race measures up to all the others? Who can even get an overview of all of them – particularly given those races are all, we've literally just said, unseen? A little ridiculous. And it’s not just a little ridiculous – this hyperbolic way of writing has consequences. One of the most disturbing moments in Born to Run for me, as I suppose for everyone, was when McDougall tells us about receiving news of the murder of a child he’d, earlier in the book, described meeting. Part of what made it disturbing for me though… Well, when he’s so desperately ratcheting up the drama the whole time, the murder of a child feels like it must be useful to him. The news of the murder of this child certainly helps set the scene for the climatic race… It’s happening, he tells us several times, somewhere extremely dangerous, in a wild hinterland of outlaws, drug cartels. When a child we’ve been introduced to and developed some affection for gets killed, that brings this dangerousness home in a whole different way. McDougall, while he of course says it’s very tragic news, doesn’t engage with the murder in a way that prevented me from having that sense that it was, as much as anything, useful to him, and this changed my feelings about the book. It left me with a deeper kind of scepticism about the whole thing.
Because quite a lot of scepticism had already been provoked in me by that general tone I describe, all those sensationalist remarks that are just obviously untrue when you think about them even a tiny bit. ‘If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.’ Reading remarks like that makes me think, well, if he’s let that one through, how many other ideas exaggerated to the point of nonsense has he let through without my noticing, just because I don’t have the relevant knowledge? When he’s talking about the science, for instance. Or about the cultural history of a Mexican indigenous people.
Sometime after I finished reading the book, I read that one of the stars of its story, the ultramarathon runner Jenn Shelton, has seriously criticised it for romanticising the Tarahumara, the so-called ‘secret tribe’ of its title, and not adequately describing the poverty they live in. Fundamentally, I don’t know if that’s a fair accusation - if it is, perhaps a similar accusation could be made of Juan Carlos Rulfo's documentary Lorena, Light-Footed Woman, in which we see a Tarahumara family also seeming to enjoy a fairly idyllic rural life-style. In any case, it was a totally unsurprising accusation to me. I’m sure Born to Run has inspired many people to get running. I bet it’s increased many people’s love of life too. I know many people have had great joy reading it. In fact, I think just about anyone could enjoy reading it. I enjoyed it myself, all told. And it contains many ideas that I find intriguing, helpful, fundamentally right… Still, it seems to me a book that has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. I don’t trust it. That feeling of distrust, constantly stirred by that monotonously exaggerative tone, never stopped bothering me as I was reading it. Murakami’s book, on the other hand… I trust every word of it. This guy writes with great authority, great moderation and good sense. And yet I think that, if you were not at all into running, or at least some similar athletic activity, you’d probably not find this book all that interesting, for the most part. It’s very simple, humble writing. There’s not much of a story being told. There are moments of psychological insight and some brilliant, memorable lines, some of which I quote below, but most of the book is not like that – it’s just clear but forgettable descriptions of experiences he’s had running over the years. It has a little bit the feel of a scrapbook of running memories, meaningful mainly to him, and perhaps any children he has. That’s overstating it, but you get what I mean. So you see a clear contrast and a certain complementariness already, right? McDougall could get you into running, probably. Murakami can give you more of a sense of what it actually means to be a serious runner over the decades of your life.
Here's another, more specific example of the contrasting and complementary natures of these two books. When explaining to us how another of the star ultramarathon runners central to Born to Run’s story, Scott Jurek, became such a great athlete, McDougall notes:
‘Strictly by accident, Scott stumbled upon the most advanced weapon in the ultrarunner’s arsenal: instead of cringing from fatigue, you embrace it. You refuse to let it go. You get to know it so well, you’re not afraid of it anymore. Lisa Smith-Batchen, the amazingly sunny and pixie-tailed ultrarunner from Idaho who trained through blizzards to win a six-day race in the Sahara, talks about exhaustion as if it’s a playful pet. “I love the Beast,” she says. “I actually look forward to the Beast showing up, because every time he does, I handle him better. I get him more under control.”’
These strike me as fantastic words, already revolutionary enough for me. At another point though, McDougall says that the ‘unofficial creed’ of the group of brilliant young runners Jurek emerged with was summed up by a William James quote that Jurek included at the end of every email he sent. This is that quote:
‘Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.’
Now there’s a thought. When I think about my own experiences running, I don’t recall anything particularly like this. I did find myself surprised by the extent to which I could just keep going, long past the point at which my body seemed to be telling me it needed to stop. I remember having the same realisation during a cycle trip through Scotland that I did with my father and a friend during the summer of 2018. We did the vertical length of the country – from John O’ Groats to Carlisle, just over the border in England – in 6 days. Some days we covered more than 100km. And most of Scotland is pretty up-and-downy, so it was hard work. This was my first cycle trip, and I hadn’t prepared for it properly, and time and time again, I’d feel like my body had nothing left to give, and then it would just keep giving for hours more.
I remember an exchange with my friend, a veteran of many such cycle trips, on one of the first days. I said: ‘I feel like there’s nothing left in the tank.’ He said: ‘There is always more in the tank.’ I thought about this for a moment and then replied: ‘that can’t be true. But maybe it’s true that there is always more in the tank than there seems to be, at least right up to the point when there really is nothing left in the tank.’ He nodded, as if to say: well you would have to go and over-rationalise everything, but if it works for you. And admittedly, it was more his mantra-like remark that I found myself thinking of at difficult moments in the following days, and that I’ve since thought of at times while running. (Though I think that mantra-like remark always then had a little asterisk next to it, which represented my correction.)
Still, my conclusion from all this was mainly that I was misinterpreting my own body’s signals; I was taking some mix of severely uncomfortable feelings to mean ‘we must stop this now!’ when actually it meant something more like ‘gosh, this is a lot of work we’re doing right now, as compared to most of the time’. Surely a more experienced runner or cyclist would not misinterpret their body’s signals like that. And what’s more, while the latter stages of long cycles or runs sometimes seemed more and sometimes less tough, I can’t say I ever entered that space William James refers to of ‘ease and power’. I suppose I have never gone ‘beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress’. I’m pretty confident of that, in fact. I have approached that extreme at moments, perhaps, and had some trouble gauging how far from it I’ve still been. In the following passages, however, Murakami describes an experience he had running the 62 mile / 100km Lake Saroma Ultramarathon. He had felt extremely exhausted, at his utter limit, and then:
‘[…] around the forty-seventh mile I felt like I’d passed through something. That’s what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body had passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I’d made it through, I can’t recall, but suddenly I noticed I was already on the other side. I was convinced I’d made it through. I don’t know about the logic or the process or the method involved—I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through. After that, I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically. If I gave myself up to it, some sort of power would naturally push me forward. Run this long, and of course it’s going to be exhausting. But at this point being tired wasn’t a big issue. By this time exhaustion was the status quo. My muscles were no longer a seething Revolutionary Tribunal and seemed to have given up on complaining. Nobody pounded the table anymore, nobody threw their cups. My muscles silently accepted this exhaustion now as a historical inevitability, an ineluctable outcome of the revolution.'
‘I was in the midst of deep exhaustion that I’d totally accepted, and the reality was that I was still able to continue running, and for me there was nothing more I could ask of the world. Since I was on autopilot, if someone had told me to keep on running I might well have run beyond sixty-two miles. It’s weird, but at the end I hardly knew who I was or what I was doing. This should have been a very alarming feeling, but it didn’t feel that way. By then running had entered the realm of the metaphysical. First there came the action of running, and accompanying it there was this entity known as me.’
‘Right after this race at Lake Saroma I found it hard to walk downstairs. My legs were wobbly and I couldn’t support my body well, as if my knees were about to give out. I had to hold on to the railing to walk down the stairs. After a few days, though, my legs recovered, and I could walk up and down the stairs as usual. […] Still, the most significant fallout from running the ultramarathon wasn’t physical but mental. What I ended up with was a sense of lethargy, and before I knew it, I felt covered by a thin film, something I’ve since dubbed runner’s blues. (Though the actual feeling of it was closer to a milky white.) After this ultramarathon I lost the enthusiasm I’d always had for the act of running itself. Fatigue was a factor, but that wasn’t the only reason. The desire to run wasn’t as clear as before. I don’t know why, but it was undeniable: something had happened to me. Afterward, the amount of running I did, not to mention the distances I ran, noticeably declined. After this, I still followed my usual schedule of running one full marathon per year. You can’t finish a marathon if you’re half-hearted about it, so I did a decent enough job of training, and did a decent enough job of finishing the races. But this never went beyond the level of decent enough job. It’s as if loosening that knot I’d never noticed before had slackened my interest along with it. It wasn’t just that my desire to run had decreased. At the same time that I’d lost something, something new had also taken root deep within me as a runner. And most likely this process of one thing exiting while another comes in had produced this unfamiliar runner’s blues. And what about this new thing within me? I can’t find the exact words to describe it, but it might be something close to resignation. […] After my fatigue disappeared somewhere after the forty-seventh mile, my mind went into a blank state you might even call philosophical or religious. Something urged me to become more introspective, and this newfound introspection transformed my attitude toward the act of running. Maybe I no longer have the simple, positive stance I used to have, of wanting to run no matter what. I don’t know, maybe I’m making too much of it. Perhaps I’d just run too much and gotten tired. Plus I was in my late forties and was coming up against some physical barriers unavoidable for a person my age. Perhaps I was just coming to terms with the fact that I’d passed my physical peak. Or maybe I was going through a depression brought on by a sort of general male equivalent of menopause. Perhaps all these various factors had combined into a mysterious cocktail inside me. As the person involved in this, it’s hard for me to analyze it objectively. Whatever it was, runner’s blues was my name for it.’
‘My lifestyle gradually changed, and I no longer considered running the point of life. In other words, a mental gap began to develop between me and running. Just like when you lose the initial crazy feeling you have when you fall in love.’
Fascinating, isn’t it? I find myself thinking: I doubt you can enter that space beyond extreme exhaustion without some cost – the sensations of extreme exhaustion surely exist in us for good reason, to tell us something very important. Not just as a kind of trick, or test, to sort the real triers from the rest. Anyway, McDougall neatly highlights this exciting idea of a space beyond the extreme of fatigue and distress – Murakami seemingly gives a detailed account of the ambivalent nature of entering that space. Note that I’ve been talking here – as Murakami and McDougall also do – about approaching or even entering the space beyond the extreme of fatigue and distress for recreational purposes. I mean to say, there is a big question of why you would do this, right? What motivates anyone to go out and run, let alone to the point where they’re in a kind of agony and half-dead from exhaustion? Both Murakami and McDougall have interesting things to say about this. Here, for instance, is Murakami:
‘Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit just because I’m busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.’
I love that notion of keeping our reasons for doing certain things nicely polished. I take it to mean keeping them clear in our minds – not letting them slip from our focus, or get muddled and diluted. It was a shock for me how fragile my own motivation to run turned out to be. I’d been running regularly all summer. I was feeling good about it. It had become almost automatic. Three or four times a week – basically every other day – as the sun went down, I’d kit up and get out there, and I’d stay out, running and listening to radio series or lectures for usually 1-2 hours. I hadn’t really imagined this habit changing, and then, in mid-autumn, it started getting cold. And soon enough, however motivated I was to run, I wasn’t motivated enough. The balance had tipped. Of course running was tiring and kind of gruelling at the best of times, and now it was cold out there as well – and that proved decisive. No more running for me. Not that I ever made that decision. I just discovered, day after day, that that was the way the motivations stacked up now, until it stopped even being a question for me whether I would go running or not. Clearly I did not, in Murakami’s terms, have my reasons for running well-polished enough. Perhaps, in further examining Murakami and McDougall’s reasons for running, I can also polish my own. One reason Murakami gives for his running – surely a common one – is just to stay fit, and, more particularly, trim. Here’s another very insightful passage of his:
‘when I think about it, having the kind of body that easily puts on weight was perhaps a blessing in disguise. In other words, if I don’t want to gain weight I have to work out hard every day, watch what I eat, and cut down on indulgences. Life can be tough, but as long as you don’t stint on the effort, your metabolism will greatly improve with these habits, and you’ll end up much healthier, not to mention stronger. To a certain extent, you can even slow down the effects of aging. But people who naturally keep the weight off no matter what don’t need to exercise or watch their diet in order to stay trim. There can’t be many of them who would go out of their way to take these troublesome measures when they don’t need to. Which is why, in many cases, their physical strength deteriorates as they age. If you don’t exercise, your muscles will naturally weaken, as will your bones. Some of my readers may be the kind of people who easily gain weight, but the only way to understand what’s really fair is to take a long-range view of things. For the reasons I give above, I think this physical nuisance should be viewed in a positive way, as a blessing. We should consider ourselves lucky that the red light is so clearly visible. Of course, it’s not always easy to see things this way.’
This then is an example of a reason for running that he does not need to invest effort in polishing. It polishes itself, as it were. This passage strikes me as a fantastic one to share with anyone who’s feeling down about their tendency of putting on weight easily. It reframes that tendency in a positive and instructive way. And it genuinely makes me feel envious of such people. I want to stay fit and healthy too, but the red light is not so visible in my case, and I have serious work to do in keeping this reason for exercising well-polished. At another point, Murakami speaks of even staying fit as if it were an objective of his mainly just because it aids his primary objective, which is remaining in a state in which he can write novels:
‘For me, the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels, so if races and training cut into the time I need to write, this would be putting the cart before the horse. Which is why I’ve tried to maintain a decent balance.’
He is apparently talking here – in a way that perhaps becomes more obvious with age – about the general importance of good health in enabling any kind of endeavour we might have. However, elsewhere, he talks – and this surely has equal relevance for people of all ages – of running being a way in which he exercises certain basic capacities of his that he sees as integral to his writing. Capacities like willpower, focus, endurance.
‘In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. […] If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. Even a novelist who has a lot of talent and a mind full of great new ideas probably can’t write a thing if, for instance, he’s suffering a lot of pain from a cavity. The pain blocks concentration. That’s what I mean when I say that without focus you can’t accomplish anything. […] After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. […] the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years.’
‘In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.’
On a side note, I take issue with that first point of Murakami’s here – he should, I feel, be breaking down, unpacking the concept of ‘talent’; at least not treating it monolithically, and almost mystically. I mean I take it that Murakami is, with this word, referring to precisely that part of writing ability that, he thinks, cannot be acquired through training, but what is that part exactly? And what makes it impossible to acquire through training? Anyway, I certainly agree with him that some important parts of writing ability arise from general character, mentality, discipline, and these can be much improved through training, and not only training in the narrow sphere of writing. And now here’s the next thought: whether it’s at his writing desk or on the running track that he’s strengthening such basic capacities of his, Murakami is surely, in the process, improving himself as a person. At other points, he does directly speak of running in exactly those grand terms.
‘For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.’
He speaks about his writing in similar terms – and I find myself intrigued by the thought that what matters more is that you have in your life some serious exercise of the soul like this, not what exact form that exercise of the soul takes. A bit later, he mentions how he feels this soul-exercise dynamic in his running even more keenly in moments of anger and disappointment.
‘When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger.’
This seems extremely wise to me, this idea of using running as a visceral reminder of our limitations, our feebleness – and thereby as an enforcer of our humility, and a driver of our will to improve. I think many of us have lives in which we mainly just move our bodies and minds around essentially familiar circuits, made easy for us by that familiarity, and I suspect that that can increase our vulnerability to an illusion of the brilliance and adeptness of our selves … In any case, it’s surely a lot harder to feel a need to improve if we’re not experiencing, on a visceral level, the pain of our limitations. Relatedly, one of the main things I kept thinking as I was getting into running was what a wonderful thing it is to experience, from day to day, clear improvement in oneself. And maybe it’s an especially wonderful thing when that improvement is physically felt. I found myself reflecting that I have gone whole years of my life without consciously experiencing any improvement in myself, let alone of a physically felt kind. Has this perhaps been very bad for me, I wonder. Some people might scoff at Murakami’s claim that, ‘In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be’. I wanna beat the others, they might say. I find myself thinking of one of my favourite parts of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. It’s where he’s explaining Rule 4, ‘Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today’, and, more particularly, advising on how to handle the ‘critical internal voice and spirit’ that endlessly ‘condemns our mediocre efforts’. He says:
‘It’s […] unlikely that you’re playing only one game. You have a career and friends and family members and personal projects and artistic endeavors and athletic pursuits. You might consider judging your success across all the games you play. Imagine that you are very good at some, middling at others, and terrible at the remainder. Perhaps that’s how it should be. You might object: I should be winning at everything! But winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult. You might be winning but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning. Should victory in the present always take precedence over trajectory across time? Finally, you might come to realize that the specifics of the many games you are playing are so unique to you, so individual, that comparison to others is simply inappropriate.'
I understand this last line to mean both that comparison of you as an overall person with another overall person is simply inappropriate, and that comparison of you within one domain of your life (or within one game, to take Peterson’s term here) with another person in what’s superficially the same domain of their life is not appropriate either – and that is because they are not really the same domain at all. Just because you and I both run does not mean that running occupies anything like the same position in the schemes of our respective lives. In Amsterdam, I ran with and finished slightly ahead of an old friend, but she worked longer hours than me, and, unlike me, had a young child to mother, plus had recently moved to a completely different country, where she was still trying to settle. I couldn’t feel any significant triumph there, especially in comparison to the triumph I felt about how I’d improved since Belfast. In Belfast, I finished a long, long way behind the friend I took part with (the one I mentioned in my opening paragraph above), despite the fact that he worked longer hours than me, but then I was completely new to running and he’d been seriously into it for years. Again, I couldn’t really care less that I’d finished a long way behind him. It didn’t make any sense to care. And anyway I was too busy caring about how radically unprecedented for me my achievement was. These are simple examples, but I think that running is never going to have the exact same role and meaning in the respective lives of any two people. Even two elite professional runners – the roles and meanings of running for them could still be very different. E.g. for one, running could be strongly associated with a history of escaping poverty and an abusive family and community, while for another it could be all about happily embracing a family or community tradition. McDougall, who we can of course always count on to observe the extreme, has this nice quote about where this all leads, if you follow it to a certain kind of conclusion… This approach, I mean, of taking running, for example, as exercise for your soul, as a means of raising the bar of yourself… He’s talking about the literary inspirations of ultramarathon runners Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett, and quotes these lines from Charles Bukowski’s Factotum:
‘If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.’
Wonderful words! Not strictly true, of course – even, I mean, metaphorically – but so evocative. And this is the inherent glory of trying your utmost! My first marathon… I simply had no idea I could do what I did there. It didn’t seem remotely possible before the race. I felt myself radiating with the accomplishment immediately afterwards. I felt my soul standing tall with pride. The exhaustion itself was a radiant thing, because it spoke of the accomplishment. And that feeling stayed with me for days. I loved not being able to climb stairs, except one stiff and painful step at a time. I had, the next day in fact, an important and potentially difficult meeting for the short film I was working on. It was between me, the guy who was at that time assigned to direct and a mediator who the producers had brought in, as the two of us were not seeing eye to eye. In other circumstances, I might have been a little anxious. I just felt invulnerable. What could they say to me? I’d just run a fucking marathon, and I felt the fact and the extraordinariness of this in every fibre of my body. McDougall also has some interesting thoughts about the inverse of all of this. I mean, if running is a route to general self-improvement, then not running is perhaps a route to self-deterioration. I’d want to say, again, that running is only an example here, and all sorts of activities can fulfil the same role. McDougall takes a somewhat different view though. Having put forward the argument that the evolution from ape into human being was most fundamentally an evolution into long-distance runners (and, in practical terms, persistence hunters), and that therefore running is perhaps very close to ‘the essence of who we are as a species and what we’re meant to be’ (hence the title of his book – yup, I hadn’t thought it would be that literal either), he makes the following suggestions:
‘Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature, and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.’
‘Every action flick depicts the destruction of civilization as some kind of crash-boom-bang, a nuclear war or hurtling comet or a self-aware-cyborg uprising, but the true cataclysm may already be creeping up right under our eyes: because of rampant obesity, one in three children born in the United States is at risk of diabetes—meaning, we could be the first generation of Americans to outlive our own children.’
I think of Ian McDonald’s claims in his Beatles book Revolution in the Head, that ‘It is, for example, difficult to contemplate a labour-saving device without thinking somewhat less of traditional virtues like application and persistence’ and that ‘a culture of convenience is inevitably a culture of laziness’, as well as his talk of ‘the multifocal and fragmented techno-decadence into which the First World is currently sinking as if into a babbling, twinkling, microelectronically pulsing quicksand’. Surely it’s not one or the other though. Crash-boom-bang or creeping decay. Creeping decay can easily get us to a point of crash-boom-bang, I suspect. Whether or not that’s the case though, and whether or not running is quite as fundamental to our nature as McDougall suggests, I think that part of what I like in running is that I see it as a personal revolt against these forces of ease and of sedentary decay. I will not succumb. I will not go with the flow until the flow leads down a waterfall onto some rocks. I will not go the way my civilisation seems to be. (Well, not unless it’s cold outside.) While I’ve been discussing running as an individual act of self-improvement or of revolt against the forces of ease and sedentary decay, it is of course heartening and a generally wonderful thing to be part of a multitude of people engaging in that act together. The atmosphere of marathons is, in my limited experience, very special. And of course it is, right – they’re festivals of health and strength, of effort and achievement and of bright-eyed wonder at oneself and loved ones and strangers alike. All that is in the air, and it’s inspiring. It lifts you. And it lifts others to lift you too. In Belfast in particular, the crowds were incredible. I mean, the thousands of people lining the streets to cheer us on as we went past. Again, it felt a weirdly new thing to me… to be cheered on, in a clearly sincere way, by large numbers of people, all there in the flesh. Especially in the second half of the marathon, by which point we runners had spread out a lot more and I often found myself alone or near-alone as I passed groups of spectators, the support would be very much directed at me in particular. They’d address me by my number, ‘You’ve got this, 450!’ Or they’d point, or look me straight in the eyes. ‘Downhill for the next 5 miles, son!’ shouted one older man. It wasn’t, incidentally. Not at all. Still, that amused me for the next five miles, and that amusement helped. Nearer the end, two middle-aged women, at two different points, both called out something like, ‘there’s free beer at the bar by the finish line if you get there in the next half hour!’ I seriously doubt there was, but of course I had to up my pace when I heard that. That was my part of the shared joke. And they laughed, and I smiled, and I loved it. At another point, I had this fantastic interaction with a guy who seemed to be offering me some dubious-looking cream on his fingertips: ‘What’s it for?’ I asked.
‘Shaving.’ he said.
‘Why would I be shaving at a time like this?’
‘No. Shaving. Your nipples.’
‘Why would I be shaving my nipples?!’
‘Not shaving. Shaving!’ he proceeded to stroke one of his nipples in a very erotic-seeming manner, as he disappeared into the distance behind me. About 5 seconds later, I realised that of course he’d been saying ‘chafing’. Classic. Anyway, little funninesses and pleasantnesses like this really set the tone of the day. ‘Such an achievement!’ people shouted. ‘You’re nearly there!’ ‘You’re doing so well!’ And then there were the kids raising their hands for high-fives, and some kids holding up a big piece of cardboard with, written on it in big letters, ‘tap this for strength’. And the music! Sometimes bands playing – God, the beat of the drums helped! Sometimes it was just people with portable speakers, blasting out ‘Eye of the Tiger’ or ‘Shake It Off’ or whatever. Once or twice, I threw in a little dance move as I passed, and they absolutely loved it. And then the food and drinks being offered all along the route, not just by the organisers at their official stations, but by ordinary members of the public too. Kids or grandmothers holding out trays full of sweets. Little tables out the front of people’s houses covered in disposable cups of water or bananas. One woman had a plate full of doughnuts! Not at all helpful for running, but what a legend! I didn’t take one, but could have so easily. I dunno about for others, but for me, the reward of a little tastiness, a little sugar rush every kilometre or so helped on a profound level. So many sweets that day! Totally guiltless too. A proper throwback to the best of childhood. At one point, as I was coming out of a park, there was a family with a young child, maybe five years old. I saw the child was looking straight at me, holding up a pack of sweets. I started reaching out to take one, but then realised the pack was unopened. I hesitated, not wanting to stop running or turn down this little kid’s determined kindness. ‘Take the pack!’ said the mother, ‘You deserve it!’ So I did take it, and I desperately hope I said thank you, and I shared it with other runners I found myself alongside for stretches, feeling so happy to be able to do this. Speaking of the other runners, they were also amazing. In the last few kilometres, my legs were gone. Sometimes my run faltered, and I’d be walking, feeling I’d had it. This big guy who was passing me patted me on the back, and roared, ‘Come on, we’re so close! We’re doing this!’ So I picked up my pace, and kept close to him. He himself stopped running a few times, and I called to him, wanting to reciprocate. We exchanged rallying cries a few more times before the finish line. I think I finished a little ahead of him in the end. After collecting my medal and a bottle of water, I found him and gave him a big hug. It’s literally true that I don’t know how I would have managed those last few kilometres without him. I saw this kind of thing happening all around me too. Near the start, I had a completely different but equally wonderful interaction. We were maybe only two or three kilometres in. Not more than five. I found myself beside a guy who was running with his guitar strapped to his front. There were plenty of people running in silly costumes, of course. Heroes, every one of them. This guy was in normal running gear, just with his guitar. He surely couldn’t have thought he’d complete the marathon without strumming a chord, and yet when two women in front of us spotted him, and one took out her phone to record and they started pleading with him to ‘give us a tune!’, he initially counter-pleaded that this really wasn’t the time. But of course he had to. We had a spot of light drizzle then, and, with all of us still running, he started playing ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’. What a song for the moment! What a moment! I happily joined in. Surprised that one didn’t go viral. A major revelation, meanwhile, was how incredibly fast I went, and how much easier it felt, when I was running as part of a group of fifteen or so that was sticking with the pacers for, I think it was, 4hr 45mins. Having found myself with them by accident somewhere before the 10km mark, I must have stayed with them for more than half of the marathon, until I was eventually separated from them by a toilet break I took. It was only after the marathon had finished that I realised that, at the point I parted company with them, they must’ve been well ahead of schedule. I’d never run a distance like the one I’d run with them at anything like the speed they’d been going at, and I’d somehow found that bit relatively easy. It was after, when I was on my own again, that I started to really struggle. Now, I grant, that’s surely in large measure just a coincidence – I mean, I would surely have started struggling a lot after 30km or whatever it was in any case. Still, it seems likely to me that it’s not entirely a coincidence. Psychologically, it surely gives you something, running in a group like that. And this group was friendly! There were plenty of little bits of banter, and sharing of energy bars, and encouraging nods and smiles, and it was a couple of hours I spent with them. There was a kind of closeness that developed in that time. I was sad to see them, my little running family, disappear over the horizon as I came out of the portaloo. I had never thought of running as a social activity, but it really did feel that way at times during the Belfast Marathon. I want to put it on record here, the huge love I feel for the city of Belfast on the basis of that experience. Amsterdam no doubt has its charms, but, at least from this social point of view, its marathon couldn’t hold a candle up to the Belfast one – not in my experience. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a special atmosphere in Amsterdam, but it had far fewer anecdotes to offer, far fewer sweets too. Murakami does, at one or two points in his book, acknowledge the importance of fellow athletes. For instance, here he’s talking about his triathlon phase:
‘Of course, competition is part of the mix—it’s a race, after all—but for most of the people participating in a triathlon the competitive aspect is less important than the sense of a triathlon as a sort of ceremony by which we can affirm this shared bond.’
There’s a passage from Born to Run that seems particularly relevant too. At the start here, McDougall is thinking about a moment during the ultramarathon in the Mexican outback that the book builds up to when the great Scott Jurek slowed to check in with him:
‘[…] He’d come all this way to see the best runners in the world, so why was he wasting his time with one of the worst? Didn’t he resent me for holding everyone up? Seven hours of descending that mountain eventually gave me my answer: What Coach Joe Vigil sensed about character, what Dr. Bramble conjectured with his anthropological models, Scott had been his entire life. The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, he understood, but to be with each other. Scott learned that before he had a choice, back when he was trailing Dusty and the boys through the Minnesota woods. He was no good and had no reason to believe he ever would be, but the joy he got from running was the joy of adding his power to the pack. Other runners try to disassociate from fatigue by blasting iPods or imagining the roar of the crowd in Olympic Stadium, but Scott had a simpler method: it’s easy to get outside yourself when you’re thinking about someone else. That’s why the Tarahumara bet like crazy before a ball race; it makes them equal partners in the effort, letting the runners know they’re all in it together. Likewise, the Hopis consider running a form of prayer; they offer every step as a sacrifice to a loved one, and in return ask the Great Spirit to match their strength with some of his own. Knowing that, it’s no mystery why Arnulfo had no interest in racing outside the canyons, and why Silvino never would again: if they weren’t racing for their people, then what was the point? Scott, whose sick mother never left his thoughts, was still a teenager when he absorbed this connection between compassion and competition.’
To me, this passage reads like a little tour of ways in which a social dimension to running can add to the joy and meaning that running has for people, and, in the process, enhance their running ability. It’s basically all unexplored territory for me. In fact, as yet, I can’t even quite say that running is a source of joy for me. I get satisfaction from doing well at it. I appreciate the sense of healthiness that comes out of it. I’ve enjoyed many little interactions that have taken place around it. I find it interesting, even. But I don’t enjoy the running itself. Not really. Coming back to that question of reasons for running, or motivations – I’ve covered many in the preceding paragraphs, and I believe most of them are very effective at getting you out there doing it when they really grab hold of you. Or when they’re well-polished, I should perhaps say. Still, I doubt there’s a reason or motivation for running that can be more effective in that respect than sheer enjoyment of the activity itself. McDougall again – here talking about the impression that seeing some Tarahumara runners towards then end of an ultramarathon had on Joe Vigil, one of the USA’s more renowned long-distance running coaches:
‘“SUCH A SENSE of joy!” marveled Coach Vigil, who’d never seen anything like it, either. “It was quite remarkable.” Glee and determination are usually antagonistic emotions, yet the Tarahumara were brimming with both at once, as if running to the death made them feel more alive. Vigil had been furiously taking mental notes (Look how they point their toes down, not up, like gymnasts doing the floor exercise. And their backs! They could carry water buckets on their heads without spilling a drop! How many years have I been “telling my kids to straighten up and run from the gut like that?). But it was the smiles that really jolted him. That’s it! Vigil thought, ecstatic. I found it! Except he wasn’t sure what “it” was. The revelation he’d been hoping for was right in front of his eyes, but he couldn’t quite grasp it; he could only catch the glim around the edges, like spotting the cover of a rare book in a candlelit library. But whatever “it” was, he knew it was exactly what he was looking for. Over the previous few years, Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in human endurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into: character. Not the “character” other coaches were always rah-rah-rah-ing about; Vigil wasn’t talking about “grit” or “hunger” or “the size of the fight in the dog.” In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of character wasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love. That’s right: love. Vigil knew it sounded like hippie-dippy drivel, and make no mistake, he’d have been much happier sticking to good, hard, quantifiable stuff like VO2 max and periodized-training tables. But after spending nearly fifty years researching performance physiology, Vigil had reached the uncomfortable conclusion that all the easy questions had been answered; he was now learning more and more about less and less. He could tell you exactly how much of a head start Kenyan teenagers had over Americans (eighteen thousand miles run in training). He’d discovered why those Russian sprinters were leaping off ladders (besides strengthening lateral muscles, the trauma teaches nerves to fire more rapidly, which decreases the odds of training injuries). He’d parsed the secret of the Peruvian peasant diet (high altitude has a curious effect on metabolism), and he could talk for hours about the impact of a single percentage point in oxygen-consumption efficiency. He’d figured out the body, so now it was on to the brain. Specifically: How do you make anyone actually want to do any of this stuff? How do you flip the internal switch that changes us all back into the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes. Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game you played, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attacked jungle outposts in your neighbors’ backyards. Half the fun of doing anything was doing it at record pace, making it probably the last time in your life you’d ever be hassled for going too fast. That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the Running Man. Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires”—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known. But the American approach—ugh. Rotten at its core. It was too artificial and grabby, Vigil believed, too much about getting stuff and getting it now: medals, Nike deals, a cute butt. It wasn’t art; it was business, a hard-nosed quid pro quo. No wonder so many people hated running; if you thought it was only a means to an end—an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer—then why stick with it if you weren’t getting enough quo for your quid? It wasn’t always like that—and when it wasn’t, we were awesome. Back in the ’70s, American marathoners were a lot like the Tarahumara; they were a tribe of isolated outcasts, running for love and relying on raw instinct and crude equipment.’
As usual with McDougall, almost every line sets off my scepticism. Nevertheless, there’s a lot that seems to me basically right and important here. Especially when he’s talking about the problem of treating running as a means to an end, I’m nodding along. I’ve advanced similar views in my writing on football – love of playing football, I’ve argued, results in better football, and a healthier relationship with football, than a desperate desire to win at football does, although the latter is the motivation that football coaches and pundits and players endlessly stress the importance of.
Still, there’s a huge unanswered question here. OK, so we should love running for its own sake. We should get great child-like joy from running. But how? Or why? What in running should give rise to this? And then, next question: why am I not experiencing it? What have I got to do or see differently to start experiencing it? To end, I’m gonna try to give a rough answer to that question, though I’m by no means confident in what I have to say here.
First thing I want to observe: when you think about it, it’s at least a little difficult to answer that question about most things we enjoy… What is it you’re supposed to be enjoying in football? Imagine it’s someone who hates football who has asked.
My next thought is that it’s surely not just one or two things that can make running enjoyable. It’s surely loads of things, differently combined from person to person, and also from moment to moment for a single person.
And, finally, here’s the big thought now, maybe the most important key to the enjoyment is interpretation – instinctive or automatic interpretation. I mean, of feelings in our bodies occasioned by running, for instance. And of the situations encountered in the course of running – psychological situations as much as anything. I mentioned how, after my marathon, the pain meant something good. It pronounced and emphasised to me the accomplishment. That’s what I’m talking about now. Let’s think again, for a moment, of all the motivations for running already discussed: staying healthy and trim; exercising basic capacities or virtues like endurance and willpower, generally raising the bar of yourself; reminding yourself of your limitations, and thus reinvigorating your will to improve; engaging in a personal revolt against the forces of ease and sedentary decay that are laying waste to large parts of society and perhaps your own life; feeling a special kind of togetherness, adding to the strength of the pack, and escaping self-consciousness, in perhaps more than one way. My theory is that, for someone who really loves running, the combinations of sensations that make up the activity of running refer to, in some way mean these kinds of good things. The person who really loves running automatically interprets those combinations of sensations, in those contexts, as meaning these good things – normally without consciously naming them in the process.
Another good thing that is, I’m sure, integral to many people’s love of running, that I’ve not mentioned at all so far, and that neither Murakami nor McDougall focus on particularly, is a relationship with terrain, with landscape, with its visual and perhaps auditory richness, with the flora and fauna, their interactions with changing weather and seasons, with the human built environment too… Do the Tarahumara get the same joy from running on a treadmill? I assume not. And while McDougall and Murakami don’t stress this side of running too much, another great novelist, Joyce Carol Oates, very much does, and even credits her running with helping give her a sense of place that’s then vital to her rendering of settings in her novels.
I’m not there yet, with any of these things. I have little moments of consciously appreciating all sorts of facets of running, but the sensations of running are still mostly just neutral or even unpleasant for me. Perhaps I still have some unlearning to do. As I mentioned near the start of this piece, it took me a while, first with cycling, to grasp that my body wasn’t telling me, through a certain combination of unpleasant physical feelings, that it absolutely needed at all costs to stop doing what it was doing. That re-understanding of sensations was maybe the first step on a journey to joy. Remember Lisa Smith-Batchen’s comments, quoted by McDougall: ‘I love the Beast. I actually look forward to the Beast showing up, because every time he does, I handle him better. I get him more under control.’ I think I’m making steady progress with my enjoyment of running. Somehow I keep going out and doing it again. That’s a little surprising, and it’s encouraging. The house I live in most of the time is on an extremely steep road. Running up that road is the most physically difficult, and I suppose physically unpleasant part of any run. I say ‘I suppose’ because I realise that, for some time now, that’s also been my favourite part of every run. It just feels so satisfying to be able to do it – I mean to be able to run up that road, and at speed, especially after I’ve already run 10 or 15km. It’s such a great flourish to end on. The difficulty, unpleasantness and satisfyingness are completely inseparable, of course. They start to blur. It feels pretty good even as I’m doing it, and then it feels amazing when I get to the house and stop. Just the act of stopping running – just rest – feels like a wonderful reward, and wonderful partly because it feels so earned.