Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Wacky Races

(Haven’t posted in a while due moving back from Paris and generally, life).

There are two ways of looking at the foot racing calendar. The first is as a succession of essentially similar races, from 10ks to marathons, none involving much more than putting one foot in front of the other, as quickly as you can. But the second way is to look out for the pleasing number of events where the inner weirdness of running sprouts into external form. What follows is a list of some Wacky Races that I’ve come across, plus one that I’ve run in myself.

* An annual race in Prescott, Arizona pits humans against horses over 50 miles. Apparently humans have begun to win over the last ten years, proof that running is not just about the natural build of the human body.

* Run for your lives also pits human competitors against… zombies. Unlike the horses, their aim is not to win the race, but merely to eat the human participants. Unsurprising really, given zombies’ famous fixation on their main activity (you’ll recall their marching cry: what do we want? Bra-a-a-aains. When do we want it? Bra-a-a-ains). 

* The Barkley marathon takes the prize for sheer difficulty and also gets a special award for cultishness: read this article.

* Finally, there’s Tough Guy (scroll down for video), which I ran on its habitual date of 30 (yes, thirty) February a few years ago. The first half is just a cross-country course, with some silly course planning – it zigzags up and down the same hill ten times – as a warning of what is to come. The second half is then an assault course with some real teeth to it. There’s all the normal parts – rope courses, six-foot walls to climb, barbed wire to wriggle under. But there’s so much more. The burning haybales that we had to run over, or the forest of dangling live electric wires. Then trenches full of watery mud, or having to swim under an enclosed section of English river (this was February, whether the 30th or not). I’m pleased to say I came something like 30th out of 3,000. This meant that the ex-sergeant majors who were employed to bawl at stragglers silently watched me slither up out of the river with a strange satisfied glint in their eyes. I wonder how we all got to be like this. 

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Chris McDougall, ‘Born to Run’ (2009)

You would have to be stonyhearted not to want to go along with McDougall’s declarations of love for running as a primal art, and for its practitioners the Tarahumara, a Mexican tribe. You would have to be seriously unexcitable not to be stimulated by his writing and the forceful ultramarathon-runners its depicts. And yet – as I see it – if you really bought the book’s argument, you would have to quit running immediately.
Said argument is that running allowed modern humans to develop from a homo erectus that was smaller, weaker, less intelligent than its neanderthal cousins. It enabled these proto-humans to run animals to exhaustion and death, to feast on their flesh and grow in prosperity. In turn the body learnt to reward endurance running, explaining why we still experience Runner’s High.
McDougall tells us that this type of hunting was possible because whilst animals can often run faster than humans (rabbits at up to 45 miles per hour!), the fact that they can only cool down by panting means that after a short distance they must stop to recover. Humans, on the other hand, have millions of pores allowing prolonged, on-the-run cooling. This and other thoughts on anatomy means the book changes how you look at people in the street. I sweat therefore I am human.
A side-branch of such thoughts are that the human foot is already designed for running, and that heavily-cushioned running shoes actually cause injury by flattening the natural suspension-bridge engineering of the foot arch, and altering our gait (creating heel-strike). The tantalizing prospect of barefoot running means that McDougall’s book is often discussed amongst runners, and its success is doubtless being closely followed by shoe manufacturers who over the last decade have been producing lightweight racing shoes.
So these are the arguments that jostle for space in the book alongside reflections on technique and nutrition (a marathon runner should eat like a poor person – meaning not McDo’s but lots of carbs and little protein), a great vignette about a Harvard professor of anthropology hosting a stone-age evening on the college lawn, where undergraduates butcher a goat with sharpened flints before barbequeing it, and plenty of good writing on trail running, for instance the Badwater ultramarathon in Death Valley, where temperatures can reach 93 degrees C., and where ‘six out of twenty runners reported hallucinations that year, including one who saw rotting corpses along the road and “mutant mice monsters” crawling over the asphalt. One pacer got a little freaked out after she saw her runner stare into space for a while and then tell the empty air, “I know you’re not real”.
‘Born to Run’’s narrative is woven around a central character study of Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, aka Michael Randall Hickman, who died in March 2012 after the book had made him famous. The author’s admiration for Caballo is clear, and there’s no reason to argue with it. His advice for ultra running is to only increase speed in terms of moving from ‘easy’ to ‘light’ to ‘smooth’. I can see the attractions of this, but at the same time it’s tempting to be cynical about the author’s other descriptions of ultramarathoners smiling their way, trance-like, round the course. I’m more attracted by the description of Czech runner Emil Zapotek, 4-time Olympic champion: ‘he looks like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyer belt’.
Like Caballo before him, McDougall falls in love with his idea of the Tarahumara tribe and their embodiment of a Western evolutionary theory of ‘running man’. The problem for me is that this theory just makes too much sense: I worry about the assumption that there must be a natural or evolutionary advantage to running, and we just have to find it. That running isn’t just a side-effect of our screwed-up modern lives. In some ways this theory is a parallel to how fundraising and the marathon go completely hand in hand: whilst fundraising of course does heaps of good, it’s also slightly a shame to naturalize the weirdness of running by only understanding it in terms of running *for*.
So ‘running man’ theory boils down to *running because*, and marathon fundraising boils down to *running for*. For me, both of these ignore the vast majority of humankind that doesn’t run, whose presence as you tramp past them just underlines how derisory, embarrassing, ultimately meat-headed it is to run. And yet that’s its majesty: that people run, not ‘because’ or ‘for’, but for the sheer bloody hell of it.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Faces at the Finish (of the NYC marathon)

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Running ought to be boring

On hearing how much I’ve been running, a friend asked whether I ever got bored. It was one of those questions that come out of nowhere: I had honestly never even considered that running could be boring. Repetitive, minimalist, requiring patience perhaps, but not boring.

But I imagine that joggers listen to music to keep themselves interested. This puzzles me: how could you run, i.e. do a sport that is exclusively about pace, timing, rhythm, whilst listening to a constantly varying playlist ? It’d be like conducting an orchestra with your ipod on. So one reason why running isn’t boring is that to run well you have to concentrate quite hard: maintaining a hard pace, but also constantly being sure not to burn out too soon. It’s like a balancing act where instead of not leaning too far right or left like a tightrope walker, you mustn’t lean too far forward (speeding up) or back (slowing down).

Another reason is that over the hour or longer spent running, thoughts seem to form an orderly succession through the mind. Without any attempt to think about one thing in particular, a meditative – damn, I thought I could write this blog without using the word ‘meditative’ – gnawing away at difficulties takes place, turning them over, inspecting them from all angles. Sometimes this leads to breakthroughs in my research: fearful of forgetting them, I write them down as soon as I get through the door, often with half-frozen hands, producing a handwriting that is weirdly different to my own. I sometimes wonder whether runners can as it were smell this on one another’s writing.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about running (2007)

This is the running book that is most often suggested to me. I say running book, but its title suggests that it’s really a book about something else – for example writing, which he took up having sold off his Tokyo jazz bar. Still, if it is ‘not about running’, it is ‘not about running’ passing through triathlons and the New York marathon, a 100km ultramarathon, and running from Athens to the town of Marathon in Greece. Along the way we are regaled with the strangeness of a runner’s perceptions (in Greece he comes across 3 dead dogs and 11 dead cats), and habits: not only does he listen to Mozart’s Magic Flute for half of his ultramarathon, but as if the pain of running was not enough, he listens to Eric Clapton whilst doing it…

The book is well known for the passages on how performances decline with age. After the ultramrathon, something snaps and running is never as fun again. Murakami stops drinking his habitual post-marathon beer. He gets what he calls ‘runner’s blues’. Despite all this, he continues to run, and describes why in refreshingly neutral terms: ‘People are impressed when I tell them I run every day. “You must be strong-willed!” they sometimes say. But I don’t think that willpower alone makes you able to do something. The world isn’t that simple. To tell the truth, I’m not sure there’s any link between my daily training and the fact of being strong-willed or not. I think I’ve been running for twenty years for a simple reason: it suits me. Or at least, I don’t find it unpleasant’.

He also is neutral or modest about what’s required by running and why he took it up: it’s the sport with the least technique and tactical manoeuvres to learn. ‘I wasn’t a natural athlete, I didn’t have quick reactions and was no good at sports where you have to be alert’. He talks about the stubborness necessary to repeat the same movement innumerable times: ‘muscles are like working animals, they have a good memory. If you gradually increase their load, they’ll be able to accept it. As long as you explain what you want, and give concrete examples of the amount of work they’ll have to do, the muscles obey, invisibly hardening’. It’s true that running reduces your flexibility. Muscles grow only where needed to run forwards, and mentally the concentration and patience perhaps dull your immediate reactions. Runners don’t need to twist, bend, jump, or change direction sharply. They just have to make their bodies stiff and taught. They are, if you like, both the cyclist and the bike. Or to change metaphors, the runner’s body is like a violin through which the miles resonate.

Murakami might be stubborn, but he doesn’t preach running as a simple product of willpower (of the boneheaded talk that I’ve been trying to get away from in this blog). His writing is determined to be stubbornly whimsical. And he has the unhurriedness of someone playing the long game: ‘For me, and for this book, that will be my conclusion. I probably won’t hear the Rocky soundtrack or see the sunset. It will be a modest conclusion, like sports shoes for use in the rain. Some will say this is disappointing. If it was a film script, Hollywood producers would barely glance at the last page before throwing it away. But, in the end, this sort of conclusion suits what I am. That’s all’.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Michael Horowitz, 'Midsummer Morning Jog Log' (1986)

(Thanks to Jeremy for the suggestion and the book). And so to the Midsummer Morning Jog Log, where an early morning jogger’s ‘ludicrously heavy-booted feet’ tramp through the Slad Valley, a folded-away corner of Gloucestershire. These ‘cloddy zigzag hops’ also run through… perhaps not Romanticized nature, but the exuberant, destructive force of the wild:

‘on I charge and stumble
Squishing now and then against remains
of the countless deaths whose predatory nature
night’s blanket harboured’.

The initial idea that this wildnerness should be being witnessed by a runner, let alone by a person at all (rather than by some abstract consciousness) soon slips away. Perhaps you could still argue, though, that the sacred language (‘the innermost nave | of the abbey of trees’) is an effect of what I’ve written about previously as runner’s high. And it’s certain that much of the poem’s own exuberance lies in the whirled, whorled texture of the language (‘flagrant pink bespattered mornings’, ‘weeds upon weeds in abundancy swirling’). Its relationship to prose can be summed up with a saying that also applies to runners: that poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.

Our midsummer jogger has left home early: ‘The First up | and out – ha!’. Personally I always run sluggishly at this time – when I used to run with a trainee soldier was keen on early starts, we’d have breakfast in his college afterwards, then I’d go back to bed. But when the morning run is the only slot I have, I can’t deny there’s that first light and sunrise are hella moving.

Let’s finish with this beginning, and more specifically, by admiring – from a distance – what William Blake, whether a jogger or not history does not relate, has to say about this same sight:

‘What’, it will be Question’d, ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty’.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Steak, brandy, and strychnine... how to win the marathon in 1908

Odds and sods

I thought I’d write a post on the various things I’ve come across in running or in reading for this blog that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. They might even make their way into the hallowed category of the Quite Interesting.

* There’s a man who runs in the cross-country league I used to take part in. Luckily he’s a lot slower than me – I say luckily because it means I don’t have to run races alongside him as he out-grunts any tennis player, and does so via his instantly recognizable, divinely-inspired mantra: ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God…’ (repeat for duration of race).

* Rosie Ruiz won the 1980 Boston marathon by taking the metro. She was later disqualified.

* The 118 runners ad campaign was sued by 1970s runner David Bedford.

* Paper chase is not only a stationery seller but also an old-fashioned running game where a ‘hare’ leaves a trail of paper and is chased by the pack of ‘hounds’. The names of several running clubs refer to this game - Thames Valley Hare and Hounds, Cambridge University Hare and Hounds, etc.

* This and other running games are practised by the Hash House Harriers. Formed by British colonials in 1930s Malaysia (the name comes from the hash or dull food they were served), it is still most popular in southeast Asia and Australia, though they exist all over the world – I once saw them in Paris! Described as ‘drinking groups with a running problem’, they have their own system of calls and esoteric language, not least in the fact that each chapter is run by the ‘mismanagement’. Traditions include a run every 29th February leaving from beneath Big Ben in London. Which is next week…

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Words for Running

Haruki Murakami wrote on what he talks about when he talks about running; but what about the words we use when we talk about it? There’s plenty to say about the fact that I’m already talking about running and not jogging. The culture wars between the two – which I’ll write about another time – perhaps go as far back as the 16th century, when someone wrote ‘sore shaking or hard iogging doth trouble the wearied body’. You can say that again.

Different languages throw up some interesting things about running. In French, cross-country is simply ‘le cross’, and therefore a cross-country runner is a ‘crossman’. This suggests that the urge to put on vests and steam round muddy fields is down from being particularly enervated that day. In Italian, endurance running is rather excellently called ‘resistenza’.

Words common to various languages also grab our attention. ‘Athletics’ derives from the Greek for competition, which seems unexciting except if we consider athletics as a kind of pure competetiveness, a competition with minimal rules or technique. It’s man against clock, man against track, man against man. It’s man against himself, not in a cringeworthy, psychological kind of way, but because your own body weight holds you back whilst that same body propels you forward.

There’s also the general category of ‘sport’, a word so common that we forget to notice it. The Latin ‘deportare’ can be found within it: not dissimular to ‘export’, ‘deportare’ means to carry off, convey away, transport, banish. It’s surely more interesting than the usual guff about a sportsman’s determination to see sport as a way of transporting or transfiguring yourself, becoming other through the line of sweat droplets left behind.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

From Pain to Runners’ High

Someone once said that ‘it’s easier to build a temple than to get a god to descend into it’. This is a useful metaphor to think about running: with the effort and the repetition, the drool and the vomit, we build and maintain a temple (see my last post on pain). But going against our quotation – I think it’s Beckett? –, in the case of running, oh boy does the god descend.

By this I don’t mean the feeling of satisfaction or contentment, the moralism of determination that is nauseating and American in equal parts. This moralism is described by an essay I read in Running and Philosophy (2007), which discusses what it calls the ‘seven Cs of success’: Conception, Confidence, Concentration, Consistency, Commitment, Character, Capacity. This is meatheadedness dressed up fancy. If this is what it is to write/think/philosophize about running, then surely it would be better to say nothing, just sticking with the saying by Sam Mussabini: ‘only think of two things - the gun and the tape. When you hear the one, just run like hell until you break the other’.

What I mean by the – very metaphorical – god that descends into the – very metaphorical – temple is something completely different. It can be produced more simply than via the ‘seven Cs’, by simply training often and hard, and on race day, by combining a really very small amount of tactics (don’t start too fast) with a healthy dollop of wanting to beat the other guy. And it has been described as follows:

Endorphins: neurotransmitters found in the brain that have pain-relieving properties similar to morphine… Besides behaving as a pain regulator, endorphins are also thought to be connected to physiological processes including euphoric feelings, appetite modulation, and the release of sex hormones. Prolonged, continuous exercise contributes to an increased production and release of endorphoins, resulting in a sense of euphoria that has been popularly labeled ‘runners’ high’ (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001-05).

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Running's a pain

Most non-runners suspect, and all runners know, that this sport involves lots of physical pain. But the way it’s usually described (‘you have to keep going’ etc. etc.) doesn’t do it justice. So what external markers can convey more forcefully what goes on between a runner and her body?

One is that sometimes you run so hard that you vomit. I only did this once. (See this blog giving terrible advice…). Other markers are the sensations felt when running short races such as the 800 or 1500m. Towards the end your legs and arms fill with burning heat and pins-and-needles: you look down at what really does feel like a sack of jelly and are surprised to find the legs still turning. Sometimes the neck and face go numb too, and/or you become extremely light-headed. I read that this is because the blood drains towards the muscles that are in distress – could this be dangerous? Let’s pretend we didn’t ask.

There are the niggles that come with a heavy training load – mechanical groans from tendons, joints, etc., but they usually go away. The ‘good’ type of pain doesn’t, on the other hand: it can always be found somewhere inside yourself, simply by running harder. A marker of this is the weakness that follows it: your fingers struggle to exert the pressure necessary to turn the door key or open a clothes peg.

In races you’re trying to breathe so much more than normal that it feels like breaking through into a cavity at the bottom of the lungs. Things don’t stop there because for the rest of the day phlegm that has been wakened from its sleep in the deeps of the lungs makes its appearance. I bet you’re glad I told you that.

Lastly there’s the icy-cold shower or bath I take after every run. After I first read about this I resented doing it, but now it’s a secret pleasure (it apparently helps the muscles recover). It’s a bit like a wimp’s version of what you can see in these mind-blowing photos, which aren’t of running, but hey…

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Can any short poem have been quoted so often as William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’? It gives us the expressions ‘satanic mills’ – which I’d bet are now more common than just plain mills – and ‘green and pleasant land’, as well as the title of F. R. Leavis’s Nor Shall my Sword. And between riots England sports fans intone the whole of this anthem to Christian revival, under the title ‘Jerusalem’: see this gloriously 90s video (ah, those weren’t the days).

But Blake also (nearly) wrote the words Chariots of fire, the name of a middling-to-bad film about running that won four oscars. It centres on the rivalry between a Scottish and devoutly Christian athlete, and a Jewish one struggling against prejudice. The final showdown at the Olympic games is avoided due to the Christian refusing to race on a Sunday, allowing each athlete to win gold in a different event. So the message seems to be that being Christian won’t help you to win races any more than being a Jew will. Except that the Scot comes away looking the bigger man in a film that is named after an ode imagining Jesus’s visit to Britain, so, er, maybe it will.

The dubious merits of much of the film aside (for instance the Scot’s hilarious, chicken-like running style), there is of course the opening scene. Twenty handsome young men run together along a beach. For whatever reason, running in a pack is – I hesitate, but what other word is there? – magnificent, and this scene captures something of that. This scene also features the famous theme tune, by Vangelis. Would many runners be fine with being watched this intensely by a fat man smoking in a darkened room? Still, this too is a monument to its decade (this time the 80s).

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Some runners have dayjobs as world leaders. Think Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Alastair Campbell. Think George W. Bush, who – incredibly enough – jogged every day as President. Imagine getting his diary-keepers to schedule that time for any other activity: reading novels, the cinema, origami.

In a similar vein, if the situation presented itself, you by wouldn’t hesitate to admit you were a runner to your grandma, the police, or at a job interview. It might even count in your favour, perhaps because running shows dedication, a work ethic. Yet this is the work ethic gone awry, work where there is none, work for no reward. It’s left-right-left-right-left-right all the way from A back to A. My friend once cut me right down by saying that running was no more than narcissistic ‘me time’.

The biggest event of the running calendar makes a suitably large contribution to this way of seeing runnning as heroism. The marathon is named for the Greek town from which the messenger Pheidippides departed bearing urgent news to Athens, 26 miles away. (In Greek marathon means fennel, which apparently grew there. Who can say that they knew that, eh?). Seeing the modern marathon as continuing this tradition ignores the fact that this messenger died on arrival. Now, most modern marathon runners don’t die: this event is a victory over the death of the first marathoner, a triumph of planned training over physical distance, time, and the limits of our bodies. The triumph of mindlessness over matter?

Sunday, 8 January 2012

In the thousands of hours I’ve spent running past people in the street, so few things have been shouted at me that it’s always an event when it happens. Unfortunately I don’t find the most common – ‘Run, Forest’ – particularly original. I can’t say the same for the overweight teenager who on seeing me panting and sweaty, shook her entire body and said ‘let’s do it’.

In the time I lived in France the horror and disdain displayed by Parisian faces always made me grin. For some reason the colour of my vest is more visible in French, and provokes football-related cheers: ‘Allez Lens!’ for red and yellow, ‘Allez St Etienne!’ for green. Once someone shouted ‘Sarkozy!’ – the country’s most famous jogger – with flawless spontaneity. He’d obviously been waiting to shout that all day.

Another time, at a large cross-country race a bystander was obviously very amused by shouting ‘come on the skinny ones!’. My favourite, though, isn’t a real cry at all, but is taken from Billy Connolly’s Desiderata (which is excellent in many ways). ‘Boo joggers’ he says, which, although a hostile act, I admire for its call to collective street action. It also seems more honest for non-joggers to boo joggers: for they know not what we do.
Yes, you guessed it, my blog’s title refers to Alan Sillitoe’s 'Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner' (1959). This loneliness is the preserve of those who instead of running to win a race, just run for the hell of it. The short story illustrates this difference with the figures of the director of a young offenders institution, ‘our doddering bastard of a governor, our half-dead gangrened gaffer’, and an inmate who is encouraged to run both as self-improvement and for the glory of the institution. He will eventually stop short of the finishing line so that the governor can see him throw the victory away.

The same question – race to win or just run senselessly? – gives rise to Cake’s The Distance (‘No trophy, no flashbulbs, no flowers, no wine’). And while I’m about it, Sillitoe’s book has the rare merit of being referenced by both Iron Maiden (‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’) and Belle and Sebastian (‘The Loneliness of the Middle-Distance Runner’). Who knew?

For our young offender, ‘running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police’. We learn about a life of poverty and crime in post-WWII austerity Britain, where clothes are threadbare but the odd successful job allows a few months of living like kings. Our hero is a reactionary outcast, refusing to internalize liberal narratives of rehabilitation. Indeed, even prison is too soft: ‘I’d stick them up against a wall and let them have it’. All this translates into a narrating voice that is part Northern, part working-class, and – for us – part plain old-fashioned (‘I can go my five miles round better than anybody else I know’).

It is difficult to resist the pleasure this voice takes in rounding out its sentences, for instance describing the pain of running (‘something’s happening inside the shell-case of my guts […], a grinding near me ticker as though a bag of rusty screws is loose inside me’), or the euphoria (‘it’s the only risk I take and the only excitement I ever get, flying flat out […], crazy like a cut-balled cockerel’).

But the most notable thing about this voice is how it sees itself as the creation of a runner’s consciousness, of ‘my barmy runner-brain’. The story doubles as a manifesto for thinking deeply – had it been written a decade later, Sillitoe would probably have called this ‘meditation’. Witness this interjection: ‘By God, to say that last sentence has needed a few hundred miles of long-distance running. I could no more have said that at first than I could have took a million-pound note from my back-pocket’. This can be taken two ways: either looking backwards, where running provides the conviction supporting a given thought; or looking forwards, where by continuing to run, we are building up a store of conviction without yet knowing what thought to attribute it to. So there’s both uncertainty and danger. Better be careful what we read.