Monday, 18 March 2013

Review of Robin Harvie, 'Why We Run: a Story of Obsession' (2011)

This is by far the most engaging book about running I’ve come across: it is both weird and wonderful, and I encourage you to read it. To get a sense of its intellectual ambition, we need wait no longer than the epigraph, a quotation from Apsley Cherry-Garrard (a survivor of Captain Scott’s antarctic mission) which takes us away from the brainless positivity that usually surrounds running: ‘If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have the need to prove their bravery’.

The book recounts the author’s monomaniacal relationship with running, which began after a hazy all-night party with him seeing the London marathon on TV, and vowing that next year he would be on the starting line. He eventually becomes dissatisfied with what a devalued currency the marathon has become, and turns to ultra-marathons, ultimately taking on the Spartathlon, a 152km race from Athens to Sparta.  

But Harvie’s kaleidoscopic vision takes in much, much more – from discovery of his family roots to death and illness of those close to him, and beyond. Most of the major figures in the history of running are discussed, from Zatopek to Bannister (‘his legs moved as easily as milk pouring from a jug’) and from the Greek Olympic games to Bill Bowerman’s founding of Nike in the 1960s. A lot, perhaps too much, therefore goes on in this busy book. But this does mean that each reader is treated to tidbits of information she didn’t previously know. Some of mine were that the Greek ‘gymenazesthai’ (whence gymnasium) means to exercise naked, that running was the only sport in the first 13 Olympic games, and that a monastery of Japanese monks dedicate their existence to enlightenment through running. 

The author openly states that he is not built like a runner, and one of the strongest aspects of the book is the glee with which metaphor is mixed with gruesome description in describing what happens to the body during and after running: ‘My feet wept for days. Blisters, forming and popping under the nails, turned the skin a mottled black as the damage done to the tissues slowly revealed itself like some peculiar deep-sea creature’.

This description is of Harvie’s feet following the Spartathlon – for the benefit of non runners, the experience is not normal –, and reveals one of the unresolved debates going on beneath the book’s surface, which can be put as follows. Is this a book about training for and running a single, monstrous event (as its narrative and structure suggest)? Or is it about running in general (suggested by its title, Why We Run), about the way the impulse to run comes back again and again, no matter whether we are training for a race or not, thus creating patterns in our lives full of sound of fury but signifying nothing?

This question receives an ambiguous answer with the crossed-out title of the final chapter on whether he will re-run the Spartathlon: ‘Never Again’.  And although I’ll leave you to discover how the race pans out for the author, I can give a sense of the conflicted state in which it leaves him. On the one hand, he comes close to describing running as a parasite inhabting him: ‘There was a better person, an idealised version of the man I wanted to be, who had never returned’. The language here is that of a Vietnam veteran. On the other hand, when describing a sensation of cosmic harmony, he gives it both barrels: ‘my will had been exposed to a divine knowledge’. 

The book that ends by being pulled in these two directions is both interesting and ferociously honest; one of those I’m looking forward – without ambiguity or crossing out – to reading again.   

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Review of Jean Echenoz, Running: a Novel (2008, trans. 2009)

There are three and a half reasons why we should be interested in the subject of this book, the Czech runner known as ‘the locomotive’, Emil Zatopek.

First, he was a 4-time Olympic champion and multiple world-record holder. Second, he played a bit part in post-war Czech politics, symbolizing the working-man’s graft before speaking out against the Soviet invasion in 1968 and being sent to work in a uranium mine. The half-reason is that he seems to have been a nice chap, giving his 10,000m Olympic medal away to a runner he felt better deserved it.

This book by Jean Echenoz – a Prix Goncourt winner and household name in France – intertwines these narratives, but never in more than a box-ticking way. It even admits as much in various nervous asides, introducing the runner’s decline thusly : ‘I don’t know about you but for me, all these exploits, victories, trophies are beginning to wear a bit thin. Which is no bad thing, because as it happens Emile is shortly going to start losing races’ (I’m translating here and below).

Still, all is not lost. Because there is one more reason – *the* reason – to write about Zatopek, and that is his running style. In making a list of most arresting and peculiar topics that have been written about, you could include the memory and time (Proust) or the nature of divine love (Dante). You could also include Emil Zatopek’s running style. Before Echenoz, it had been described as ‘a man trying to wrestle an octopus whilst travelling on a conveyor belt’.

The simplest is to read part of the book’s description of this style: ‘It looks like he is living on borrowed time, burrowing away, like gravedigger in a trance. Far from emulating the greats and their elegance, Emile moves forward heavily, torturedly, jerkly, in fits and starts. The violence of his efforts is clear, it can be read on his strained, frozen, grimacing face, always twisted as it is by horrific spasms. His features are altered, as if torn asunder by awful suffering, his tongue lolls out now and then, and one suspects he may have a scorpion in each shoe. When running he seems absent from himself, he seems to be in some terrifying other realm, he is so concentrated that he disappears, and yet he is more present than anyone. Hunkered down between his shoulders, on his neck which always cranes to the same side, his head bobs endlessly, shudders and tosses from left to right’.