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.   

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