When I was at university, I once had a big night out drinking absinthe. When we finally staggered home, my friend John and I thought it would be a good time to work out some ideas for our upcoming essays on the causes of European nationalism. It was an inspired night of discussion, where our ‘gently’ lubricated minds were able to delve deep and unleash new theories and concepts that would surely dazzle our tutors. We eventually called it a night, knowing that we had finally cracked the secrets of academic study and research.
Waking up in the morning, not feeling exactly 100%, I looked at our whiteboard of ideas and realised that what we had actually done was drawn up a list of our favourite cheeses. There was a relationship diagram indicating some sort of tenuous link between Emmenthal and Stilton, one of which may or may not have represented Mussolini’s Italy.
The crushing disappointment I felt that morning was very similar to the experience of reading Why We Run. A quote from Robin Harvie is often used to endorse other running books, and The Economist even interviewed him last Christmas for an article about the Spartathlon. Given the status the author seems to have, I thought this might be a landmark book, in a similar manner to Born to Run.
The central problem is that Harvie cannot actually come up with a satisfactory answer to his central question of why we run, so instead relies on using literature and literary quotes to make his points sound more profound than they actually are. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but thinking that it’s all well and good showing off to your readers that you’ve read Albert Camus’ The Plague, but it doesn’t help me explain why on earth I willingly did 3 laps round the Cirencester cross country course earlier this year, including that hill.
The frustrating thing about the book is that, buried among the rambling musings about the source of the Thames, there is actually a very touching human story to be uncovered here. During the course of his narrative, Harvie and his wife experience a sudden family tragedy, one that causes their lives to spiral into grief and inward retreat. As he starts telling this story, darker family secrets emerge, but he (understandably) pulls away without revealing all.
The central framework of the book is built around his training for the Spartathlon, the annual 250km non-stop race between Athens and Sparta. This is where some of the most compelling sections of the book can be found, because the sheer lunacy of running the equivalent of nearly 6 marathons in Greek temperatures makes for fantastic storytelling potential. The author’s account of his training (20 miles in a bin bag in the height of summer anyone?) and ordeal during the race do make for interesting reading, but it would have been good to know more about the other personalities who have taken part in the race, past and present. It is the descriptions of such characters that makes other books such as Feet in the Clouds so gripping.
What we end up with here is an unsatisfactory Frankenstein’s monster of a book – part memoir, part race report, part philosophical investigation – that does none of the parts full justice. Mark Rowlands, in Running with the Pack has a much better (and weirder) crack at answering the question of why we run, and draws on philosophical arguments without giving the impression of showing off. Alas, in Why We Run, what we have instead is, essentially, a whiteboard of pretentious Oxbridge cheese.