“Running Free: A runner’s journey back to nature” by Richard Askwith

How much do you spend on your running habit a year? Probably more than you think. I go through 2-3 pairs of road shoes at £80-£90 a time, plus a pair of spikes or racing shoes for a further £50-£60. Although I tend to keep my kit for several seasons, I’ll still need the odd new pair of shorts and/or singlet at some point during the year, so that’s another £40 or so. Then there’s the fees for entering races, and travel costs and accommodation for those that are further afield. Realistically, I’m probably spending £350-£400 a year on running, a sport that should, essentially, be more or less free.

Richard Askwith, author of the superlative Feet in the Clouds, has a name for this phenomenon: Big Running. Needless to say, he is not a fan. By his reckoning, my own spending is actually pretty modest. In an early chapter, he walks into Sweatshop and puts himself in the position of a novice, purchasing everything the shop suggests the budding runner needs. By the time he’s added shoes, clothes and various “essentials”, such as Race Day Arm Warmers, his imaginary bill comes to £1,144. While clearly no sane person would actually buy ALL of this stuff – and would probably choose cheaper brands – Askwith is right to say that something is clearly wrong with the state of our sport.

Running Free is an unashamed manifesto for a different sort of running, liberated from the commercial forces that seek to monetise every step we make. Askwith suggests that there are “7 Ages of the Runner”. We start out as hesitant newbies in the 1st Age, before starting to make running a key feature of our calendar in the 2nd. In the 3rd, we start chasing peak performance, doing everything we can to squeeze out marginal gains and improved racing times. It is this 3rd Age that Big Running loves so much, because 3rd age runners are suckers for kit.

Some of us then move onto a 4th age, which is where we take on a monumentally daft challenge, such as the Bob Graham Round, the Spartathlon, or completing an absurdly large number of marathons. Askwith’s argument is that many of us would find so much more enjoyment from running if we could transition to the 5th Age, which is where we disentangle ourselves from the tyranny of the watch, stop chasing times, and simply enjoy ‘slow running’ – running for running’s sake. He is still exploring and defining the 6th and 7th Ages.

He’s right up to a point. It IS horrific how much running gear and the bigger races can cost. He’s also uncomfortably astute in pointing out that many of us focus so much on times and PBs that we fail to enjoy our surroundings and enjoy the act of running itself. My internal jury is out on whether my current campaign to run a sub-3 marathon is actually ‘pleasurable’ or not.

However, Askwith virtually ignores what I would call Little Running; local club-running scenes and rivalries, and the associated subculture of running that happens at a county or regional level. Yes, the British 10k in London costs £50+ to enter, but the Oxfordshire Mota-vation summer series of five 4-mile races is an absolute bargain at £15, is staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, and takes entrants to a different pretty village each month. I can’t help but feel that Askwith’s perspective is skewed by having been a London runner for so long, and that a lot of the issues he is ranting about are big-city complaints. Out in the provinces, the running scene is smaller, friendlier and more close-knit.

He also has very little to say about classic cross-country running – as opposed to commercial obstacle races – which I would argue encapsulates many of the virtues that Askwith himself is seeking to promote. Membership of my club (£30) entitles me to enter two different cross-country leagues during the winter months for free. While I’m sure that running through a freshly ploughed field with a labrador at 5am is very invigorating, for my money there are few running experiences that beat the first mile of a cross-country race, where 100 comically under-dressed men charge through mud and branches, mercilessly bound up and down slopes, tongue lolling out of the mouth at the sheer exuberance of it all (maybe that’s just me).  Why run with a dog when you can feel like one yourself instead?

I think he’s also too dismissive of initiatives such as Parkrun, which he argues is compromised by its commercial sponsors. But where Askwith sees the evils of corporate advertising, I see a business plan for sustainability and a much-loved weekly institution that is being kept free for everyone. I think Askwith has forgotten what it feels like to be just starting out, and having a welcoming, inclusive environment in which to take your first lycra-clad steps. You can’t jump straight to his 5th Age immediately.

However, there are some revelatory moments in the book. The history of the obstacle racing industry makes for a fascinating case study in (alleged) chicanery and idea theft. The first such event was probably Tough Guy, set up in 1986 by an eccentric farmer called Billy Wilson. It remained a low-profile charity until 2009, when an MBA student called Will Dean proposed an idea to Wilson for expanding Tough Guy internationally, getting Wilson to share his logistical and financial secrets in the process. Dean failed to win Harvard’s MBA prize that year, but did set up his own event in 2010 instead, called Tough Mudder. Needless to say, Wilson was not part of the planning committee. In 2012, Tough Mudder had a turnover of $70million. Making that kind of money out of electrocuting people is seriously impressive, however underhand.

The best chapter of all relates to something I had never heard of: The Trevelyan Manhunt. First held in 1898, this is a highly secretive, invitation-only weekend event in the Lake District that sounds like a cross between fell-running, parkour and tag. Teams are split into Hares and Hounds, and the art is in knowing the landscape and how to elude the hunting pack. What astonished me was just how many key society figures of the 20th century have been Manhunters: G M Trevelyan (celebrated historian); William Beveridge (responsible for creating the NHS); one Chancellor or the Exchequer (not George Osbourne); one Home Secretary; and one former Governor of Hong Kong, amongst others. Forget the Bilderberg Group. This group sounds like the real New World Order.

In summary, while I think there is much truth in the book, I dispute Askwith’s thesis as a whole. His writing remains as polished as ever, but it does in places come across as the outpourings of a grumpy old man. Anyway, if he thinks running has got to a bad place, he should take a look at Big Cycling. Lousy doped-up EPO-taking cheats.

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3 thoughts on ““Running Free: A runner’s journey back to nature” by Richard Askwith

  1. […] I’ve never seen the point. Winning virtual credits won’t help me pay for my running shoes (see Running Free review). Back in the nineteenth century, things were different. People gambled cold, hard cash on running […]

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  2. […] new biography of Emil Zátopek by Richard Askwith (see earlier reviews of Feet in the Clouds and Running Free). Zátopek can rightly be regarded as one of the greatest athletes and Olympians of all time. He is […]

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  3. […] to be condemning the rest of us for our foolish high-carb eating, trainer-wearing ways. Both Running Free and Natural Born Heroes annoyed me for the same reason. As he later admits, Cregan-Reid is not […]

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