Category Archives: Philosophy

“Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human” by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

When I posted a link to my review of Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run” on an earlier incarnation of this site, someone commented that they couldn’t stand Jurek and his “knit your own snacks bollocks”. Bit harsh I thought. I liked Jurek’s book – especially his guacamole recipe, which I make to this day – although I found sections of it troubling, and I’m not convinced anyone has time to mill their own flour.

Still, the phrase has stuck in my head. Anytime I read a running book that wants me to worship the earth beneath my toes, subsist entirely on wild leaves, or is just generally pretentious, I mentally write “knit your own snacks bollocks” in the margins.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid is an English Literature lecturer and ‘psychojographer’, and his book explores the links between the body, movement and landscape. Footnotes interweaves his personal running journey, scientific research, philosophy, and ideas from literature and history. Throughout he explores why the simple act of motion brings us such extensive but elusive-to-define rewards.

Footnotes came highly recommended, but I have to admit it trod a very fine line for me, teetering between knowledgeable and knitting needles. It doesn’t help that Cregan-Reid is a barefoot running advocate, with all the certainty of a convert. The idea that there is a “right” way to run (or to eat) irks me, particularly when writers seem by implication 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 someone who enjoys races and the competitive club-running side of the sport, which colours his outlook and makes him a different sort of runner to me.

The book is saved by the fact that the more scholarly elements are genuinely interesting and accessible. I learnt that a ‘black mirror’ was the colloquial name for an 18th-century gadget called a Claude Glass. It was a pocket-sized convex mirror, with a tint that gave landscapes a ‘painterly’ quality. Artists would turn their back on the landscape and look at the scene in the mirror instead, just as today’s tourists view the world through smartphones. Distracted Claude Glass users were known to fall off cliffs, showing that nothing changes.

The section on the history of treadmills is arguably the best part of the book. As all those who love running know, the treadmill is an instrument of torture, used as a last resort when it is impossible to run outdoors. What I didn’t know was that the treadmill was genuinely invented as a tool of punishment. In 1778 the Hard Labour Bill set out the concept that, instead of sitting in restful confinement,  prisoners should undergo toil of ‘the hardest and most servile kind, in which drudgery is chiefly required’. However, this couldn’t mean taking work away from the innocent and free, so in 1817 Sir William Cubitt invented the ‘treadwheel’ or ‘Discipline Mill’, on which up to twenty men would climb on together. It’s most famous victim? Oscar Wilde, who worked the treadwheel for as much as six hours a day and wrote about it in the Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,

And sweated on the mill:

But in the heart of every man

Terror was lying still”

Overall, I’m giving Footnotes the benefit of the doubt and saying it stays on the right side of the KYOSB divide, but it’s a close-run thing. Curious to know what others think. Comments below the line please…

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“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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“Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning & Mortality” by Mark Rowlands

We all have our different reasons for why we took up running. Health. Losing weight. Sense of achievement. It my case, it was to impress a girl by getting fit enough to go travelling with her. Whatever our reasons, I think it’s fair to say that few of us began running because we brought a bloody big wolf home.

The philosopher Mark Rowlands did just that. Before I picked up the book, I assumed the “running with the pack” thing was some sort of metaphor for humans being social creatures. But no, he genuinely owned a wolf, and the book contains the photos to prove it. “When I was 27 I did something really rather stupid” (buying his wolf Brenin). Well quite. Owning a high-energy hound forced Rowlands to exercise with his pet regularly, or risk the consequences. When you start reading the book, you’re looking for insights into why we run. After 20 pages or so, you’re as interested to know if he’ll have any furniture – or indeed limbs – left by the end.

What follows is an enjoyably rambling investigation into the meaning of life, and the meaning that running, in particular, gives life. Rowlands draws on arguments from Aristotle, Heidegger, Schopenhauer and just about everyone else from the Monty Python Philosopher’s Song, showing how the act of running illustrates many of their insights into what it is to be human.

Rowlands interweaves his argument with stories of taking his dogs out running, recounting the various thoughts he had while out with his pack. His central concept is that there is a “heartbeat” to a good run; that feeling of being purely in the moment, where the hypnotic rhythm of running takes hold. As he describes it: “A point where thinking stops and thoughts begin”. I think we’ve all experienced this; the point where whatever was bugging you before the run fades away, and random thoughts pop into your head instead. Mine are usually about what I’m having for dinner.

I was particularly drawn to his distinction between “instrumental value” and “intrinsic value”. If I do something because it leads to other benefits, it has instrumental value. For example, if I do a job because I want to get paid, then the job has instrumental value. Something that has intrinsic value, by contrast, is valuable by itself, irrespective of whether it gets me anything else. If I run because I like running, then running has intrinsic value. Losing weight is an incidental side benefit.

We live in an age that reduces everything to instrumental value. Exercise is for keeping you healthy. The environment is a series of natural resources waiting to be tapped. Education is for getting you a job. Work allows you to move up in society and live the American Dream. Deep down we know this is wrong. Intrinsic value – love, in all its various forms – is what truly matters in the world. Rowlands argues that when we run for the sake of running, when we inhabit the “heartbeat” of the run, we are experiencing a form of intrinsic value. That’s why we run.

All of which sounds, on paper, rather heavy going, but Rowlands has a talent for making the thought of nineteenth-century German miserabilists sound accessible and rather exciting. The book is endlessly quotable, with one of my favourites being “I think a good case can be made for the arse being the crowning bodily development of human beings”. It is our gluteus maximus, not our brains, that truly distinguishes us from apes, because it allows us to run upright. “It is all very well to come down from the trees, but without an arse there’s really not very much to do afterwards”.

That’s the instrumental value of running. It keeps your bum in shape. With all the strange and alarming bodily hairs I’ve started to grow in my 30s, running is the only thing standing between me and turning into a gorilla.

 

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