Tag Archives: Barefoot Running

“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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“Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila” by Paul Rambali

1956 was Year Zero for African running on the world stage, a 60th anniversary that few people appear to have noticed in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. For sure, South African teams had competed in global sporting events prior to that date, but the teams were entirely white. Given the dominance of East Africa in distance running nowadays, it is amazing to think that there was once a time when there were no African champions.

Ethiopia, under its dictatorial emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly applied to join the Olympics in the 1940s and 1950s, and was just as repeatedly dismissed with laughter, until the International Olympic Committee finally relented and allowed Ethiopia to compete in Melbourne in 1956, where its athletes failed to make much of an impression. The prevailing view was that Africans lacked the discipline and temperament to be athletes, and would therefore humiliate themselves in global competition. Barefoot Runner tells the story of when everyone stopped laughing and paid attention: the day when a member of the emperor’s bodyguard seemed to come from nowhere to win the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, barefoot.

It was Hollywood stuff. Abebe Bikila had only joined the team as a last-minute substitute when a first-team member injured himself playing football. The marathon itself was scheduled late in the day, so that it finished at night, the final miles lit atmospherically with burning torches as Bikila and Rhadi of Morocco duelled it out for gold. In a sweet moment of national vengeance, Bikila won his victory by passing under the arch of Constantine, the very spot from where Mussolini had set out 25 years previously to conquer Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia. He even set a new world record of 2:15:16 to boot. Four years later, and just a few weeks after having his appendix removed, Bikila won gold again in Tokyo, becoming the first person to score double marathon gold medals.

Bikila’s final years ended in tragedy. Involved in a car crash, he became paralysed from the waist down, and spent months recovering at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK. He toured Ethiopia for a while, giving inspirational talks to schoolchildren, but eventually died in 1973 from complications relating to his injuries. He was just 40 years old.

The words “story” and “Hollywood” that I used earlier are important here. Barefoot Runner is a fictionalised imagining of Bikila’s life. Although Rambali has clearly done a lot of research, he has filled in the gaps with speculation and incidents that may not have happened. There is a horrifying scene during Bikila’s first journey to Addis Ababa where a thief in a marketplace is identified by a boy in a trance and then hacked apart by a mob. Bikila himself is nearly fingered as the culprit before the trance-boy changes his mind. It’s a shocking and vividly described moment, and perhaps such things are known to have happened in Ethiopia at the time, but was Bikila actually there, and was he really nearly the victim of mob justice? Similarly, there is a roll-call of 20th century figures that have cameo roles in the narrative: Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest; Lee Evans, who was one of several US medallists who gave the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics; and Wilma Rudolph, the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and worthy of a biopic in her own right, to name a few. Rambali imagines how these conversations might have unfolded. There’s no proof of course.

None of which actually gets in the way of enjoyment of the book. It’s beautifully written, and Rambali gets into the minds and motivations of his three main characters: the humble Bikila; his guilt-ridden Finnish coach Onni Niskanen; and the powerful and paranoid Selassie. Indeed much of the books is actually a fascinating portrait of an absolute monarch facing the pressures of modernity. And what an eccentric king he was. Selassie split his day into Hours in which certain types of business took place: the Hour of Informants; the Hour of Purse; the Hour of Judgements etc. The most pivotal moment in the story comes when two of the emperor’s’ western-educated “next generation” betray him and launch a coup, supported by the imperial bodyguard. It’s here where I feel Rambali crosses a line into dangerous embellishment, depicting Bikila as an (unwilling) witness to the massacre of aristocrats by his fellow bodyguards. Once the coup is defeated, the perpetrators are hanged and Bikila is only saved by a royal pardon because of his sporting success. It is a fantastically dramatic account…but there’s not a shred of evidence for it either way.

Ultimately the reader has to make up their own mind about where fact and fiction part ways. I have read some alternative accounts that suggest Bikila was not the mild-mannered man depicted in the book, but rather like later tragic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, he succumbed to drink and womanising as he grew famous and wealthy, and was possibly drunk at the wheel at the time of his crash. We will probably never have the full story.

Don’t let any of this stop you from reading the book. It’s a cracking story, blisteringly told, and unlike any other work of ‘sporting fiction’ you’ll ever read.

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“Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” by Christopher McDougall

My son and I are currently making our way through the collected works of Roger Hargreaves. The greatest of his novels is unquestionably Mr Silly. In this parable of the 2016 US election, our hero enters the Nonsense Cup, awarded to the person who has the silliest idea of the year. Entrants include a square apple and a teapot that pours onto itself. Mr Silly beats them all by painting the trees of Nonsenseland (where the trees are of course red) green.

Natural Born Heroes would have been odds-on favourite for winning the Nonsense Cup. It tells the story of Second World War resistance heroes on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general, interwoven with present-day anecdotes about the sport of parkour, ‘natural movement’ and nutrition. Christopher “Born to Run” McDougall clearly had two different books he wanted to write, but neither was quite fully formed…and judging by the cover illustration his publisher was probably desperate that it be another running book, not a history book about Greeks and eccentric Englishmen. Inspired by the Percy Jackson series of children’s books (yes really), he decided to mash them together, drawing links between the urban free-runners he encounters in Paris, London and Pennsylvania, and how the heroes of mythological and wartime Greece proved to be such impressive warriors.

On the positive side, the story of how British spy Patrick Leigh Fermor and his band of Cretan partisans successfully bogged down the Nazi war machine is a true adventure story, full of spies, derring-do and colourful characters. To train the agents of the Special Operations Executive, whose role was to go behind enemy lines and cause trouble for the Nazis, the British high command recruited the two toughest policemen from the world’s most dangerous city: Shanghai. These cops fought dirty, and taught their students how to knock out an enemy using just a box of matches, then kick him in the groin for good measure. On Crete, their students would mastermind one of the greatest feats of espionage of the war, kidnapping General Heinrich Kreipe near his residence and smuggling him off the island. When the Nazis discovered his abandoned car the next day, they found some Cadbury chocolate wrappers, Player’s cigarettes and an Agatha Christie novel littered around it, just in case the Germans needed a clue as to the nationality of the cheeky kidnappers.

McDougall thinks that combining this narrative with present-day accounts of people rediscovering the “lost” arts of fitness, athleticism and nutrition is a successful way of telling something profound about the nature of heroism, but unfortunately for me it was a real failure. Part of the problem is that so much of his story is incredibly tenuous, based on the smallest of evidence, and some of it is outright cobblers. Take this little gem: “When England was rebuilding after the Great War, [Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] was its guide”. Really? England rebuilt itself after 1918 based on the values of ancient Greek literature? McDougall has clearly never seen Peaky Blinders, or even Downton Abbey for that matter. England after the war was a country filled with violent and traumatised demobbed men, militant trade unions urging a general strike, and a wildly unequal class system. He bases this sweeping statement on a single quote by Narnia author and Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, who was in any event actually talking about England after 1945.

Later, when McDougall used the phrase “tough London borough of Westminster” I threw the book across the room. It’s one of the richest parts of the city.

And then there’s the dangerous, pseudo-scientific aspect to the book. Born to Run was a rollicking romp through the world of ultrarunning, exploring the amazing endurance feats of the Tarahumara people and popularising the exhaustion-hunting theory of why human beings run. It’s an easy, gripping read, and McDougall’s evangelism for running without shoes almost single-handedly started the current barefoot running boom.

Reading Natural Born Heroes, I couldn’t help thinking “here we go again”. Deploying his trademark brand of infectious certainty, McDougall has got a new fitness lifestyle to sell his readers: High Fat Low Carb (HFLC), aka the Paleo or Banting diet. In McDougall’s account, the sports nutritionists have been getting it wrong for years, and carbohydrates are actually a terrible fuel for endurance sport, being both completely inefficient and a source of health and injury woes. Instead, we should be training our body to burn its fat reserves, which is a much more natural fuel source. He cites several examples of elite runners who switched to a fat-based diet and saw colossal improvements in their performance. In a link to his history of the heroes of Crete, he is quick to point out that the traditional Cretan diet involves lots of fat and limited carbohydrates.

Why “dangerous”? McDougall writes in such an accessible style that it is easy to forget he is not a scientist, and that the scientists he does cite do not necessarily reflect mainstream opinion. Many people injure themselves making ill-advised shifts to running barefoot without proper training. Equally, many people may be setting themselves up for health problems if they switch to a HFLC diet without proper consideration. In some people, the diet seems to lead to insulin and ‘bad’ cholesterol issues, not to mention reduced performance.

My own view about both barefoot running and HFLC is that we are all individuals, and what works for one person’s body may not work for another. I also think there are a lot of separate issues being confused in McDougall’s book. Many of the people mentioned as HFLC converts in the book will have seen benefits simply by switching from bad eating habits to thinking more proactively about their diet. It’s noticeable the author himself says he previously would eat pizza and cheesesteaks, but lost the cravings for that kind of junk once he switched to HFLC. Have you ever seen a cheesesteak? It’s a crime against food.

The other thing that makes me very suspicious about movements such as HFLC and barefoot running is that they often come hand in hand with someone wanting to sell you something. With barefoot running it was Vibram Fivefingers – the nonsensical concept of shoes for barefoot runners. With HFLC there is a whole industry of cookbooks and fat-crammed ‘natural’ food products. But perhaps the thing that truly offends me is the Bulletproof range, spearheaded by Bulletproof coffee, mentioned briefly in Natural Born Heroes as the secret potion that helped the LA Lakers NBA team turbo-charge their basketball skills. Bulletproof coffee, sold online and in London hipster coffee shops, is highly expensive gourmet coffee. With a big knob of butter in it.

As Roger Hargreaves might say: how silly.

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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 Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth” by Adharanand Finn

After a couple of disastrous and cramp-filled races the previous year, my friend Tim had a “marathon monkey” on his back at the starting line of the 2014 Edinburgh Marathon. He wasn’t the only one. Japhet Koech is one of the key personalities described in “Running with the Kenyans”, first published in 2012.

Off the back of the book’s popularity, a crowdfunded campaign helped scrape the money together for Japhet to compete at the 2013 Edinburgh Marathon, to give him a chance to compete on the international stage.  Unfortunately he blew it, accelerating too early in the race and detonating a few miles later. He came 5th in a ‘pedestrian’ 2hrs 21mins, a time that only a handful of British runners have beaten in the last few years. The fact that Kenya boasts such a depth of long-distance running talent that someone of Japhet’s ability is considered mediocre is what inspired Guardian journalist Adharanand “unpronounceable first name” Finn to write this book, subtitled “Discovering the secrets of the fastest people on earth”.

The book is part investigative journalism, part travelogue. Finn and his family moved to Iten village in rural Kenya for six months, living in a town that is 100% dedicated to running. Japhet was his amiable next door neighbour, helping him settle into the rhythms of training as a Kenyan. Along the way, Finn observes various factors that help the Kenyans be such champions.

For one thing, while the rest of the world thinks that it is “Kenyans” who dominate the sport, Kenyans themselves will tell you that it is the Kalenjin, an ethnic group that represents only 11% of the population. Many Kalenjin live in the high altitudes of the Rift Valley, so one theory is that Kalenjin runners have naturally adapted to be oxygen-efficient runners.

Finn explores other factors, such as the fact that rural Kenyans run from an early age in order to get to school, so develop a strong fitness base in childhood. He also notes that the extreme poverty in the area is a powerful incentive to train hard and win races; the financial rewards for placing highly in an international marathon can be sufficient to purchase land back home and support the local community. Barefoot running gets a mention too, although Finn points out that local runners are not especially evangelical about it and are very happy to run in trainers if they can afford them.

The book is very well-written, with lots of touches of gentle humour. Having won a 10k race in the UK in a time of 38mins, the author is quickly humbled in his first major training session in Iten, where he fails to keep up with even the slowest runners. He then sets a goal of entering the local Lewa marathon, and builds up a team of local runners who will compete in it alongside him. It is probably one of the few races in the world where finishing times can be affected by the presence of lions on the course.

Ultimately, Finn comes to the view that there is no single “secret”, and that hard work is as responsible for Kenyan success as any innate genetic advantage. Knowing this conclusion in advance will not spoil the book, nor should it come as a surprise – the real pleasure here is spending time with the personalities and comprehending what it must be like to live somewhere where every aspect of life is focused on running.

And Japhet? The Edinburgh Marathon organisers were so won over by his popularity in 2013, despite his disappointing time, that they invited him back to run the race again the following year. At mile 15 or 16 of the race I saw him coming back on the other side of the road, in a leading pack of 3. He looked comfortable and relaxed, and eventually came a fantastic second in a time of 2:16. We all conquered our marathon monkeys that day.

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