Tag Archives: Richard Askwith

“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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“Today we Die a Little: The Rise & Fall of Emil Zátopek” by Richard Askwith

The bravest thing I have ever done is watch an episode of Button Moon. This seemingly innocent 1980s TV programme about a bottle man with kitchenware for arms filled my childhood with terror. At night the Freddie Krueger-esque presence of Mr Spoon would enter my dreams, leering horribly and dangling his merciless spoons of violence ever closer at my face. I couldn’t bear to see the show or hear its demonic theme tune. My so-called friends thought this was hilarious, and would regularly send me Button Moon-themed birthday cards and children’s TV soundtracks. One day in my 20s I gave in, and decided to face the peril. Loaded up on Plymouth Gin I sat through the opening credits and about 2 minutes of utensil-themed space action. Then I ran screaming into the night.
A story, then, of bravery and cowardice, both of which are the overriding themes of Today We Die a Little, the excellent 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 one of only 4 athletes to have his own statue outside the Olympic Museum in Switzerland. At the 1956 Helsinki Olympics he won gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon (his first ever race at the distance), a feat that is unlikely to be equalled. He broke an extraordinary 18 world records during his career, which lasted from 1941 to 1958.  However, today his world records have been comprehensively demolished, and there were other athletes of his era – Vladimir Kuts, Lasse Viren, Gordon Pirie, Ron Clarke – who can all lay a claim to similar athletic greatness. Why then has the name of Zátopek passed into legend?

Bravery is part of the reason. Zátopek took training and endurance of pain to new levels. When Roger Bannister and Chris Chattaway were training to run the sub-4-minute mile, they were running 25-30 miles a week. Zátopek was regularly doing 20-mile interval sessions a day, doing 50, 70, 100 x 400m reps, all at eyeballs-out pace. In army boots. He wasn’t afraid to give everything he could on the track, and the resulting grimacing and gurning was a gift to sports journalists. “He ran like he was a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt” is one of my favourites.

His appeal was about more than just guts. Despite only having a basic school education, Zátopek taught himself multiple foreign languages so he could converse with the people he met on his travels. If foreign fans knocked on his door, he would insist on speaking their native language of Finnish, English French etc rather than Czech, to make his visitors feel more welcome. A consummate sportsman, he famously gave Australian Ron Clarke – a great champion who never won an Olympics – his gold medal from Helsinki on the grounds that Clarke deserved it. He would tie his competitors’ shoelaces on the line if he noticed they were loose. He would cheer other runners over the finish line long after he completed a marathon. In many ways he was the Olympic spirit.

All of this was against the background of the Cold War, with Zátopek on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. Here is where his story becomes troubling. In 1950 he was a signatory to a letter justifying purges of opponents of the Czech Communist regime, several of whom were executed. Many Czechs today regards him as a collaborator and even a snitch for the secret police. Askwith shows that Zátopek’s relationship with Communism was more complicated than that. Zátopek was a firm believer in the ideals of Communism and creating a fairer society for all, but he became disillusioned with the Soviet system.  In 1968 he joined the protesters of the Prague Spring, pressing for greater freedom of expression and liberal reforms. When the Russians subsequently invaded and clamped down on dissent, Zátopek manned the barricades against them. As the David Beckham of his day, and internationally famous, he was ‘too big to jail’, but the authorities slowly ground him down.

Small humiliation after small humiliation was piled upon him. He was dismissed from his role as Director for Sport in the army. The man who had once been the first person to break 29 minutes for 10,000m was forced to join a mobile drilling crew. To evade further persecution he was forced to recant his support for liberal reforms, dismaying many of his comrades of 1968 who had chosen to suffer imprisonment or exile. Friends on both sides of the political divide abandoned him, and it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he re-emerged into public life. Ultimately, the bravest athlete of his day was a coward when it came to facing up to bullies.

Or that’s how some see it. But let’s be honest, who of us today can comprehend the horrors of life under totalitarian government? Who amongst us would be brave enough to risk death to preserve our ideals? Most of us, however famous, would just do and say what was expected of us in order to survive and keep our families safe. Sometimes the Mr Spoon-like tentacles of the State are too terrifying to resist.


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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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“Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession” by Richard Askwith

The fastest mile ever recorded by a human is not Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3mins 43secs, set in 1999. It is actually 3mins 24secs, ran by Craig Wheeler at the Meltham Maniac Mile in 1993. It’s not a world record because the race is entirely downhill on a steep descent in the Pennines, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. If El Guerrouj had tripped and fallen during his record attempt, he would have bruised his knee. If Wheeler had fallen, he would have left his knee, most of his leg, and probably also a bit of his head halfway up the mountainside. As Feet in the Clouds makes clear, ups are tough, but its the downs where fearless legends are made.

The book tells the history of fell-running, a sport that revolves around running up and down some of the hilliest terrain in Britain. The sport has its own version of climbing Everest: the Bob Graham Round. Beating this challenge involves covering 72 miles, 42 peaks and 27,000 feet of ascent and descent, all in under 24 hours. Most attempts fail. There is no prize money. Few people outside of running circles have heard of it. But the sheer masochism of the challenge gives it a romantic appeal. As one of the author’s friends says of someone who succeeded:

“Rob got there with five minutes to spare, but, God, you should have seen the state of him. He’d pissed himself, shat himself, puked all over himself. I thought he was going to die.” There wasn’t the slightest suggestion of disgust in [the friend’s] voice; just awe and respect, with perhaps a trace of envy.

Fell-running is a sport intimately bound up with the landscape of the north of England, particularly the Lake District. Arguably the most scenic part of the country, the Lake District’s beauty is matched only by its ability to absolutely piss on you for six days out of any week-long holiday. Many an English child of the 1980s can swap stories of being dragged to the Keswick Pencil Museum (slogan: “home of the world’s first pencil!”) on a rain-sodden day for the third time that week, because it’s the only dry attraction open.

Mere inclement weather wouldn’t bother the nutcases depicted in this book. At the sharp end, fell-running clearly attracts a certain kind of awe-inspiring psychopath. There is Tommy Sedgwick, a champion “who sprained his ankles so often they ended up twice as thick as those of a normal man”. Or Billy Bland, who holds the record for the Round at an absurd 13hours 57mins. But most of all, there is Joss Naylor.

Joss Naylor must rank as the most incredible athlete that hardly anyone has heard of. Naylor had two lumbar discs removed, all the cartilage drained from his right knee, and damaged his back so badly in a wrestling match that he had to wear a special brace for five years, all before he took up running in his 20s. He spent two decades in constant pain, yet managed to win virtually every fell race he entered. In his late 30s he had four more discs removed from his back, but at the age of 50 he ran and climbed all 214 Lake District peaks in a week, the equivalent of running 15 marathons and climbing four Everests. In my review of The Art of Running Faster, I referred to the ‘tough bastard’ era of British running in the 1980s. A whole new category of ‘iron bastard’ has to be created for these men.

The sad thing is that none of them made any money from it. For most of the years after the twentieth century, fell-running was mired in the acrimonious amateur vs professional dispute. Most fell-races were run for prize money, which meant participants faced a lifetime ban from amateur events, such as big city road races or the Olympics. Yet paradoxically, it was the amateurs who got rich from their sport, as sponsors and organisers found clever ways to circumvent the rules about not paying athletes. In 1981 the amateur Sebastian Coe became a millionaire; meanwhile the legendary fell-runner Kenny Stuart earned £687 in prize money, most of which he spent on petrol to get to races.

You get the impression that most of the fell runners don’t mind. Feet in the Clouds is a love letter to the landscape of the fells, and by interweaving the story of his own 5-year quest to achieve the Bob Graham Round, Askwith transports the reader to a world in which being harassed, humiliated and humbled by Mother Nature is the only thing that matters in life. It is simply an astonishing book, featuring the most captivating writing of any sports book I have ever read. For a while after reading it, you too will be inspired to drive up the M1, put on your spikes and take on Scafell Pike. Then you will come to your senses, realise that these people are quite, quite mad, consider getting a pint at a Keswick pub, and book tickets to see the world’s longest colour pencil instead.

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