Marcus Chester, Marcus Chester runner, Sheds, books, review

A Shed of One’s Own

I recently read Marcus Berkmann’s  A Shed Of One’s Own.   I’ve always liked titles like this ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own some 20-odd years ago.  As a literature student I developed an enduring fascination with the concept of rooms as metaphors for containment and restriction.   It really has stayed with me.  Indeed, a few years ago I taught E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View to an A-level group and found myself once again captivated by literature which uses the conceit of rooms.  There is something immediately understandable about the fact that rooms can speak to our common understanding of, and need for, inclusion.

Of course, as a runner, I spend much time outside of rooms, outside of buildings.  I often find myself looking back into them as I shuffle past.  I’m often not conscious of my doing so; but when I am I love seeing the little vignettes of domesticity that always appear to be caught in a freeze-frame.  Of course,  I am grateful for the freedom that running offers.  But, I can’t help thinking as I run that such freedom is only meaningful once I’m back inside my home.  Running is as much about the return to a warm home and my family as it is about escape.

Sheds are a different matter.  I’ve been only been vaguely interested in these since I bought and built one of my own a couple of summers ago.  I found the whole process an enjoyable way to spend a few sunny August days.  Largely though, my shed has served a literal purpose.  I’ve not, in the pursuit of metaphor, been able to push the shed into the service of anything other than storage for the lawnmower and various bikes. 

So, it was with some surprise that I read Berkmann’s argument that ‘a shed of one’s own’ could also be understood as an internal shed: a sort of psychological space which is a defence against the havoc that middle age may bring.  So far, so good.  But I also stumbled upon a small paragraph in which sits the idea that marathon running can be likened to having a shed of one’s own.  Here the running-as-a-metaphor-for-a-shed-as-a-metaphor-for-having-one’s-own-internal-space actually works.  Weirdly. 

Marathon running is the construction that you erect around yourself in order to exclude yourself from one world (the sofa; the bad food; the rust of middle age) while allowing one to embrace the possibilities of another (the open road; the better choice).  Marathon running might not always exude the same comfort level that the idealised Berkmann shed offers; but, like the garden shed, it is always there: unassuming, tucked in the corner.  There might not be anywhere to keep the spades in your marathon shed.  But improved quality of life?  You’ll have that in bucket loads.

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Review: The Way of the Runner, Adhanarand Finn (Faber and Faber, 2015)

I came to The Way of the Runner really wanting to gain an insight into the world of Japanese ekiden.  I’d heard Adharanand Finn taking about the depth of Japanese running on the brilliant Marathon Talk podcast.  He seemed sold on the idea that there was something unique about the ways in which the Japanese trained that helped to account for their undoubted depth, particularly in the marathon and half marathon distances.

In this respect the book failed.  The text offers nothing beyond some bland statements about the fact that high school and university coaches can be incredibly tough; that runners train hard at a relatively young age (and subsequently burn out);  and that it is possible to earn a decent living from running even at a sub-national level.

The main issue is the fact that we never really get to know any of the runners that pop in and out of the narrative.  Whether it’s the language barrier or the reserve that many of the coaches have for a foreign journalist is not particularly salient.  What is evident is the fact that we don’t journey into the psyche of any of the runners.  We are none the wiser about what makes them capable of running such good times in such large numbers.  This is the real shame. Finn is, undoubtedly, a good writer.  He is capable of evoking the ennui of an overland train journey, and at times he movingly captures the essence of what running means to him.  He would have been onto something much more captivating if he’d been able to gain any significant insight into the psychology of the Japanese runners. He is a natural storyteller, but he’s stuck with a narrative that refuses to be told in any meaningful depth.