parkrun, Wythenshaw parkrun, Marcus Chester, The Happy Teacher Podcast

These are the moments I run for

Running continually renews me; this much is evident to me.

It’s an odd paradox that through exhaustion I feel more alive, more refreshed, happier. It’s the stripping away of the layers of self that does it. In exhaustion my mind is liberated from everyday thoughts and I return home with a clarity of outlook that lasts until the next run.

I run to get some time away and time alone. It’s not that I want to be lonely; what I want is to be better when I return: there’s peace and exhilaration in exhaustion. I’m a better human when, through running, my jangled nerves are calmed and my senses are refreshed. Through exhaustion I gain the peace of mind that has, for so much of my life, eluded me.

Sometimes the renewal is sudden. There are times when while plodding along that the light through the trees penetrates my eyes at a different level and it resonates deeply. It would be hard to explain were it not so commonplace: one minute my thoughts are confused, tricky to make sense of; within the next footstep the assault to my senses from the outside world is so complete that the only thing to do is to stop and to stare. Thought stutters to a halt. I’m at peace.  It’s what every addict seeks.

Wythenshaw parkrun, 22 October 2016

These are the moments I run for. This is where running refreshes me in ways that progress measured by the stopwatch never could: to stop and stare at how the universe has brought me to this point at this time; to witness the early autumn light breaking through the trees of a park; to experience the damp rising from the grass.

The journey is always significant. Running is a daily reminder of that. It continually helps me to arrive at a renewed, refreshed state of mind.

This much is evident to me.


Review: Why We Run, Robin Harvie (John Murray, 2011)

Obsessive’s accounts of their exploits often make for interesting reading: Ranulph Fiennes’ DIY fingertip removal springs to mind. But, as vivid and as interesting as such accounts often are, they also leave the reader with the nagging doubt that what they have just read is indeed the narrative of the unhinged loner, caught in the terrible circumstances that they have invited into their lives in order to find out who they really are. Harvie’s book acknowledges this from the outset. His is a story of obsession and although he claims to rationally explain `why we run’, there is, like the fingertip removal, something much more interesting going on: less obviously dramatic, but much more considered.

His account of his ultra-running reads more like an exploration into what is possible, an exploration into the frequently untapped vault of human potential. It is less about why we run and more about who we might become.

Harvie’s book then is, like his training for the arduous Spartathlon, a personal journey, which at times, like running, transcends its surroundings and takes on an almost spiritual dimension. Consequently, the sublime pushes through his magnificent prose with startling frequency. Naturally, at times, he struggles to answer why we run. To do so would involve an objective stepping away from the simplicity of the activity. You’d think this would be easy. After all, running, by his own admission is not a special skill that only the privileged few can enjoy. But, step away he must in order to answer this self-imposed question. In some ways he does manage this. The book describes the regression of his social life and friends; it outlines the way in which running encroaches on his personal life and in some beautiful passages he acknowledges a deceit: that he may be using a very personal grief to motivate his efforts.

And then, of course, there are occasions when he is not really able to objectively step away from his running: his really is a story of obsession. In doing so he references many writers in a textual journey through literature that concerns itself with the obsessive pursuit of who we really are. This literary pursuit could be contrived: a lesser writer would claw through such intertextuality without regard. It would be easy to see glib cliché trod underfoot, as it were. But here, in Why We Run, the flow of the narrative (it is no coincidence that the Thames is a ubiquitous presence in the book) is so beautifully managed that, like long distance running itself, you find yourself wandering, transported, left to return back home a different person. It is why we read.

So Harvie’s is a book about the most agonising of pains, and a book that affirms all that is good about running with each turn of the page. Between these two perspectives lies a narrative that is as engaging as it is well-written and a narrator as eloquent as he is obsessed. It is a remarkable book.