Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Review of Alexandra Heminsley, ‘Running Like a Girl’ (2014).

Running and feminism are not often brought together, and indeed this book does not mention the f-word. But it does give a woman’s perspective as she enters the male-dominated world of distance running. Heminsley reminds us that it is easy to forget the pioneering figures who overturned bans on women’s participation that lasted into the 1980s (Julia Chase-Brand, Roberta Gibb, Katherine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson). In my own running club, I myself have seen old events programmes which relegated women over 25 years old to the egg-and-spoon race. 

The book is organised as a personal narrative of someone who loved sports as a child, then as an adolescent was made to feel her body was unsuited for sport. This led to years of not being taken seriously, off the sports field as well as on it, and eventually to a desire to kick back against it. Sections address how to choose a sports bra, running institutions such as the Sweaty Betty chain and the San Francisco women’s marathon, and feelings of insecurity. 

These feelings are evident in the blow-by-blow accounts given of several marathons, and how much the author relied on support networks during them. Her iphone allowed whole conversations by text and email to take place during these races, and she stops on multiple occasions for support from her family. This breaks some important unwritten rules in running culture: don’t stop, but also don’t interrupt the loneliness of the long distance runner.

Readers here are being asked to position themselves on several issues. The first is whether the unwritten rules being broken – those of solitude, self-sufficiency, understatement – are first of all male characteristics, or first of all runners’ characteristics. Second, can we apply the controversial point recently made (here), about underrepresented women authors in the London Review of Books being ‘newly arrived in the country’? In other words, does Heminsley’s reliance on support networks represent, rather than the anxiety of the neophyte, something more radical and collaborative?

Whatever our answers, those who inhabit that ‘country’ must welcome the growth in its demography. Let’s keep those eggs and spoons safely out of mind (until the time is right for an all-gender egg-and-spoon 10k, perhaps?).

Friday, 20 December 2013

Review of Donald Walker, ‘British Manly Exercises’ (1834).

I’ve used my British Library card as it was surely intended – ? –  and ordered up a 19th-century book whose full title is in fact: ‘British Manly Exercises; in which Rowing and Sailing are now first described and Riding and Diving are for the first time given in a work of this kind; as well as the usual subjects of Walking, Running, Leaping, Vaulting, Balancing, Scating, Climbing, Swimming, Wrestling, Boxing, Training, &c. &c &c’.

So, laughs-a-plenty are promised by the language of the title, and the book doesn’t disappoint. But if it wasn’t written like that, could we still tell it was written in 1834? Yes. For example, we are told that the dress code for exercise was a straw hat and loosely-fitting trousers. Our modern notion of pushing the limits is ruled out: ‘whenever the gymnast feels tired, or falls behind his usual mark, he should resume his clothes, and walk home’. Why exactly these exercises should be British, and why they should be manly, is not explained – although we are told that for Greek and Roman athletes ‘the sexual intercourse [sic] was strictly prohibited’. The line forms a paragraph on its own. Let’s hear no more about it.

The section on running cutely defines it as ‘precisely intermediate to walking and leaping […] a series of leaps from each foot alternately must be performed, in order to constitute it’. I’ll have to remember that next time I’m doing cross-country. Later, the action of running is described as follows: ‘the whole arms move but slightly, in order that the muscles of respiration on the chest may as little as possible be disturbed’. Again, I’d never thought of it like that, but it’s true that your arms should be relatively still. The section describes ‘moderate running’ (up to 700 yards) and ‘rapid running’ (100 yards), before telling us about some ‘feats in running’. Of course, 1834 is a long time before Roger Bannister: ‘the mile was perhaps never run in four minutes; but it has been done in four minutes and a half. A mile in five minutes is good running. Two miles in ten minutes is oftener failed in than accomplished. Four miles in twenty minutes is said to puzzle the cleverest’.

The book also has some unusual training tips. These are probably its most interesting part because they raise the possibility that in future our current training wisdom could sound just as strange (for instance the obsession with drinking: see Tim Noakes, ‘Waterlogged: the Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports’). We are told that little sleep is best, and that training is helped by doses of medicinal Sodium sulfate. In terms of nutrition, two meals of broiled beef or mutton per day are prescribed, but – careful! – without any salt or ‘spiceries’. Very little is said about what distances to actually run, the emphasis instead being placed on a sauna-like treatment: having run four miles in flannel kit and ‘at the top of his speed’, the athlete must drink a pint of hot ‘sweating liquor’ containing caraway seed, coriander seed, root-liquorice, sugar-candy, and cider. He then must sit in bed beneath 6-8 blankets, sweating and dreaming of glory.

Perhaps in future garmin watches, energy gels, and breathable clothing will sound as quaint as what ‘British Manly Exercises’ prescribes for its athletes. I can’t wait to hear about the new ways in which exercise will ‘confer beauty of form and contribute to impart an elegant air and graceful manners’.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Runners of Victoria Park


Review of Bill Jones, ‘The Ghost Runner: the True Story of John Tarrant’ (2011).

In 1959, Alan Sillitoe published ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, the story of a young convinct who purposefully loses a race simply to irritate the establishment. The moral is that running is a solitary sport and alien to fame and fortune.

1959 was also the heyday of another runner, this time in real life. John Tarrant was world record holder at 40 miles and 100 miles (set over 160 and 400 laps of the track respectively). But he was most famous as the ‘ghost runner’, who would leap barriers to run races from which he had been banned.

Farrant’s exclusion dated from two years when he fought as a low-ranking boxer, accepting a total of £17 (£500 in today’s money). He was first excluded from domestic races, then following a media campaign and partial reinstatement, from representing Great Britain. Contrary to Sillitoe’s book, the moral of this tale is that solitary though running might often be, it is also a human, social activity. Being denied the chance to compete on equal terms caused Farrant’s life to revolve around bitter resentment. 

It did so in another age, one of taciturn men and downtrodden wives. Farrant has a succession of labouring jobs – including chipping off the asbestos from train brake pads –, and the runners in question are hard men who ‘would shove you in a ditch as soon as look at you’. His father’s hobby was breeding rats, and for his part John’s holidays were spent at Butlins (where, aged 27, he won the knobbly-knees contest). All this clashed with the athletics establishment of Roger Bannister and Harold Abrahams (see ‘Chariots of Fire’), a.k.a. the ‘blazerati’. Amateurism was the watchword, gentlemanly values the veneer beneath which the dirty work of privilege was done.   

So there’s clearly a story about class here. But there are also things to be said about individualism, and about bodies: in both of these areas, John Farrant comes across as less of a hero. First, he was a difficult man, abandoning his wife and child to live in South Africa, irritating many with his story of iniquity, and hurling expletives at youngsters who overtook him. Second, he pushed himself too hard, eventually dying of stomach cancer aged only 42, having ‘trained’ even in hospital by running on the spot inside a locked bathroom. The unanswerable question is how much of this attitude was caused by resentment at his ban, and how much was innate. John Farrant should cross our mind whenever we romanticize the loneliness of the long distance runner.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Review of Tony Perrottet, 'The Naked Olympics' (2004)

Tony Perrottet’s book ‘The Naked Olympics: the True Story of the Ancient Games’ was released to coincide with the Athens olympics of 2004; talking about it might not be wholly timely, but can there be a wrong time to talk about naked, oiled men and the slaughter of 100 white oxen? I thought not. (And by the way, the book isn’t about ‘naked running’ – a phrase runners use to describe the now rare experience of heading out without a satellite watch pacing their every step).

Perrottet highlights a healthy number of differences between the ancient games at Olympia and their modern incarnation – as we might have guessed, badminton and dressage were not included. In fact, few of today’s disciplines were: events were limited to boxing, wrestling, ‘pankration’ (a vicious combination of boxing and wrestling), chariot racing, pentathlon (discus, javelin, standing jump, running, and yes, more wrestling), and running. The latter took place as lengths of a straight track, over distances of roughly 200m, 400m, 1500m, and 5k.  

But although it mentions these differences, the book does its smallminded best to boil everything down to American capitalist values. We are shown why various aspects of the Greeks’ games show them to have been Americans who just didn’t know it yet – they are ‘brash’, ‘nouveau riche’, they spend their time in ‘sports bars’ seeking out ‘potential for business’. Perhaps some of these elements are even correct; but the impression the author gives is of someone ignoring historical variety in the name of some pretty predictable values.

Despite himself, though, Perrottet presents us with some of the good stuff. Who knew that the games were held, every four years, continuously from 776 BC to 394 AD (when they were banned by Christians)? Or that every competitor had to prove his Greek heritage? The Greeks were far from the modern Olympics’ universalist message – Johnny foreigner just wasn’t allowed to play.

So, what’s the message that we can take from the Greek Olympics? To take part, you needed to be good either at fighting, or at short sprints. You needed to not be a barbarian from outside Greece, and certainly – horrors! – not a woman. But if you still qualified, you got a chance to be crowned with laurel leaves, to enjoy glory without end – and also without payment or reward. Something that the author of ‘The Naked Olympics’ does his level best to ignore.  

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Things that Runners Say

Continuing this blog’s focus on some of the weirdnesses of running, here are a few sayings that runners are used to hearing, but which might leave non-runners bewildered.

1. ‘I didn’t have any legs left’.  This doesn’t meant that you’ve put in so much effort that your legs have fallen off and you are left crawling round the track on your stumps (is that why they paint them red? I think we need to know). But that gruesome image gives an idea of the pain that you can feel if you’ve put in too much effort too early. ‘To have legs’ therefore means ‘to have energy reserves left’.

2. One thing you could use those energy reserves for, if you had any, would be to ‘kick’. This doesn’t mean lashing out at your rival, tripping him up and using the distraction to gain 30 yards. But again, the violence of the metaphor is telling: ‘to kick’ means to put in a spurt towards the end of a race, with the intention of leaving your competitors feeling as if they had a boot stamping on their face forever (as George Orwell put it).

3. If you were left behind by someone ‘kicking’, you might say ‘I died’. In other words, when things go wrong in races, you’re off the pace and behind your rivals and embarrassed, the phrase used to describe this feeling invokes an existential crisis. I wonder if our friends and partners know that when we return from races where this happens, we’re doing so as ghosts of our former selves who have ‘died out there’?