Thursday, 26 January 2012

Running's a pain

Most non-runners suspect, and all runners know, that this sport involves lots of physical pain. But the way it’s usually described (‘you have to keep going’ etc. etc.) doesn’t do it justice. So what external markers can convey more forcefully what goes on between a runner and her body?

One is that sometimes you run so hard that you vomit. I only did this once. (See this blog giving terrible advice…). Other markers are the sensations felt when running short races such as the 800 or 1500m. Towards the end your legs and arms fill with burning heat and pins-and-needles: you look down at what really does feel like a sack of jelly and are surprised to find the legs still turning. Sometimes the neck and face go numb too, and/or you become extremely light-headed. I read that this is because the blood drains towards the muscles that are in distress – could this be dangerous? Let’s pretend we didn’t ask.

There are the niggles that come with a heavy training load – mechanical groans from tendons, joints, etc., but they usually go away. The ‘good’ type of pain doesn’t, on the other hand: it can always be found somewhere inside yourself, simply by running harder. A marker of this is the weakness that follows it: your fingers struggle to exert the pressure necessary to turn the door key or open a clothes peg.

In races you’re trying to breathe so much more than normal that it feels like breaking through into a cavity at the bottom of the lungs. Things don’t stop there because for the rest of the day phlegm that has been wakened from its sleep in the deeps of the lungs makes its appearance. I bet you’re glad I told you that.

Lastly there’s the icy-cold shower or bath I take after every run. After I first read about this I resented doing it, but now it’s a secret pleasure (it apparently helps the muscles recover). It’s a bit like a wimp’s version of what you can see in these mind-blowing photos, which aren’t of running, but hey…

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Can any short poem have been quoted so often as William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’? It gives us the expressions ‘satanic mills’ – which I’d bet are now more common than just plain mills – and ‘green and pleasant land’, as well as the title of F. R. Leavis’s Nor Shall my Sword. And between riots England sports fans intone the whole of this anthem to Christian revival, under the title ‘Jerusalem’: see this gloriously 90s video (ah, those weren’t the days).

But Blake also (nearly) wrote the words Chariots of fire, the name of a middling-to-bad film about running that won four oscars. It centres on the rivalry between a Scottish and devoutly Christian athlete, and a Jewish one struggling against prejudice. The final showdown at the Olympic games is avoided due to the Christian refusing to race on a Sunday, allowing each athlete to win gold in a different event. So the message seems to be that being Christian won’t help you to win races any more than being a Jew will. Except that the Scot comes away looking the bigger man in a film that is named after an ode imagining Jesus’s visit to Britain, so, er, maybe it will.

The dubious merits of much of the film aside (for instance the Scot’s hilarious, chicken-like running style), there is of course the opening scene. Twenty handsome young men run together along a beach. For whatever reason, running in a pack is – I hesitate, but what other word is there? – magnificent, and this scene captures something of that. This scene also features the famous theme tune, by Vangelis. Would many runners be fine with being watched this intensely by a fat man smoking in a darkened room? Still, this too is a monument to its decade (this time the 80s).

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Some runners have dayjobs as world leaders. Think Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Alastair Campbell. Think George W. Bush, who – incredibly enough – jogged every day as President. Imagine getting his diary-keepers to schedule that time for any other activity: reading novels, the cinema, origami.

In a similar vein, if the situation presented itself, you by wouldn’t hesitate to admit you were a runner to your grandma, the police, or at a job interview. It might even count in your favour, perhaps because running shows dedication, a work ethic. Yet this is the work ethic gone awry, work where there is none, work for no reward. It’s left-right-left-right-left-right all the way from A back to A. My friend once cut me right down by saying that running was no more than narcissistic ‘me time’.

The biggest event of the running calendar makes a suitably large contribution to this way of seeing runnning as heroism. The marathon is named for the Greek town from which the messenger Pheidippides departed bearing urgent news to Athens, 26 miles away. (In Greek marathon means fennel, which apparently grew there. Who can say that they knew that, eh?). Seeing the modern marathon as continuing this tradition ignores the fact that this messenger died on arrival. Now, most modern marathon runners don’t die: this event is a victory over the death of the first marathoner, a triumph of planned training over physical distance, time, and the limits of our bodies. The triumph of mindlessness over matter?

Sunday, 8 January 2012

In the thousands of hours I’ve spent running past people in the street, so few things have been shouted at me that it’s always an event when it happens. Unfortunately I don’t find the most common – ‘Run, Forest’ – particularly original. I can’t say the same for the overweight teenager who on seeing me panting and sweaty, shook her entire body and said ‘let’s do it’.

In the time I lived in France the horror and disdain displayed by Parisian faces always made me grin. For some reason the colour of my vest is more visible in French, and provokes football-related cheers: ‘Allez Lens!’ for red and yellow, ‘Allez St Etienne!’ for green. Once someone shouted ‘Sarkozy!’ – the country’s most famous jogger – with flawless spontaneity. He’d obviously been waiting to shout that all day.

Another time, at a large cross-country race a bystander was obviously very amused by shouting ‘come on the skinny ones!’. My favourite, though, isn’t a real cry at all, but is taken from Billy Connolly’s Desiderata (which is excellent in many ways). ‘Boo joggers’ he says, which, although a hostile act, I admire for its call to collective street action. It also seems more honest for non-joggers to boo joggers: for they know not what we do.
Yes, you guessed it, my blog’s title refers to Alan Sillitoe’s 'Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner' (1959). This loneliness is the preserve of those who instead of running to win a race, just run for the hell of it. The short story illustrates this difference with the figures of the director of a young offenders institution, ‘our doddering bastard of a governor, our half-dead gangrened gaffer’, and an inmate who is encouraged to run both as self-improvement and for the glory of the institution. He will eventually stop short of the finishing line so that the governor can see him throw the victory away.

The same question – race to win or just run senselessly? – gives rise to Cake’s The Distance (‘No trophy, no flashbulbs, no flowers, no wine’). And while I’m about it, Sillitoe’s book has the rare merit of being referenced by both Iron Maiden (‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’) and Belle and Sebastian (‘The Loneliness of the Middle-Distance Runner’). Who knew?

For our young offender, ‘running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police’. We learn about a life of poverty and crime in post-WWII austerity Britain, where clothes are threadbare but the odd successful job allows a few months of living like kings. Our hero is a reactionary outcast, refusing to internalize liberal narratives of rehabilitation. Indeed, even prison is too soft: ‘I’d stick them up against a wall and let them have it’. All this translates into a narrating voice that is part Northern, part working-class, and – for us – part plain old-fashioned (‘I can go my five miles round better than anybody else I know’).

It is difficult to resist the pleasure this voice takes in rounding out its sentences, for instance describing the pain of running (‘something’s happening inside the shell-case of my guts […], a grinding near me ticker as though a bag of rusty screws is loose inside me’), or the euphoria (‘it’s the only risk I take and the only excitement I ever get, flying flat out […], crazy like a cut-balled cockerel’).

But the most notable thing about this voice is how it sees itself as the creation of a runner’s consciousness, of ‘my barmy runner-brain’. The story doubles as a manifesto for thinking deeply – had it been written a decade later, Sillitoe would probably have called this ‘meditation’. Witness this interjection: ‘By God, to say that last sentence has needed a few hundred miles of long-distance running. I could no more have said that at first than I could have took a million-pound note from my back-pocket’. This can be taken two ways: either looking backwards, where running provides the conviction supporting a given thought; or looking forwards, where by continuing to run, we are building up a store of conviction without yet knowing what thought to attribute it to. So there’s both uncertainty and danger. Better be careful what we read.