In Footnotes you show how running is not just a sport, it in fact reconnects us to our bodies and the places in which we live. Can you tell us more?
There are many wonderful ways in which our bodies our knitted into the places where we run. But there is magic too in how our bodies are rewarded by exercise. While every runner knows that their exercise makes them ‘fitter’, it is not so widely known that running makes you more intelligent, more empathetic, and helps to forge the conditions for creativity and mindfulness. When it’s done right, as exercises go, I discovered that it is sort of miraculous.
Why do you think so many of us find it hard to get in to running and what can we do to reconnect to the sport?
Running is not for everyone, but it is for more of us than we might think. Being human means that we are made to run, but there are problems with this at individual and cultural levels. Most people start badly – they run too hard or fast, find it unpleasant or get injured and so give up in the first few days or weeks. But almost no one ever gave up running because they ran too slowly or did too little.
So new starters should go, at most, at a conversational pace for only short periods. At the cultural level, our bodies are out of the habit of running. If you imagine the history of the human species as being represented by the length of the 25m swimming pool, except for a hair’s breadth at the end, the rest of that time we lived with regular activity, like daily runs and climbs. Whereas in that time we sit down and do that new weird thing that humans have never really had to do before: exercise.
Many people have said that Footnotes inspired them to get out of their armchair and into their running clothes. Which books have inspired you?
I teach English literature at the University of Kent so am often inspired by books in different ways. Anyone that reads the book will know that I love Hardy because his abilities to evoke a sense of place are peerless. Coleridge, Charlotte Smith, Hazlitt and the Romantics are always important because they fired the starting pistol for so many of the debates that we are still wrestling with. The more modern writers that inspire me to get out are Robert Macfarlane, Katherine Norbury, Rob Cowen, Kathleen Jamie and Roger Deakin.
Footnotes celebrates the outdoors and restorative power of nature. Do you think you can ever gain the full benefits of running by hitting the treadmill at the gym?
Treadmills could be better than they are. At the moment, they have stripped running too far down to its absolute basics. If they could put back a little of the auditory, visual, olfactory, and sensual experiences of a good outdoor run, I think they could get quite close to replicating it. The treadmills that we have at the moment are not that different to the one invented in 1817 so that prisoners could be punished by something just short of the death penalty. Prisoners that were sentenced to ‘hard labour’ had to work a treadmill for several hours a day. It’s what practically killed Oscar Wilde.
In the past, I had always struggled with writing, but this was different. I found it made a huge difference working on something that I was truly passionate about.
Did you enjoy the process of writing your book?
This is not my first book. In the past, I had always struggled with writing, but this was different. I found it made a huge difference working on something that I was truly passionate about. And, my fascination for the subject only increased as I learned more and more about it. Our bodies really are amazing things and they work very subtly behind the scenes to tell us what they want. The book was a joy to write, and I am still really interested in the subjects of movement, the environment and how our bodies have evolved to reward us for certain behaviours.
If you had to describe how running makes you feel in five words, what would they be?
Creative, inspired, fascinated, relaxed, and loquacious.