The first time I went out for a run I had no idea what I was doing. I felt awkward, self-conscious. There was remnants of PE class in the way I was trying to make my lanky body move with some semblance of grace. It’s simple really: you put on some running shoes, some shorts, and you run/jog/walk-run until you’ve had enough. Then you come home and talk about it all day.
In the 15 years since that first run, I haven't got much better at it. I don’t cover great distances. I don’t break records. And if I haven’t been for a day or two, I doubt my ability to cover even a single mile without wheezing. But now, in lockdown, it might just be the single greatest pleasure in my life.
To dedicated runners, metrics – how far, how fast, split pace etc – are important. To many, running is more of a personal undertaking, a way to get your head right or decompress. For some, it’s simply an attempt to get fitter. Haruki Murakami began running at the age of 33, when he realised that his sedentary lifestyle wasn’t doing him any favours. These days, he gets up before dawn, writes for five or six hours, then runs 10km. Some days he fits in a 1500m swim too.
“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism,” Murakami told the Paris Review in 2004, an idea he would later expand upon in delicious detail in his seminal memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. “To hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” For Murakami, running each morning is a way of ingraining the discipline needed to write novels.
Running can also be a way of channelling your frustrations. In Alan Sillitoe’s brilliant short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a working class teenager involved in petty crime takes to running as a way of emotional and physical escape. It’s an idea Adriana Rodrigues updates and expands upon in Protect These Streets, in which a young woman is motivated to run by her economic and family situation before realising that running itself can provide the stepping stones to her future. In both cases, the act (art?) of running takes the protagonist further than they ever would have realised possible.
Alexandra Heminsley explores the barriers that stop us actually getting out and going for a run in her brilliant memoir Running Like A Girl. Bored by endless yoga sessions (who isn’t?) she laces on her running shoes. Six years later, she’s mastered five marathons on two continents. What really hits home, though, is Heminsley’s account of all those failed runs that we all endure. You know, the ones where you get to the bottom of the street and turn back. Or where you tell yourself just the right pre-run snack, or the right pair of shorts, or even the right playlist will make all the difference when you try again. Tomorrow.
A different but equally inspiring take on the possibilities of running is Mark Whitaker’s Running For Their Lives, the story of Peter Gavuzzi and Arthur Newton who competed a transcontinental road race across America in 1928. Covering 40 miles for 80 consecutive days without the luxuries of modern sportswear or nutrition. Largely forgotten today, the pair were once the most famous long-distance athletes in the world.
Of course, many of us run out of necessity, not to hit incredible goals. Many of us need to run to burn through the excesses of anxiety we suffer from, to reclaim headspace from hectic and overwhelming lives. In Jog On, Bella Mackie recounts how forcing herself off the sofa and into a pair of running shoes revolutionised her life, and her mental health. Incorporating commentary from psychologists, sportspeople and doctors, this book is testament to the restorative powers of running. Still unconvinced? Get out for just five minutes, and I guarantee you’ll feel better. What’s more, Mackie ticked off her fitness goals one by one without having to sacrifice booze, cigarettes or ice cream; the perfect rebuke to the fitness snob.
You may have little desire to break records, find some headspace, or establish a fitness regiment to rival Murakami’s. And that’s OK. At a time when many of us are trapped in doors even as lockdown eases, there’s a simple, solitary pleasure of running for the pure joy of being outdoors. It’s a feeling Richard Askwith captures in Feet in the Clouds: The Classic Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession which explores the obsessive dedication of the women and men who run fells for fun, including (now 86 year old) Joss Naylor who ran 60 Lake District peaks for his 60th birthday and once covered the equivalent of four Everests in a single run.
However big your own mountain – be it a 10km or just making it to the end of the street – there’s everything to be gained from lacing up and simply giving it a go. And reading books by those who did it first may be the perfect first step.