Monday, 27 June 2011

Wilde Times on the Treadmill

    My third run this week in the rain.  Any sensible person would ask, why don't you just go to the gym?  
    As a troubled child John Clare set out one morning to walk to the horizon.  But the horizon, the imagined and perfect coign of vantage from which to survey the earth is an illusion of perspective.  A point created only by the observer.  It is not the end of nature; it is the end of our ability to perceive it.  Clare later wrote 'I long for scenes where man has never trod ... There to abide... and sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept: untroubling and untroubled where I lie; the grass below - above, the vaulted sky.'  In these lines there is a longing for a return to the earth, to childhood, or even to the grave.  The lines turn upon the interpretation of ‘untroubling’.  Is Clare saying that ‘where I wish to lie will be a place that provides undisturbed and peaceful rest’? Or, is it, ‘where I wish to lie shall be undisturbed by my presence’?  What is so great about Clare’s poetry at its best (like in ‘I Am’ or ‘The Badger’) is that such double meanings in themselves create a sense of doubt about our relationship with the natural world.  On the one hand, Romantic poets like Wordsworth on first seeing Mont Blanc grieve, as he says in The Prelude, ‘to have a soulless image on the eye’ when the idea of nature is usurped by the sight of its actuality.  The potential of ‘man’s’ imaginative power, offended by the paucity of nature’s finest offering.  On the other, Clare suggests that he does not watch nature; he is of it.  His arrival at his place of rest would be ‘untroubling’ to his surroundings and harmonious with it.  If a tree falls in the woods and there was nobody there to hear it, does it make any sound?  Wordsworth would reply ‘If there is nobody there to hear it, then who cares?’  Clare, silent, would mourn the loss of it.  I love Wordsworth, more than most poets, but I am with Clare.  Our existence is a creaturely one.  What does this have to do with going to the gym?
    For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, prisoners of Her Majesty who had been sentenced to ‘hard labour’ worked (yes, wait for it) a treadmill.  The treadmill was for nearly 200 years the harshest punishment (beyond the death sentence) that a judge could condemn the prisoner to.
    Oscar Wilde was one of the Act's condemnees, prosecuted for gross indecency under the Labouchere Amendment of 1885.  In his biography, Richard Ellman explains that during Wilde's time in Pentonville prison he had to walk the treadmill for around six hours a day.  The prison’s chaplain wrote,
'When he first came down here […] he was in an excited flurried condition, and seemed as if he wished to face his punishment without flinching. But all this has passed away. As soon as the excitement aroused by the trial subsided and he had to encounter the daily routine of prison life his fortitude began to give way and rapidly collapsed altogether. He is now quite crushed and broken. This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the mastery over him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day […].  I need hardly tell you that he is a man of decidedly morbid disposition [...] In fact some of our most experienced officers openly say that they don't think he will be able to go through the two years.'
He did make it through, but only just; he died in exile and infamy only a couple of years after his release.
    Times have changed.  Treadmills used to be a tool of punishment but we now pay private-school-fee levels of gym membership for the honour of running on them.  People will tell you that there is nothing worse than an ex-smoker.  There are: I am an ex-smoking, ex-gym user.  Don’t get me wrong, I was never terribly committed  to either pursuit, but I used to go to the gym because I played squash and badminton and a bit of gym was good for the elastic body.  But I nearly always ran outside, even when I was paying £85 a month to run inside.  For me, then and now, it is still too close to a punishment.  Every machine is aimed like a crossbow to a target at a TV screen.  Lines of TVs tuned to different channels.  The tinny headphones that you have to turn up ridiculously loud just to hear the news telling you 'What we need is a patient-centred NHS.'  The whole point, I know it's a cliché, but the whole point of running is to get away from all this, well, rubbish:  Cables, Screens, Soundbites, Machines, Double-glazing, Giant bouncy balls, Floor-to-ceiling mirrors, Techno, Tacksuits (sic), Abs, and the noise.  The noise that not only you and your machine make, but the noise that everyone else makes with their clanging weights, huffing, puffing, yowling, whirring, stamping, shoooooosh!ing – all can be heard on any visit to this foul supermarket of stretching and sweat. (More serene runs are to be had on the Catford Gyratory.)  Like brains in vats, their headphone cables are spinal cords plugged into the global Sky News network.  They are dead and Skynet lives. 
   Here, you are not a person, you are a consumer, but not one with choice.  You are a foie-gras goose to be speed-stuffed with meaningless and empty experience none of which you will ever remember.  Wordsworth and Thomas De Quincey, two figures who repeatedly delighted in the profoundly productive and fructifying powers of memory, would have taken a hammer to your knees had they seen you running on them.  A run on a treadmill has all the philosophical significance of brushing your teeth (you may remember doing it today, but what about twelve days ago?)  I have done countless runs in the last 6 months that I will remember to the end of my days.  I do not have a particularly well-developed memory - I can never remember Michael Gambon's name whenever I need it (consider yourself honoured, dear reader, you have just witnessed a rare thing indeed).  I can remember bus loads about my runs, even regular ones from months ago: running on Blackheath in a blizzard; my first barefoot run round Lewisham; running up what felt like a vertical cliff to the Tennyson monument near Freshwater on the Isle of Wight (on two separate occasions); another barefooter at Seasalter in Kent - a beautifully stressed post-apocalyptic piece of coastline where the staff in a deserted pub gave me a free bag of crisps because I had missed lunch.  There are many more, but the point is that all of these runs brought me something, meant something, and continue to mean something.
    In the case of the latter, I had no foreknowledge of the Seasalter landscape so began the run shod, then dumped my shoes on the footpath after about half a mile to be collected on the way back.  The ground was hard and dry, but softened by a cool and pert furring of grass.  It was bliss to run on.  There were a few kissing gates that had waist-high nettles growing in them, so I climbed onto the concrete sea barrier and went round them instead.  Just about the only person I saw on the run was after I had done my miles for the day and was returning to collect my shoes.  The chap was a bit older than me (the age of a shopkeeper from your childhood, say).  He looked at my ridiculous shoes nestled in the ankle-high grass, one fire-engine red and one custard-yellow.  Leaning over to get a closer look, like that would help, he looked as if he had been a dog he would have barked at them.  He glanced up and saw me a good many yards off.  His gaze dropped to my shoelessness and, 'ah', all was explained.  He began to move on and gave me a polite smile as I passed him.  I finished up by doing some light speed-work with five repetitions that declined in speed. 
Aren't they a riot?
    This run was months ago and I have not scratched the surface of all the things I remember about it.  I remember the weather (crisp sun and a light breeze); the serious-looking, fat, topless man on the white bike who did not look at me as we crossed paths; the bright orange lichen which clung to the sea wall, the milky-coffee sea, you get the idea.  It may sound like it was, but it was not a particularly special run, or a memorable one.  One thing it was, though: it was a real and lived experience.  In my life I have run on treadmills many times.  I recall nothing specific about any of those experiences.  Nothing.  Nothing.  If Kennedy had been shot while I was running on a treadmill I would not be able to say where I was when I heard the news.
    Treadmills are dehumanising.  They are the most abject and useless forms of punishment that eighteenth-century penal philosophers could devise.  The 1779 Penitentiary Act stated that prisoners should endure ‘labour of the hardest and most servile kind in which drudgery is chiefly required and where the work is little liable to be spoiled by ignorance, neglect, or obstinacy’.  Think about that next time you may want to step onto a treadmill, ‘this machine’s guiding purpose is to instill in me feelings of  ‘drudgery’.’  Surely there is enough of that in modern life to see you through already.  Treadmills turn us into automata.  Everything that a run might be, everything that puts us in touch with our creaturely life on this earth is taken away from us on a treadmill.  John Gray in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals posits an answer to the biggest question of all: what is the purpose of our lives? ‘Other animals do not need a purpose in life.  A contradiction in itself, the human animal cannot do without one.  Can we not think of the aim of life being simply to see?’  There is nothing to witness on a treadmill.  It denies us our creaturely existence.  Look at the picture below.  Does it say 'freedom' to you?

    In the nineteenth century the design of the prisoners’ treadmill changed slightly with the installation of panels to separate the prisoners so that they could not talk to one another, that they might contemplate their crimes in isolation, and without distraction.  Now, if we go back to thinking about those treadmills aimed at the TV screens and the ‘free’ headphones that you are supplied with, what is actually going on?  Are you quite innocently being provided with a bit of entertainment for your run, or is something else happening.  The sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life asks why it is that when we are walking down the street and we glance at someone, they meet our eyes, and we immediately avert our gaze.  He suggests the reason we look away with such rapidity is that we all want to be complicit in creating an illusion: when we are in public we pretend that we are in private.  As a species we are not used to living in cities (we have only been doing it for a flint’s scratchy flash of our history).  Neither, it seems, are we particularly attuned to being in places where we do not know others.  Treadmills, and their organisation in gyms, have exactly the same effect as the separator panels did for the prisoners.  In a gym you ought not catch the eye of someone, their glance back will be loaded with the question ‘What the hell are you looking at me for, you should be looking at the TVs.’  There is not a chance that you might engage someone in conversation.  What would be the point?  You are wearing headphones and so are they.  Gyms are public places, they have to be to make money, but they desperately want us to feel like we are in private.
    I am not saying that you should talk to the person on the treadmill next to you.  I guarantee they won’t want to talk to you.  The etiquette is identical to the rules of social engagement at men’s urinals: eyes forward, concentrated silence, no talking, no farting, always choose the vacant space farthest away from the one that is occupied.  What I am saying that you should not get on one of these things in the first place.  And, what is so wrong with silence?  Even the hard-labour prisoners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were permitted to think while they worked their mills.  Our gantry of TVs simultaneously tuned to Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports 2, Sky News, Eastenders, and Springwatch Live (if only!) make thinking impossible.  (Excuse me while I use a little Althusser), these places interpellate us into being timorous idiots that have to be coaxed away from the horrible and endless abysses of self-reflection that may be induced by a minute's silence.  If we are not goose-fed Technicolor images and ever-competing babble we might lose our minds as the full Sisyphusian futility of our lives become plain to us, we might lick the digital display, head-butt a TV screen, hang ourselves on the cabling, attempt to drown ourselves in the piddling drinking fountain, take-out one of those giant bouncy-ball trees, or ... we actually might like it.  The gyms should be honest and put up a sign: 'We ask customers to refrain from thinking in the exercise area, otherwise you just might realise how crap this experience really is.'  If you want to run on a treadmill then of course you should, but you should understand what it is that you're doing because I am not at all sure that I do.

We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns
And sweated on the mill,
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.

                                                            Wilde – from The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Most runners are desperately unkind...

I've just come in from a very wet 6 mile, zero-drop run (that means in 'barefoot' shoes, more on this later) and how many runners did I see out on Blackheath and in Greenwich Park throughout the entirety of the run? It was lunchtime, midweek, and it's mid-June (the solstice, if I'm not mistaken).  The answer is two.  Oh no, wait, he's running for a bus.  It was actually one person - and he didn't look too happy in his leggings, tent-flapping shorts, and mushroom-hunched manner. 
   What's going on?  In January, in freezing, dark, glum, January, the Park and the Heath were thronging (I don't actually know what that means - it's like 'rack and ruin', what on earth does 'rack' mean? Or chit-chat, 'chit', anyone?).  But they were thronging. Runners criss-crossed on the pathways like the choreographed beauties in a Busby Berkeley.  It was of course the interminable rain that was keeping some away. (I should have known better than to go out running so near to Glastonbury weekend, the annual signal to the nation that rain is on its way.)  It's not just the rain, though; so many of those January runners have gone.  Given up, some never to return.  Why so many?
   Most runners are unconscionably unkind to themselves.  And, the beginners are the most brutish in their behaviour.  Not for one moment would they countenance condemning their friends to the pain, occasional anguish, and punishment that they are forced to endure.  Oh no, sorry, that they force 'themselves' to endure.  That's the point.  They are downright mean to the unfit version of themselves, and unfortunately, that is the version of themselves that has turned up for those early 'runs'.  Not nice, quiet, jogs to get the heart, lungs and muscles warmed up, but 'runs'.  If they have allowed themselves to get so unfit, then they tell themselves they deserve this - it is only difficult for them because they haven't been exercising.  'So! I'll show you, body!'  In the blink of an eye their body becomes their enemy and they are at war.  Beginner runners wouldn't treat their enemies the way that they treat themselves on their first runs.  
   1.  Go slow - slower than you think.  No, slower than that.
Poetry is not very helpful, here.  Poetry tells us 'now', the novel tells us 'later'.  Think of Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', Robert Herrick's 'Gather ye Rosebuds' (from 'To the Virgins, to make much of Time'), or indeed most Metaphysical poetry, or of Auden's 'As I Walked Out One Evening' when 'all the clocks in the city/ Began to whirr and chime: "Oh let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time"'.  The wonderful centrifugal effect of 'whirr' whips up a sense of the chaotic  rapidity of time spinning out of control, unravelling like an unattended reel of film.  Lyric poetry always wants us to rush, it seems.  Nibble-size literature to go.  
   The novel, though - that's a different matter.  The novel, all too often is happy to teach us to go slower than we want to.  Novels are littered with failed sprinters who just aren't up to the task.  Uriah Heep comes a cropper in his bid to gain control over poor Wickfield and his business in Dickens' David Copperfield.  Mrs Thornton from Elizabeth Gaskell's deliciously clever North and South is a more complex and certainly less comic version of what can go wrong when one leaps from one class to another.  Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is generous enough a novel to show us both sprinter and runner.  Two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, both lured to love by maybe the wrong, maybe the right, man.  Marianne professes her love privately, publicly, loudly and quickly and is crushed to discover her darling Willoughby has shagged and binned other women, and is promised instead to a woman whose charms are somewhat slighter than the contents of her purse.  Steady Elinor keeps her 'esteem' for boring Edward as secret as she can, does not change her mind, and is finally rewarded with marriage.  Too-fast Marianne has to be dragged and dangled over death's abyss by a love-induced fever to learn her lesson: to shut up a bit, and slow down.  She does, marries someone old, boring and virtually unsexed and is therefore 'happy' in Austen's world.  
Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp is about the only go-fast heroine I can think of that gets what she wants.  But even louche Thackeray could not countenance Becky as a heroine.  In case we too swiftly admire her adept social mountaineering we soon see her beating her child.  And, in case we are still in any doubt, Thackeray drew an illustration of her and subtitled it 'Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra'.  Having earlier played the role for Lord Steyne.  Joss (Agamemnon), her husband, dies offstage and the companies insuring him reluctantly pay, making it known that it was 'the blackest case' ever.
   Even in its form, the long and ponderous novel is one that can teach is to go slow.  If you go at it too fast, you'll run out of puff.  First attempts at War and Peace, Moby Dick, Underworld, Romola, all for me fell at the second hurdle because the first was approached too fast. Sprint off too quickly and you just won't make it.  Why do we always want to go so fast?  What for?

   2. Think of how much you'd like to do.  Then, think how much it might be wise to do.  Then, quarter it.
Lizzie and Laura, from a woodcut design
by Rossetti's brother.
   Binge and you will regret it.  Lizzie and Laura go to market, a 'Goblin Market' (Christina Rossetti - 1862).  Laura wants to eat the goblin's fruit but has no money, so they agree to accept some of her hair as payment, then she
[...] sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock.
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore;
   As readers, we do not need cautiously  to invoke Freud to read this poem sexually.  No one could really face a charge of over-interpretation if they were to assert that there was a sexual element to Laura's feverish sucking on the goblin's fruit.  But if we sidestep (and it has to be quite a big step) a sexualised reading of the poem, it becomes a tale of suffering through excess.  Laura is made to suffer for her indulgence with the goblin men.  So many runners try and address either their desires or anxieties about fitness in one run.  It may not be a wise method for planning a week's running, or a month's for that matter.  Think what you might be able to do, then cut back on that because you are probably not experienced enough to plan your running, then pare it again just to make sure you don't suffer an early injury.  If the figure you're left with is a few hundred yards, well that sounds just about right to me.  Laura gobbled too much and it put her off for life.

3. Be kinder to yourself
The shudder in my son’s left hand
he cures with one touch from his right, 

two fingertips laid feather light 

to still his pen. He understands
   the whole man must be his own brother 
for no man is himself alone; 
though some of us have never known 
the one hand’s kindness to another.
   In Don Paterson's 'Correctives' the tender image of one hand laid upon another is a peculiar moment of transaction precisely because it asks is one, one, or is it two?  The son becomes the soothing parent to himself.  For all its lightness of touch, it is a potent metaphor, one that suggests a fundamental split in the self between the mind and the body.  Furthermore, the poem's real beauty lies in the simplicity of its solution.  The son's featherlight touch is one that demonstrates an act of caring that we are all capable of, but too often ignore.  Sometimes, we need as little as one hand's kindness to another to get us through.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

"Mum?" a barely-toothed mouth asked, "What's that man running from?"

I had got lost on Peckham Rye; I was on a 7-miler.  7-milers are nice.  I can just about get away with not taking any water, and I do not have to worry too much about food, before, during, or after the run.  On this day, I had done one of the middle miles at racing pace.  I was done in.  I had slowed to about 9.30 but my heart rate just would not go back down to a workable rate.  My asthma was not good.  Some breed of tree was obviously in the throes of squirting its junk upon an unsuspecting London and my windpipes (and those of countless others, no doubt) were swelling up in response.  This was a hard run. 
I was in the final couple of miles of the run on one of the quiet side-streets off the park, where, approaching me was a young, pre-school, lad a few paces ahead of his mother.  He had the astonishingly good manners to move to the side to let me pass.  As I did, he squinted up at me, looking me in the eye, he called out with his economically-toothed mouth, "Mum?  What's that man running away from?"  Me and 'mum' both boomed with laughter as I struggled to think of pithy response.
Taken on one of those glorious runs on the South Downs
It was a good question.  People run away from things all the time.  In the summer of 2006 I was doing a fair bit of running, my mileage slowly climbing towards the kind of inevitable injuries that used to plague me.  It is too long ago to remember how much, or how often, but it was less than now, and more than any other time in my life.  After a few months of this, the weight began to fall off me.  I got quite tanned because I was always out running in the sunshine.  I lived at the northern end of Brighton on the south coast of England so could run only a mile and be on the South Downs.  Glorious sunsets were to be had most evenings.  There was also the silence, punctuated only by the occasional roar of a car and the chatter of birdsong.  Most importantly, there was solitariness.  I did not take my phone out with me.  I could be absolutely alone for however long the run took.  One weekend, at dinner with a couple we knew, the conversation turned to my running.  My friend's wife, always the one to say the least out of the four of us crashed through the conversation like a juggernaut when she meekly asked her husband in a stage whisper "But I don't understand, what's he running away from?"
Was this a joke?  I don't know, but I doubt it.  I did not take it seriously at the time, but a few weeks later I left a relationship that I had been in for nearly seventeen years.  Life found an answer to a question that I could not understand.  Since then I have seen the process happen to others, too.  They start to take more care of their appearance, spend a bit more on their haircut, lose a bit of the flab, get their teeth done, start exercising.  The process builds slowly, but they (or I) are being slowly drawn back, like an arrow in an archer's bow.  Finally, they reach the point when they are quivering, almost bursting, with tensile energy waiting to be released.  And they are gone.
So why do I run now?  What is the answer to the wee boy's question?  I do not run to assuage the kinds of anxiety that I was trying to make sense of in 2006, nothing like.  But I do still feel drawn to it.  It is a way of stamping out the difficulties of redrafting a book, thinking about how to tackle a tricky lecture, or wondering why an article’s argument does not quite make sense (the list goes on).  It is a way to be both profoundly alone and free. 
In one of his many notebooks, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that freedom is 'the chiefest gift of Nature'.  Running certainly does give you a sense of freedom.  You own ('own' is the wrong word) a landscape in a way that is unique to running.  You are less governed by distance, route or venue than almost any sporting activity.  It is also a means of escape.  For me today, it is principally a means of escaping from the chair in my study without guilt.  When you are writing a book, article, PhD thesis, Masters dissertation, or a school essay, there is so much guilt; you could always be doing a little bit more than you are.  And Thomas Carlyle’s thesis on intellectual achievement is not much help: he believed that it was little more than ‘an infinite capacity for taking pains’.  But I never resent or feel guilty about the time I spend running.  Never.  I can go running for two hours, return, express mild surprise at the time passed and get back to work.  For a man of a certain age it is also, obviously, a way to escape the thing that I shouted in reply to the little boy's question.  “What is that man running away from?”  The best I could muster in response was: “old age.”  Only 'mum' laughed.
Edward Thomas
Walking was for the poet and philosopher of nature, Edward Thomas, also a means of escape from crippling depression.  It all-but ruined his relatively short life (born 1878, he enlisted in 1915, and was killed in action two years later at the Battle of Arras).  His widow, Helen Thomas, remarked that 'his greatest pleasure, and certainly his greatest need, was to walk and be alone.' (‘Oh, I like him’, I thought).  Those that suffer serial depression, even those that do not, gambol through various inoculations against the disappointments that modern life flings at them: drink, drugs, TV, porn, sugar, chips.  All of these, though, are about putting something else in, adding another ingredient to an already chaotic and confused chemical recipe.  For many, the answer is not to balance the equation.  Modern melancholia does not need a modern, deep-fried, or sweetened solution - it needs a very old one.  It needs other life.  As Marwood says in Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I, 'We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell, making an enemy of our own future.  What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that.'  That is the pull of running.  To take 'time out of mind' (as Bob Dylan said) and immerse yourself in something that is in balance, that is part of a system that is billions of years older than you are, and to osmotically absorb some of it, at least for a time.  It is a way to experience a kind of freedom that we do not often get sight of in modern life.  But be warned, it is just as addictive as all of those 'bad' things.  Nowadays, even the sight of a landscape painting instils in me a deep desire to step into the frame, and beyond it.  To run toward the horizon, feeling the cool grass beneath my feet, and be gone.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Running for phenomenologists (no, really)

Merleau-Ponty (thinking, probably)
Maurice Merleau-Ponty the phenomenologist (now, come on, stay with me, it'll be OK) suggested that one of the major misunderstandings of modern philosophy was its interpretation of the body as a stable space from which to perceive the world.  The body is what belongs to us, everything else in the world is external to it.  If you hold up your hand in front of your face, it looks, feels, smells, different to every other hand in the world because you have a unique relationship with it.  Of course you do. It is different from any other hand in the history of all species quite simply because it is yours and no one else's.  And this is one of the mistakes that phenomenologists notice in our interpretation of the world.  Your body isn't just there, holding you upright so your eyes can see.  Your body isn't just something that passively experiences phenomena.  No, your body is what makes possible the experience of those phenomena.  ''Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught up in the fabric of the world and its cohesion is that of a thing. …the world is made of the same stuff as the body.' (Merleau-Ponty, 'The Primacy of Perception').  There is a sombre Hardy poem ('Proud Songsters') that expresses the same kinds of interconnectivity where the speaker of the poem fleetingly reflects on the web of the natural world.  The poet listens to birdsong, then he reflects

  • These are brand-new birds of twelve-months’ growing,
  • Which a year ago, or less than twain,
  • No finches were, nor nightingales,
  • Nor thrushes,
  • But only particles of grain,
  • And earth, and air, and rain.
Our experience of the outside world, of other bodies, of eating a bad meal, of seeing a beautiful landscape, these are all made possible, or altered, by the kinds of bodies that we have.  If everything's connected, everything's perspective.  So if you change your body, does that change the landscape?

When I started running properly again, a year or so ago, my legs and lungs were weak.  I was heavy.  I had started walking, but I was still quite a weight. You stick with it, and you find that after a few weeks you can run (I say run, I mean 'run') 3 miles.  It's a nice spot to get to because you are just starting to get your first whiffs of the runner's high.  You are beginning to see the point of it.  It is starting to feel like you are not a) wasting your time, and b) making a complete show of yourself.  You are burning a few of hundred calories a pop.  You might not be much thinner, but you will feel it.  At this point, I don't really feel that much has changed in your relationship with the world.  Reading this, now, try and think of something 3 miles away.  Now imagine covering that distance to get there.  It's not such a stretch is it?  If you had to walk 3 miles you could almost certainly both picture it and manage it.  As long as you don't wear those shoes that really pinch, or it's not raining, most people could happily manage this distance.

Downe House, Kent - as it was when someone drew it
Over the next few months, though, your body changes.  Not to look at.  You might be slightly trimmer round the midriff, but otherwise you look the same.  You are not the same, though.  You are much stronger.  The landscape that you can see and feel and sense is much, much larger, too.  Do the experiment again.  Think of something 11 miles away.  You probably can't, but if you can, try to imagine the route to get there on foot - the climbs and falls, the variety of camber, the changes of surface you'd need to cover.  Can you honestly do that?  I'm not bragging when I say that I can.  If you know any runners, they will tell you the same.  Without checking I can tell you that it is about 11 miles to Notting Hill from my house.  A quiet route through South London would get me there in about 2 hours.  I wouldn't need any special shoes (any of the ones I run in would be fine).  The weather wouldn't matter that much, either (I even ran in a blizzard on Blackheath last winter - somewhat predictably, it was lovely).  I'm pretty sure that if I headed in the opposite direction, 11 miles would take me to Darwin's house in Kent... (freaky, I've just checked on Google maps and, wait for it, 10.9 miles).  It's not just this spatial relationship that has changed.  I can't look at pictures of a landscape, of almost any kind, without thinking about running through them, over them, to the side of them, beyond them.  Rural, industrial, urban, desert; I always think about running on them (more on this later).

I was reading a collection of essays by John Gray, a searingly intelligent pop philosopher (he'd clock me one for that, but it is supposed to be a compliment) that was bought for me for my birthday (thanks Adam).  In it is a piece about when the trains failed in London a few years ago.  He writes from the perspective that although the power outage it was reported as an aberration, he sees it as a warning about the sustainability of the way we live in the West.  How stupid, he believes, that we think that our super-consumption of resources (of all kinds) is one that the rest of the world ought to aspire to.  He thinks, instead, that the lights will continue to go off.  This is only the beginning.  The trains will come to a stand still.  Chip-and-pin card readers will fail. Ocado deliveries won't show up. As E. M. Forster succintly put it in the title to one of his short stories, 'The Machine Stops'.

Last Christmas, the trains did stop because of 'snow' (or maybe it was a few breadcrumbs from the stationmaster's BLT). I was having a drink in town with a friend and we 'stupidly' stayed out till 7.30pm, by which time the stations had all closed.  People were losing their minds.  I shrugged, popped in my headphones, and spent the next few hours walking all the way home.  A few months before, my body would never have stood for that.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Nature reclaimed Greenwich Park today.

Not my picture, sorry. 
It is a Saturday afternoon in June.  Greenwich Park is usually rammed on such a day, but it was peculiarly, almost eerily empty today.  Although there had been some bright sunshine (I even asked my partner if I should take my sunglasses! Ha!), from the moment I stepped out on my LSD (that's Long, Slow, Distance - to be done once a week and it makes up to a third of one's weekly mileage).  By the time I hit Greenwich Park I was in mile 4 or 5 and the clouds were hanging so heavy it felt like the were just above the tree canopy.  It was about one in the afternoon and there were no people at all for the first few hundred yards. Instead, nature seemed to have repossessed the park.  There were a pair of squirrels skitting about.  A pair of pigeons doing that slightly comic Max Wall amble of theirs.  A single crow stared blankly at the eight-foot brick-wall of the park's border, like a worn-out inmate too institutionalised to attempt escape.  A robin looked questioningly, don't they always, as it stood with its tiny feet on the curve of a bench.  Then, deluge.

I have never run in such fierce rain before.  The skies became even blacker and the blades of rain fell so hard against me that they stung through my running shirt.  In seconds I was sodden, between my toes, under my arms, it was everywhere.  I suppose this might be what tenacity is because I thought, not in a terribly aggressive way, but I was not going to let it stop me doing what I had planned to do: 8 miles at 10 mins pace.  I continued round the park but the rain was falling with such ferocity that the trees could not get rid of it fast enough.  Beeches, chestnuts, oaks, sycamores would all usually provide ample shelter.  Especially given the age of some of them, there are numerous pollarded oaks in the park that go back to the reign of Elizabeth I.  The canopy of the trees bowed so much that I couldn't even run under them.  Some of them are 60 feet high but their branches drooped so near the ground that I couldn't even duck under them for shelter.

Crack.  Lightning.  This was a proper storm.  One that reminds you who's boss.  I'm not usually frightened of such spectacular weather, but I must confess to a momentary 'I hope my iPod doesn't attract the current.'  In a park with several hundred tall trees to choose from, I didn't really have anything to worry about.

So I didn't.  I just ran, ignoring the rain as best I could.  My shirt drooped with the weight of the water while the upper part of it clung to me.  By the time I had looped round to the rose garden, my water-sodden clothing provided some protection against the sharp rain.  All I had to worry about now was feeling slightly cold.  The Rose Garden!  In fact, Everything!  We had had rain the day before, too, so no doubt the Technicolor hyper-saturation of natural life in the park was due in part to that.  As I was circling the cricket pitch I gradually changed my heading.  Looking north I was suddenly struck with a view of London, luminescent green fields with a backdrop of bright blue skies peppered with heavy rain in the foreground.  "Ohhhhhh! Amazing!" I said, used now to having the whole park to myself. As I looked round, I saw thirty or so faces, only a few feet away, gazing at me in disbelief that I could find such weather "amazing". They had all ran for the cricket pavilion as soon as the rain had started.  It was another 'ecstasy' moment that I've written about before, but this one wasn't created wholly by my psychology, not really.

The pathetic fallacy (a literary term) is a bit of a fallacy itself.  The term is used in a variety of ways, one of which is to use the weather to depict the inner-turmoil (think Wuthering Heights) or contentment (Howards End '...and it'll be such a crop of hay as never'!), or the fug of confusion in Bleak House.   Like many a literary term it is incredibly anthropocentric.  It employs all of the world, and all of nature and reduces it to the human experience of it. The weather becomes merely a representation of the inside played out in the proscenium of nature.

Not quite the 'sea of violets' of the book
But thunder and lightning shake and stir the emotions from the outside in, too.  That tremendous crack of lightning is all it takes to remind us that no matter how in charge we may feel, we are not running the show.  We are subject to powers far beyond our comprehension and control.  Nature and its sublime power forces us to rethink our relationship with the world outside our bodies, not the other way round.  When George first takes Lucy in his arms in Forster's A Room with a View, she is sort of intoxicated by the view of Florence in the distance. 'Before she could speak, almost before she could feel, a voice called, "Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!" The silence of life had been broken by Miss Bartlett who stood brown against the view.'  The world intervenes in the shape of Lucy's maiden aunt - she is the 'brown' deadwood in the lustrous landscape, and she calls Lucy back to her 'civilised' life.  This scene in the novel is followed by a most violent storm, one which shakes Lucy out of her senses.  George on the other hand, gives himself up to it and walks through the rain back to Florence.  The storm releases Lucy from her civilised sensibility, but it is a sensibility that has such a momentum that it takes her the entire rest of the novel to fully shake herself free from it.

The real beauty of storms is that they are not about us at all.  We are about them.

(This is the run I did, today.)

Friday, 17 June 2011

Run like a ninja... with a hangover

I had hurt myself, but I was lucky.  It meant that I learnt a lot in the process.  You can't just lean forward or flex your forefoot, reaching deep into the air in front of you with your toes so that you land there instead of on your heel.  You have got to create a form that will mean that you land on your forefoot or midfoot naturally, that is without trying to.  There are a number of things that you need to do that will make this happen, but a good place to start is what you do with your whole body.  If you want to run barefoot, or if you want to run with good form, or if you want to run like, well, not an idiot, you need to run with care.  You need to run in a way that is attentive to what your whole body is doing.

Good runners don't thud around all over the pavement.  Really good ones hardly make any noise at all.  Now I'm not saying that I'm a really good runner (I'm not), and I don't do this on purpose, but about once a week I frighten the be'jesus out of someone.  They are ambling along quietly at their own pace, and they just don't hear me coming. "OOOO!", it often frightens me as much as them.  But without any heel on my shoes to thud down into, I have no choice but to creep along, well, stealthily.

When you head out next time, regardless of what running style you adopt, think of Bruce Lee in his child-size tracksuit in Enter the Dragon, sneaking round the complex of the wicked and evil, mastermind, Han (we know he's evil because only that bear's claw thing he wears on his hand could explain the deep grooves of his Grecian-2000 slick-back hair style.) Lee moved like a cat, one trying to creep in late from a party.  The film, though, is a funny one.   I am not recommending that you watch it again.  I remember aching with desire to see it as a lad.  Even, the ten second clips on telly were eagerly drunk as a sort of Diet Coke version of being able to see the real thing.  Lee, to eight year olds in the 70s, was a legend.  Now, the film is solid proof that you can never go home again.

There are quite a few films or books that you return to and discover and rediscover with the sheer delight at how much better they are, or how they have withstood the heavy weathering of time.  Eliot's Middlemarch failed to make the greatest of impressions when I first blundered through it at the age of 24 - by 32 however life had changed enough for me to catch up with the book and it was simply stunning the second time around (my students are entertained - I must say at my expense - by the fact that the second reading of the novel actually made me cry in the bath). Barbara Vine's A Fatal Inversion was very good the first time round, and just as good the second. Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum on the the other hand... well, let's just say I feel embarrassed to have recommended it to so many people in the intervening years.   Sorry, guys.  But wow!, Enter the Dragon plummeted to being one of the worst films of all time.  So sickeningly homophobic, heterocentric, androcentric, anthropocentric (I can't think of another film where someone slaps a snake for God's sake), xenophobic, occidentocentric (I just made that one up), and misogynist, but the bit where he does a back somersault and kicks someone in the face mid- flight is totally cool.  Anyway, Bruce has a lot of creeping around to do on Han's island, trying to find some very important information for the British Government, quite why is still lost on me.  It was the creeping.  He moved with his feet and his legs; his upper body hardly moved at all.  It was ballet, but with a lot more single-handed killing of unpensioned guards.  Good runners don't move their upper bodies all that much.  There's some arm swing, but not loads, and it tends to move back and forwards rather than side to side.  It is a relaxed motion that might bend like a fishing rod, but is not stiff like you have a tennis racket down your back.  The result of all of this is that you run like you have a migraine.  Your head just doesn't move, or bob, very much as you stride along.  It stays almost on the level.  It does move a little bit, but your sunglasses shouldn't move, or your neck chain - if you have one (I don't, more on that later). You should protect your head like you've had a bad night.  If you take your shoes off and try and run, you will probably do this naturally - you have about two million years of evolutionary muscle memory that will help you to do this.  There were no neolithic Nikes.

Alberti, the Renaissance polymath, is the one that from a standing start could jump over a man (I think they were a bit shorter in Renaissance Italy, and not the 6 foot 7 of one of my work colleagues).  He said that the cultivated man 'must apply the greatest artistry in three things: walking in the city, riding a horse, and speaking' but the real trick to achieve is 'that none of these seems to be done in an artful way.'  You shouldn't run in an artful way, that is to say, not like the laboured and robotic style of the T-1000 from Terminator 2, but it should look beautiful, like watching an expert golf swing, or a perfect front crawl, or a Beckham free kick, or a Sampras serve, or a Higgins screwback, or a Johnny Wilkinson conversion.  Now I wouldn't go so far as to say my form looks beautiful, but if I did a 'before' and 'after' video of tripod-Vybarr and barefoot-Vybarr, you'd definitely find the latter more aesthetically pleasing.

Nothing should ever thud, plop or slap on to the ground.  Your feet shouldn't announce their presence to other pedestrians, they should only mumble a polite 'excuse me' as you approach.   Your feet shouldn't run on the pavement, they should only whisper.  Not silent, like a ninja, but nearly silent, like a ninja with a really bad hangover.

Monday, 13 June 2011

(Ar)Soleus - the famously idiotic decision-maker.

Ecstasy had tricked me; it is its way.

It's very simple.  Last year in York, I had used a muscle that I don't normally use.  I will have used it as a child, but come your teens, it's not that useful, not even to ex-breakdancers (I know, it's a whole big thing).  If you stand up.  Stand on your tip toes, and then let your heel drop back down to the floor, you are using, among other things, your soleus. Now in day-to-day life, I don't know about you, but I just don't stand on my tiptoes all that much.  Let's do a bit more maths.  I was running onto my forefoot at about 160 steps a minute, at say twice my body weight and a circuit of the racetrack took about 25 minutes.

160 x 68kgs x 2 x 25 =

How much work was I suddenly asking my soleus to do after 20 years of using it about once a day?

In the one circuit of the track I did, my tiny, undeveloped, atrophied and flaccid little muscle had to carry ...  Oh yeah, that's my boy, 544 metric tonnes. (It's more complicated than this, of course, I was actually closer to 90kgs and there are other muscle groups that help you out with impact, but you get the point).
I can assure you, friend, my little calf muscles are pathetic, not the robust, capable and manly specimens pictured here.  I can't even bring myself to show you a picture of what they looked like.  Try to imagine, instead, a bone with a bit of cling film wrapped around it and you will not be far off.  And that is what I was asking to carry 544 metric tonnes of new pressure.

In the last 10 months or so, I have become best friends with my soleus.  It is a muscle that sits just behind the bulkier calf muscles at the top of your lower leg.  It runs from the back of your knee to your ankle, the achilles tendon, surely you know that one, becomes the soleus and among other things it controls the movement up and down onto and off your tiptoes.  If you do a lot of skipping, you will probably have a well-developed and highly-tuned soleus.   I don't do a lot of skipping, and my soleus certainly let me know the next day.  Like all best friends, me and my soleus argue occasionally and have disagreements about things that I want to do (go for a little barefoot spin on Blackheath), and things that they'd rather do (watch telly, supported by my coffee table).  But I have slowly learned how they are used, what mechanisms they protect both themselves from, and me. I've also learned that I can't ask too much of them and expect them not to be in a rotten mood with me for days afterwards.

My sister lives in a tall Victorian semi- and I was sleeping at the top of it.  It was utter agony to come down from the top of the house (two floors) for my breakfast.  From then, I knew I had done something right.


Yes.  Only something so weak can hurt so very much.  I had worked or used a part of my body that I don't normally use.  Because the pain was in the lower leg and it was obviously muscular, then you would certainly imagine that if you ran, this is exactly where you should be strong.  I was obviously very weak.  Injuries, or really minor ones, are great.  I love them.  I know this sounds perverse, but they teach you so much and speak with such brevity (I think some could do with learning that lesson).  They tell you to fix something, gait or strength, and FIX IT NOW! Right now! Focus on me! So I did.  I can easily stop that pain, I thought.  Don't bloody well do it again.  But only a few days went by before I knew that this was a shortcoming that needed to be addressed, and it was this that led me to run barefoot a few weeks later.

Nike Vomero 5s  - Their 14mm
 heel lift meant I could walk
again after a few days. 
It was about four days before I could walk normally again.  DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) often gets worse before it gets better, and mine did get worse.  But it does repair a little bit stronger than it was when it was first overused - but just a little bit.  Like a grain of sugar is a little bit to a starving elephant.

The truth is, though, I was lucky.  I had done nothing at all to change my form.  I was running in shoes designed to protect my heels when I landed, but I wasn't landing there (thank God I was wearing shoes with a heel lift, or it would have been ten times worse - more on this later).  My stride length was probably the same as it ever was.  I wouldn't recommend changing your gait, and moving over to mid-foot or forefoot running by trying it out over a few miles.  Start with a couple of hundred yards and build from there.
All in all, I was putting incredible strain on my system by running in such a fantastically eccentric way.  But I had enjoyed it at the time, and it did feel good - the ecstasy of running had struck its blow.  It had made me an idiotic decision-maker.

Ecstasy is not known for enabling you to make sound decisions. This is why you should know what mileage you intend to cover before you step out of the door, if you wait until half way through your run to decide, you will find yourself to be a formless, nodding dog of acquiescence to any stupid idea your brain can cook up.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Hardy's Bike and the Peculiar Ecstasies of Running

Why couldn't I walk the next day?  I'll come back to that.  Why did I do it in the first place?

It had been such a beautiful run.  The promised ecstasy that makes the first few minutes of any run bearable had delivered at the end.  The sky looked like it was a million miles of deep blue.  The air was cleaner than it had been fifty minutes before.  My lungs felt like they filled with air and ballooned deep to my waist.  I felt a bit thinner than I had fifty minutes before.  Running brings about an altered state.

If Hardy was alive now, he would be a runner.  His mentality was exactly that of a distance runner.  You need tenacity, people will tell you - actually you don't, you need to have a desire to keep going that from the outside looks like tenacity, but it's something else.  Hardy sat down to work at his desk every day to write.  9am, he would be there, pen in hand ready to begin.  This he did well into his eighties.  He was still dictating poetry in his bed a few hours before he died.  That said, he wasn't massively into physical exercise, not like Murakami with his Iron Mans and ultramarathons, but he did love to go for a little bike ride in the country, often with his first wife Emma (a frail-looking danger junkie who rode the Cornish countryside on horseback, side-saddle and unaccompanied).  He loved it because it connected him with the world around him.  Entire forests could be negotiated in a single ride.  He loved animals, too.  He wasn't a bunny-hugger or a rat-tickler (actually, I don't know what that would be), but he did empathise with animals in ways that most of his contemporaries did not.  He despised the shooting party, not because they killed birds - he wasn't vegan or even a vegetarian so didn't mind the birds being shot and collected by dogs to be eaten.  What he despised was cruelty.  It sickened him that the way that the birds were shot meant that the shooting party caused numerous injuries.  Birds wouldn't fall to the ground immediately, dead.  Many would manage to go a little further, only to crumple into a tree's branches, or fall to the heath, injured and exhausted, slowly dying perhaps all night, long, long, after the party had retired to the manor to celebrate their 'hunt'.  The bike, for Hardy, was a means of transport that meant that he didn't have to keep a horse.

Why wouldn't an eminent Victorian want to keep a horse?  The opening of one of his great novels suggests an answer.  The Woodlanders features one of his utterly delicious narratorial tricks where at one moment we are being told about the passengers in a cart as it travels along a lane, the next moment we suddenly find ourselves zooming into the mind's-eye of the horse that's pulling the cart,
This van, driven and owned by Mrs Dollery, was rather a movable attachment of the roadway than an extraneous object, to those who knew it well.  The old horse, whose hair was of the roughness and color of heather, whose leg-joints, shoulders, and hoofs were distorted by harness and drudgery from colthood - though if all had their rights, he ought, symmetrical in outline, to have been picking the herbage of some Eastern plain instead of tugging here - had trodden this road almost daily for twenty years.  Even his subjection was not made congruous throughout, for the harness being too short, his tail was not drawn through the crupper, so that the breeching slipped awkwardly to one side.  He knew every subtle incline of the seven or eight miles of ground between Hintock and Sherton Abbas - the market-town to which he journeyed - as accurately as any surveyor could have learned it by a Dumpy level. 
There's another bit in the novel, too, where Hardy's point of view shifts again, but not to an animal this time, but the heavy wheels of another carriage and the unknowing damage wrought by it as it is driven across the Wessex countryside.
Melbury mounted on the other side, and they drove on out of the grove, their wheels silently crushing delicate-patterned mosses, hyacinths, primroses, lords-and-ladies, and other strange and ordinary plants, and cracking up little sticks that lay across the track.
Hardy's bike was not an animal, and it was not a heavy carriage.  The countryside could be freely enjoyed upon it.  What nature had to offer, both to the body and to the mind, could be enjoyed without the forms of natural exploitation that he was so suspicious of.  Nature could be noticed - and Hardy loved to notice.  The physicality of Hardy's descriptions, in his novels and in his poetry, are such that they become a rapturous celebration of the felt life.

And, that's the thing about exercises like running, one's senses feel sharpened by them; you can see more, feel more.  Nothing ever matters as much as it did at the beginning of the run.  There is a peculiar ecstasy that cannot be explained to muggles, but it is certainly related to a kind of religious fervour of old.  After about five miles, the right song comes on (today, it was Puressence's 'Our Number's Oracle' and it was mile 7).  The beginning of the song coincided with my wading and dodging through traffic in the Vauxhall sunshine (like another novel's first page, Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, though I was not passively keeping an eye for a kidnapped daughter).  The first half of the song only holds the promise of what is yet to come, and I found myself having to weave in and around rags of traffic.  The second half of the song is something else, and as this hit I was crossing Vauxhall Bridge with miles of sunshine on the Thames on either side of me, and I had to restrain myself from holding my hands to the heavens and singing the rather opaque lyrics of the chorus to an uninterested sky.  To be perfectly honest, I can't actually remember whether I succeeded in restraining the desire - but that's part of the ecstasy.

It was this same fervour that struck me in York a year ago just when I had completed my circuit and decided to go round again.  So, what had I done wrong?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Tiny Speedos and London Buses (1000s of them)

Back in 2004 (or whenever it was, some time round then), when I was being analysed for orthotics by the lovely podiatrist in Brighton, I remember asking him if I should try and change the way that I run, was what I was doing correct?  His answer was a sensible one: he advised that I ought to be able to run in a way that was comfortable to me. Run however you want to.  If it feels natural doing it that way, then do it that way.  Seems sensible, doesn't it?

Ok.  Imagine this scenario.  You go into a sports shop asserting that what you would like to do today is some swimming.  You've never done it before, you just really fancy it.  The shopkeep says
"Great, what you need is these tiny Speedos. ... Yes, they are expensive aren't they. Yes, they are very bright.  But this is what everyone is swimming with.  They are top-of-the-range trunks and the company thinks they are cutting edge.  Now, pop them on and go and jump in the nearest lake.'  You are, quite naturally, never seen again.

This is what we do when we go into a running shop for the very first time (and, in my case, the fifteenth, too).  We think that the right shoe will do all the work for us.  That we don't need to think for a second that running, like tennis, snooker, squash, backgammon (you get the idea) is something that we need to learn how to do.

So, imagine that you jump in the lake and by some freak of nature you find that you float, and that you are able to propel yourself in the most chaotic of manners through the water (like Animal from the Muppets doing a fierce drum solo) and what is stranger, you find that you like it. Well, by the next time you decide to go swimming you will probably have watched some Olympic swimmers, who seem to do it quite well. If you do want to do front crawl, you will find that you won't go as fast Michael Phelps, but imitating his technique won't do you any harm, it will in fact probably help. Watching old reruns of Steve Davis and copying his cue action will help you.  Even imitating Beckham's arm-swing as he takes a free kick will help with your body rotation as your foot makes contact with the ball.  Although, let's be honest, doing the same with McEnroe's serve might not work so well, but... Borg's probably would, or Sampras', or Navratilova's.  So why do we all think we can run?  We have, nearly all of us, been doing it since we were children, but most of the population can't even run for a bus, so why do so many of us imagine that we can run?  (I know, I've asked myself twice now and I still don't know the answer).

As soon as one starts running, you are immediately made aware of things like impact and exhaustion. (Finding a way to run slowly enough that will enable you to keep going is a major achievement in those first few weeks of running). But that's OK because there are special shoes to help with the impact and comfort in these early days.  We all know that every time your heel hits the floor while running that your body has to absorb 3-10 times your body weight.  Is an inch of brightly-coloured sponge, no matter how sophisticated and cutting-edge, going to do this?  I run at about 160-180 steps per minute.  I weigh about 68 kilos.  I'm out on a run for an hour.  Taking the most conservative estimate of 3 times my body weight for each step.

3 (impact)
X 68kgs (times of body weight)
X 160 (steps per minute)
X 60 (minutes in an hour) X 68kgs
wait for it

1958,400 kilogrammes of pressure per hour.

That's roughly 2,000 metric tonnes of pressure thudding through your body, and you expect that little inch of sponge to absorb it all.  If we were to convert that figure into London buses, the old double-decker kind. Then you are pounding around 2000 of them through your skeletal system - and these are not empty buses, they are full of passengers (add about 30% to the figure for empty buses).  Try this, too - think of that inch of sponge, then imagine full London buses piled 800m high (New York's Empire State building is just over half of that).  So take a moment to yourself.  Think about that.  London buses piled nearly twice as high as the Empire State building. ... hmmm.  Never mind how new, technical or advanced that wee bit of sponge is, how helpful is it really going to be to you in these conditions, with that amount of pressure thudding through it?

For most new runners, because your heel hits the ground first, there are no muscles there at all to help you absorb this unimaginable pressure, all a shoe does is slow it down a tad so it's not so painful.  Imagine tapping yourself on the head with a  hammer - it hurts.  Now imagine the same tap from a hammer with an inch of sturdy sponge wrapped around its head.  The pressure is still the same, but it doesn't hurt so much because the impact is slowed down.  Keep going, though, and something will give (that's if kindhearted relatives don't step in first to stop the lunatic experiment).  When your heel slams into the ground, that pressure has to go somewhere.   It doesn't leave your body and enter the atmosphere, the energy is absorbed by your muscles, skeleton, heart, lungs, liver, etc.  But like a wave moving up the body, that weakens from its epicentre, the biggest shock is to your knees.  Whatever, you're wearing, you still land on the ground, and all your body, organs, bones land with you.  The sponge doesn't stop it, it just makes it more comfortable for you.  In short, big shoes allow you to run badly, very badly, very badly indeed.

I've never calculated these figures before, and looking at them I am astonished that I lasted as long as I did.  But they do make sense of the fact that I could never progress with my running when I was doing it 'however I wanted to'.

Your body will only take so much shit before it stops you.  But what is so amazing is that your body has evolved to deal with these amounts of pressure, and much much more.  It can do it quite naturally and may be hampered in its attempts to do so by spongey and protective running shoes.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

"You're too old to be this fat"

My doctor is French.  I had been to see him for an asthma check up in 2010, and he was kind enough to tell me "you're too old to be this fat.  Lose weight."  A trick he learned no doubt at some European charm finishing school. Though I could feel it in my clothes, I couldn't really see it in the mirror.  But photos were another matter.  One photo appeared on Facebook where I knew I was in the picture but I couldn't actually find myself.  This, the doctor's visit, and the red marks being left behind by my jeans on my waistband suggested I needed to change a little.

I started walking, but even then, and even through my devout love of walking, I knew that what I was really doing was getting myself used to being in motion so I could start running again (shhhh.... don't say it out loud).  I figured that if I could walk 20 miles, then surely, with appropriate training, I could run 10, or 12, or even, whisper it the 13.1 (shhhhh...  shhhhh...) of a half-marathon.

I started running again - I think just a few hundred yards, very slowly - in June 2010.  I was not training for anything; I had put away for good my ambition of running the London Marathon (that ended in an ITBS disaster in 2004, but it was OK because I didn't get through the Marathon ballot, anyway).  This time, I was going to build up my mileage slowly, very slowly.  This is why by late August of that year I was only running a 15 mile week.  I was running 4 times a week thinking that frequency was better for the body - and it is certainly better than heading out twice a week to do 8 miles to hit your weekly mileage.  Already though, twinges of pain were coming back.  My left knee was starting to stiffen on the longer (for me at the time, 5-6 mile) runs.

The Knavesmire - the day of the run
I had gone to visit my lovely sister in York, and in her gorgeous kitchen, eating my breakfast by her Aga, the paper was open on the table.  It had one of those 'get fit for summer' articles on running, and in it, it mentioned running with good form.  'Runners should land softly on their forefoot', it said - or something very like.  This wasn't news to me.  I knew that distance runners do this.  But I thought that distance runners do this.  I didn't think it was for muggles.  My sister and I had planned to head out for a little run on the Knavesmire (a large area where they hold horse racing - it was where York also used to hold its public hangings; I think Dick Turpin was hanged there).  It's about 2 and a bit miles all the way round.  So we went out, took Lily the dog (who had a lovely time), and I tried running to land on my forefoot.  It was easy, a cinch, I had taken candy from a baby only that morning, and it was even easier than that.  I felt so good that after the first circuit, Erika (my sister) headed back with Lily, and I decided to go round again.  But, thinking I was being wise and learned in my endeavour, I decided to do the second circuit running as I would normally run.  Lovely, great, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  Euphoria. Life. Beauty.

Lily - Chillin' by the Aga
The next day, I couldn't walk.