Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Everyday Run-ins

Most of the time when I go out barefoot I will get a comment (fair enough, it is a bit odd).  Today I got two, and I noticed for the first time that they represent a kind of sexism.  Not because of what the commenters do or say, but because of who they are.

Today I got "Yo! Do you know what year it is?"  It was well-meant and delivered with a laugh.  I thought it was quite good and certainly have not had its ilk before.  The second wasn't quite so pleasant.  I was running along a path and another walking-runner approached me in the opposite direction.  As I smiled a nod, he didn't return it.  Instead, he coughed a short sneer and looked away shaking his head with such vigour that it could have been seen from the back of the dress circle.  I caught myself thinking, "Yes, but at least one of us is running." This thought was quickly rinsed with the relief that he hadn't seen me tightroping in pain across some gravelly road.  So here is a completely unscientific breakdown of the people that make comments:

Teenage boy: 0%
Teenage boys: 0%
Teenage girl: 0%
Teenage girls: 5%
Older men: 10% (usually quite witty)
Older women: 1%
Women 20-50: 0%
Men 20-50: like, 85% (I said 'completely unscientific').

It's not that men say a lot, but that adult women say NOTHING. In years of running, I've not had one comment. Men feel entitled to share their wit or disdain publicly.  The walking-runner (for pete's sake) felt the need for me to know that he was looking down on me. He wanted to put me in my place in some social order that he found very important, and likely placed himself near the apex of. While I don't find the teenage girls' comments particularly pleasant, their diminuendo is a sad reminder of the fact that as they get a little older, that energy will be quietened, attenuated into a submissiveness that is more socially digestible. I am not a victim of everyday sexism, but it is there, operating all around me.

Saturday, 17 May 2014


As I was running barefoot in Ladywell today, my mind wandered to why I have found it so easy lately.  Last year when I stopped and had to start from nothing, I had cramps and numerous niggling injuries that wouldn't let me continue to build up to a standard three miles. (On one occasion I even managed to garner an injury on a 1 mile walk).  This time round, nothing.  I have done everything barefoot and I have not had a single twitch or twang anywhere.  I have made mistakes.  I let my feet get too wet and a sharp stone scratched my heel.  And you do get the occasional discomfort from those metatarsal twigs under giant elms.  They seem to settle themselves into the tonsures between the struggling tussocks under the canopy. These 'eeks' are easily offset by the changing landscape that you can feel beneath your feet, from the cool dewy grass in the shade, to the moist warmth of that which has been in the sun.

I don't know why, but it made me think of Robert Zemeckis' 1997 film Contact (from Carl Sagan's novel) which tries to imagine how first contact with alien life would play out, politically. Ambient research continues for years with Jodie Foster's character working tirelessly listening in on the galaxy for whispers of life. After seemingly endless work a data signal is discovered, containing blueprints beamed across the galaxies to any intelligences smart enough to read them.  The plans provide detailed instructions for how to construct a pod that will transport one human to who-knows-where. The suits and safety technicians construct a chair and a safety harness for the pod, but Jodie's character is mindful.  She wants to trust the plans which say nothing about any contents in the pod, except a person.  As the machinery around the pod boots up, comms go down, weird magnetic fields are created outside the pod, but Jodie whimpers that she's 'OK to go'.   The floor of the pod starts to become translucent, a wormhole is opening up beneath her feet 'I'm OK to go'. The pod is dropped and she is travelling faster than the speed of light.  And it's a rough ride.  Jodie starts to judder like buggery. The vibration becomes so severe that it sounds like the pod will fall apart.  At the end of one wormhole she enters another. The vibration now becomes life-threatening. Then she sees that her necklace has come off; it floats, buoyant in the air.  She decides to detach her chest harness from the seat and, she too floats. The screws and hinges of the chair rattle so hard like they will explode.  Then the chair breaks, and it floats, too.  All is peaceful in the land of pod. The deafening noise is silenced. 
Ladywell Fields

I wondered if running shoes might not be a little bit like the chair in the pod? For the body's biomechanics, and especially that of the foot, are already incredibly technologically complex. Our feet have cushioning, sprung mechanisms, a 100 moving parts; they are already built to do exactly what they are supposed to do. Their design is the best that nature has come up with over millions of years. The spongy motion-control shoe is like the chair in the pod, it is a clunky safety mechanism designed by the suits because they know best. It introduces all kinds of statistical noise into what is already a highly complex mechanism.

One of the many attractions of running, for me and for many, is that I can step out of the door and run. I don't have to remember to take my gym membership card, carry a towel, remember my shampoo, rely on a friend to hit the ball back over the net. Running barefoot means that I have got this list down to shorts, shirt, door key. And this time round, at least, instead of being injured, or nagged by niggles, when the air beckons, 'I'm OK to go'.


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Personal Bests

Out on Blackheath during Sunday worship.  Runners cross one another’s paths as busily as the dancers in a Busby-Berkeley musical from the ‘30s.  They all look like they are doing the same thing, shuffling along at various speeds.  But running is like reading.  A room full of readers may share what they are doing, but their experiences from the different things being read are chalk and ink. The linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure explained that for a language to function it needed to possess two aspects 'langue' and 'parole'. The 'langue' is, for example, the sounds made by a voice, or the shapes drawn on to page.  But the 'parole' endows these sounds and shapes with meaning, because it is the structure, or rules, in which these things become speech or an alphabet.  Running is the 'langue'; it is a kind of movement, nothing more.  It is the 'paroles' that are different. Runners may be performing the same movement, but they are doing very different things.
One of the ways that runners measure how they do what they do is by ‘personal bests’ - the best time achieved over a given distance, or given race.  This is what I would call sport, as it’s governed by context and competition (even if it is with oneself).  There are lots of runners who don’t do this.  They just want to get outside and play.  They want to freewheel with their thoughts, garner enjoyment from movement for its own sake.  So when people ask me how fast I do something, or what my personal best is, it makes as much sense to me as being asked how fast I read Bleak House, or Anna Karenina, or a poem.  If someone asked you that, might you think that it is the quality of experience that measures the book?  This is how I feel about running. These are my personal bests, runs I will never forget because of how they felt. 
It is the quality of experience that matters to me - not how fast it happens.

Go slow - enjoy it as much as you like.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

This month's blog can be found on The Guardian webpages. It is an article for beginners about the top 5 reasons to keep going with their training, about all the hidden benefits of running.