Run Forrest … albeit slower

Thursday, July 5, 2018

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Since the confines of a professional training space have been removed, running has seemed impossibly hard to me. I watch old men shuffle by and have no idea how they are doing it.

A lot of runners who have written books extol the glory of long-distance running, and speak of it as a personal joy, a thing that comes to occupy and define other aspects of their lives.

George Sheehan was a cardiologist, an author and a marathon runner into his old age. He began running at 45. He said: “You can live your whole life in America and not find out if you’re a coward. I can run one race and experience more trial and tension than I’ve had at any point during a year of my regular life.”

It’s nice but you can hear a cultish tone, the same one that finds a home in any activity a person would rather not do but does anyway in order to feel better afterwards. This is the part of running that has both driven me during professional sport, and  confused and repelled me from it in latter years. I know that it feels good to run well, but I also know my brain can receive an equally gratifying response by putting French fries at the point of my tongue in a reclining chair. I suspect the idea of having done something, of having cleared a little hurdle or physically paid one’s dues, has a lot to do with the reverence for running.

But then I’m biased because running has always been a discomfort, and not a joy as clearly it is for others. Running has facilitated what I thought were unnatural jolting motions through which my own limbs and joints have succumbed to various cracks and stresses.  And among the many prejudices one can have towards running is the unshakeable knowledge that at any time during a run I could stop and immediately feel better.

Long-distance running tends to create a division, even within one’s self. It’s as if you need to be of a certain type to even try it. Some people I know really cannot stand jogging, to the point of resentment. Part of that, surely, comes from having to concede, as non-runners, that their own fitness is unremarkable.

“The distance runner,” Sheehan writes in one book, “is repairing the rent, and healing the wound in his divided self.”

Australian author Christos Tsiolkas said in a recent interview about his book, Barracuda: “Athletes’ training tells them that they have to strive, they have to believe in being the best, in winning, but their talents only have a finite life.”

Running for professional sport, you find, has very little in common with running for general exercise or enjoyment. Without the team, motivation to run has to come either from one’s fear of appearing fat or, inexplicable to me, a pure love for running and it’s symbolic challenges. But there are legions of people who, like Forrest Gump, run because they “just feel like running”, and seem to have a kinship  Sheehan and the practice of distance running that leads to philosophy, and contemplative literature.

Distance running  is exploding around the world. In the US alone, according to Runner’s World, almost two million people completed a half-marathon last year. Since 1990, that figure represents a six-fold increase in competitive distance runners.   The number who  are trying to win is unclear, but because most are not in contention we know they are running against the clock, or within an inner narrative about self-betterment.

Christopher McDougall is the author of a popular book on running called Born to Run, and he often presents his theory that we are all natural runners, whose collective heritage may be as running pack-hunters.  “No other mammal sweats as effectively,” he writes.

McDougall cites a study of marathon runners conducted by the University of Utah, in which researchers tracked the runners’ progressive times as they aged. It found runners who began at 19 got progressively faster until they peaked at 27, and then began to decline, back towards their starting point. But the decline, the study says, does not occur in the same eight-year period it took runners to improve, but across 45 years.

“I defy you,” said McDougall, “to come up with any other physical activity … that’s actually hard … where geriatrics are performing as well as they did as teenagers.”

McDougall notes that wherever running appears in myth or folklore it is usually associated with freedom and vitality, and that “It’s only in our lifetime that running has become associated with fear and pain”.

Last month, I happened to be driving through Utah. I had decided to try and keep up some fitness on the trip, and do some running at altitude like the Magpies. On the third run, I strained a calf muscle. The following day I came upon a sign on the road in the desert that said, “Forrest Gump”. Beside it there was a Native American man selling trinkets from the film.  This was the place in Monument Valley where, after “three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours,” Gump stopped running. It felt suggestive but, at 31, I am only three years into my 45-year regression as a runner.   

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