Reading about running

ImageI’ve just got back from a very soggy and yet a very stimulating day at the Hay Festival. There I saw Mark Rowlands, author of Philosopher and the Wolf, set out some interesting and provoking thoughts on memories and the art (it isn’t a science it seems) of remembering. What he didn’t talk much about was his latest book, Running with the Pack. I was a bit disappointed by this, as I’ve recently finished reading it and had a few questions in mind about both his running and the philosophy it helps him unlock. But, looking around the venerable Hay audience gathered in the Google tent, I could see a certain logic on focusing on memory instead of exercise…

Where he did weave the focus of the morning together with the subject matter of his latest book, Rowlands said how pleased he was to be back in Wales, and how the morning runs along the banks of the River Wye had stimulated boyhood memories he didn’t realize he still possessed. This, he reckoned, was the underpinning for the complete happiness he was experiencing on these morning runs. He was being transported back to his childhood where he would run for the simple pleasure of running. And this, I suppose, is the element of Running with the Pack that I found most interesting – and appealing. The notion of appreciating the intrinsic value of running.

I confess to putting the book to one side before the Marathon, because as an experienced runner himself, I found that Rowlands was picking at my self-deceptions that allowed me to complete long runs. The daft conversations you have with yourself to allow you to complete a tough 100 yards, or mile, or five miles… with each page read, I found that these were taking on a greater significance than I was really ready for. Here, Rowlands neatly sums up an experience I think will be familiar to many:

…I would be having a little conversation with myself: ‘Just get me to the corner of 104th – then you can walk for a while.’ But who or what is this ‘me’ and who or what is this ‘you’? Who is giving permission to whom?

I decided that, on balance, I was happy for now in my little self-deceptions and internal debate, and didn’t want to try and understand this any further through Spinoza or Descartes (though my fears my have been eased if I’d carried on to the bit about Sartre). Not until the Marathon was over at least. And looking back, clear as day, I remember the conversation I had with myself from mile 16 was all about getting to mile 18. ‘Just you get to 18’ I kept telling myself, ‘and then I will see where we’re at’. I? We? You? Who?

But, away from the hard London streets and back in the comfort of the armchair at home, I took the book up again and greatly enjoyed the description of running as something that invokes something simple and joyful inside us. The intrinsic value of running is something I suppose I’ve only learnt to appreciate in more recent times. There is no question that I started running regularly a couple of years ago to get fit, lose a bit of weight, and generally put myself in with some sort of shout of actually seeing my daughter grow up. In other words, almost every reason I could think of to run would be described by Rowlands as being of instrumental importance. It wasn’t the activity itself I was focusing on, but the end results. Things are different now, however. Now, I get twitchy and grumpy if I’ve not run for a few days and I look longingly, agonisingly, at joggers of any age and ability doing their thing. At first I recognised this emotion as guilt – I should be out running, training for something. But, now, post-Marathon, there isn’t really anything to train for, and I still feel that same pull. I think that what is happening now is that (whisper it) I’m enjoying running. I find it fun. Okay, okay, not always. But, generally. I have got to the stage where I actually feel most at peace when I’m plodding though Cardiff’s parks for no other particular purpose than just being there. And so I found great empathy with much of what Rowlands has to say, even if he could have said it in fewer words. But even the repetition of ideas that disrupts the book a little, didn’t take too much away from a really interesting meditation on running, philosophy – oh, and wolves. We shouldn’t forget about the wolf…

The one boring running question I wanted to ask him, if we had been in a different place, talking about different things, is something that divides runners across the world. Namely – music whilst running – yes, or no? Given the central themes of Running with the Pack, the thoughts and even solutions that Rowlands say come to him whilst running, I was really surprised by the revelation – in a throw-away line – that he listens to music (loudly) whilst running. I do too. And I find that not only can each song lead to a subconscious change to my stride pattern, it can radically change my thought-pattern too. So, how does that fit with the notion of running for the intrinsic value? I’m not sure I know.

I will save that thought for another day. For now, I will close with a good excerpt from Running with the Pack, which again combines the two themes of memory, and running.

Running puts me in contact once more with a certain kind of value that is easily lost to the adult. Running is a way of remembering – a way that the body remembers what the mind could not.

Finally, very many thanks to Meilyr Rowlands (no relation) who pointed me at this book. It has given me a great deal of enjoyment and head-scratching – diolch, Meilyr.

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