I recently sat in on an English lesson for a class of Japanese students. Encouraging the class to gain confidence in spoken English, the teacher challenged every member of the class to stand up for a minute and just talk as fluently as they could about something they loved. I tried to think about what I would have talked about if I’d had to do it as well. For a daunting moment, everything that came to mind seemed either too personal or too cliched to talk about publicly. And then, I realised, with the clarity of minor epiphany, I would want to talk about running.
Very ironically, though, I’d recently decided to stop telling people that I even like running. This is for the simple reason that the response I get tends to negative more often than positive, and counter-response is gradually getting more and more hostile. Confronted repeatedly with reasoning along the lines of “I hate running, so how on earth can you like it?”, I’m getting closer every time to snapping “You hate running, well wtf does that have to do with me?” in reply. Based on the enthusiasm with which people seem to want to convey their dislike, I’m genuinely worried that if I respond this way they will never speak to me again.
It is clear to me that when I talk about running and when people who hate running talk about it, we are actually talking about vastly different activities. This is not a defence of running because objectively it needs no defence, its benefits are well-documented. I started running in order to lose weight, and it worked. To me, running is a solution rather than a problem. So I’m going to talk about running now, in its various positive manifestations.
I was sitting in a coffeeshop in Berlin, starved of sleep and half-reading, when I began eavesdropping into the conversation going on at the next table (I set a pretty pretentious scene in order to set the tone of the conversation itself). “Eavesdropping”, though, is not strictly accurate given that the man speaking was speaking so loudly that I could have barely ignored him if I had tried to, and “conversation” is also misleading given that the discourse taking place was decidedly one-sided and his friend wasn’t really getting a word in edgeways. The man behind me was talking about the existential state of his body and mind when he goes running. “I think of nothing,” he said, “I just think, “I am running.””
Two thoughts entered my mind when he said this. The first throw-away, flippant remark was that I hoped that over the course of his exercise this man never encountered a road or some other obstacle wherein he could fall foul of the traffic, if he was so determined not to engage with anything at all mentally as he ran. The second was that this was probably the most vacuous man whose privacy I had ever had the misfortune to accidentally invade.
As I implied before, I am fully open to the fact that running is or at least has the potential to be a vastly different experience for every person. What I find difficult to contemplate is the enjoyment of thinking nothing, while running. Running makes me think more, not less. Maybe I am blessed with a peculiarly intellectually-slanted form of runner’s high. When I run, I think everything. I think of everything going on in my life; in sections, themes, as a whole. I think of people; who matter to me, who don’t. When I was revising for finals, I would often go out for a run before I’d fully formed an opinion on a topic or a text and return with my views almost fully formed in my mind. Running is also my primary way of putting physical and other kinds of distance between myself and emotional trouble. I’ve had a lot of feelings and I’ve run away from virtually all of them.
I very rarely run with anyone else, and I think it helps me in two ways. The first is that to judge how fast I’m going to in relation to someone else is unhelpful to my purposes. I am also helped somewhat by the fact that I can divorce the idea of running from that of the conventional physical action of running. I think of running like dancing, but it is also, because of miscellaneous early-adolescent baggage, like swimming. The plus side of having done twenty hours in the pool every week aged 11-14 has manifested itself rather late, but now I know that flicking your ankles upwards as your feet leave the ground (like a frontcrawl kick) make your strides about 50% longer, rolling your shoulders gently backwards in time with your steps really helps you run up hills and through other difficult stretches. Run to the music you would want to dance to, if you had to dance swiftly in a forwards direction (Belle and Sebastian‘s Passion Fruit or Olympic Village, 6AM are just about the perfect running songs for me).
As with a lot of things, I have conceptualised running through art about it, and absorbing positive depictions of running is one thing that has helped me to love it. One of the most joyful depictions of running occurs in one of my favourite films, Frances Ha, the point of which can be briefly summed up by saying that is that young-adulthood is awkward and precarious, particularly when you’re trying to live ambitiously. Put even more briefly, Frances is a bit of a mess. There is a scene where she runs through Chinatown, New York City. Modern Love plays in the background. At first she jogs, as if just trying to get home quickly. But then she starts weaving on and off the pavement, she jumps a little as she strides, she starts smiling, and turning and yelling until she is half dancing down the street. It is one of the most joyful scenes I have ever seen in a film. At the other end of the scale Run Lola Run is a striking, urgent, colourful, Berlin-based running and alternative reality montage, which also attests to the usefulness of being able to run, fast, for twenty minutes if you really really have to. In tired moments, when I almost can’t be bothered, I pretend to be Frances, I pretend to be Lola (endorphins are good at simulating both urgency and joy) or I think about them and wish I could go as fast and do big jumps while I run without falling over, and I get myself out.
Textual Note: Ironically I gave up on editing this because I was so bloody desperate to go for a run.