Hardy’s Bike and the Peculiar Ecstasies of Running

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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?

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