I had hurt myself, but I was lucky. It meant that I learnt a lot in the process. You can’t just lean forward or flex your forefoot, reaching deep into the air in front of you with your toes so that you land there instead of on your heel. You have got to create a form that will mean that you land on your forefoot or midfoot naturally, that is without trying to. There are a number of things that you need to do that will make this happen, but a good place to start is what you do with your whole body. If you want to run barefoot, or if you want to run with good form, or if you want to run like, well, not an idiot, you need to run with care. You need to run in a way that is attentive to what your whole body is doing.
Good runners don’t thud around all over the pavement. Really good ones hardly make any noise at all. Now I’m not saying that I’m a really good runner (I’m not), and I don’t do this on purpose, but about once a week I frighten the be’jesus out of someone. They are ambling along quietly at their own pace, and they just don’t hear me coming. “OOOO!”, it often frightens me as much as them. But without any heel on my shoes to thud down into, I have no choice but to creep along, well, stealthily.
When you head out next time, regardless of what running style you adopt, think of Bruce Lee in his child-size tracksuit in Enter the Dragon, sneaking round the complex of the wicked and evil, mastermind, Han (we know he’s evil because only that bear’s claw thing he wears on his hand could explain the deep grooves of his Grecian-2000 slick-back hair style.) Lee moved like a cat, one trying to creep in late from a party. The film, though, is a funny one. I am not recommending that you watch it again. I remember aching with desire to see it as a lad. Even, the ten second clips on telly were eagerly drunk as a sort of Diet Coke version of being able to see the real thing. Lee, to eight year olds in the 70s, was a legend. Now, the film is solid proof that you can never go home again.
There are quite a few films or books that you return to and discover and rediscover with the sheer delight at how much better they are, or how they have withstood the heavy weathering of time. Eliot’s Middlemarch failed to make the greatest of impressions when I first blundered through it at the age of 24 – by 32 however life had changed enough for me to catch up with the book and it was simply stunning the second time around (my students are entertained – I must say at my expense – by the fact that the second reading of the novel actually made me cry in the bath). Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion was very good the first time round, and just as good the second. Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum on the the other hand… well, let’s just say I feel embarrassed to have recommended it to so many people in the intervening years. Sorry, guys. But wow!, Enter the Dragon plummeted to being one of the worst films of all time. So sickeningly homophobic, heterocentric, androcentric, anthropocentric (I can’t think of another film where someone slaps a snake for God’s sake), xenophobic, occidentocentric (I just made that one up), and misogynist, but the bit where he does a back somersault and kicks someone in the face mid- flight is totally cool. Anyway, Bruce has a lot of creeping around to do on Han’s island, trying to find some very important information for the British Government, quite why is still lost on me. It was the creeping. He moved with his feet and his legs; his upper body hardly moved at all. It was ballet, but with a lot more single-handed killing of unpensioned guards. Good runners don’t move their upper bodies all that much. There’s some arm swing, but not loads, and it tends to move back and forwards rather than side to side. It is a relaxed motion that might bend like a fishing rod, but is not stiff like you have a tennis racket down your back. The result of all of this is that you run like you have a migraine. Your head just doesn’t move, or bob, very much as you stride along. It stays almost on the level. It does move a little bit, but your sunglasses shouldn’t move, or your neck chain – if you have one (I don’t, more on that later). You should protect your head like you’ve had a bad night. If you take your shoes off and try and run, you will probably do this naturally – you have about two million years of evolutionary muscle memory that will help you to do this. There were no neolithic Nikes.
Alberti, the Renaissance polymath, is the one that from a standing start could jump over a man (I think they were a bit shorter in Renaissance Italy, and not the 6 foot 7 of one of my work colleagues). He said that the cultivated man ‘must apply the greatest artistry in three things: walking in the city, riding a horse, and speaking’ but the real trick to achieve is ‘that none of these seems to be done in an artful way.’ You shouldn’t run in an artful way, that is to say, not like the laboured and robotic style of the T-1000 from Terminator 2, but it should look beautiful, like watching an expert golf swing, or a perfect front crawl, or a Beckham free kick, or a Sampras serve, or a Higgins screwback, or a Johnny Wilkinson conversion. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say my form looks beautiful, but if I did a ‘before’ and ‘after’ video of tripod-Vybarr and barefoot-Vybarr, you’d definitely find the latter more aesthetically pleasing.
Nothing should ever thud, plop or slap on to the ground. Your feet shouldn’t announce their presence to other pedestrians, they should only mumble a polite ‘excuse me’ as you approach. Your feet shouldn’t run on the pavement, they should only whisper. Not silent, like a ninja, but nearly silent, like a ninja with a really bad hangover.