I had got lost on Peckham Rye; I was on a 7-miler. 7-milers are nice. I can just about get away with not taking any water, and I do not have to worry too much about food, before, during, or after the run. On this day, I had done one of the middle miles at racing pace. I was done in. I had slowed to about 9.30 but my heart rate just would not go back down to a workable rate. My asthma was not good. Some breed of tree was obviously in the throes of squirting its junk upon an unsuspecting London and my windpipes (and those of countless others, no doubt) were swelling up in response. This was a hard run.
I was in the final couple of miles of the run on one of the quiet side-streets off the park, where, approaching me was a young, pre-school, lad a few paces ahead of his mother. He had the astonishingly good manners to move to the side to let me pass. As I did, he squinted up at me, looking me in the eye, he called out with his economically-toothed mouth, “Mum? What’s that man running away from?” Me and ‘mum’ both boomed with laughter as I struggled to think of pithy response.
|Taken on one of those glorious runs on the South Downs|
It was a good question. People run away from things all the time. In the summer of 2006 I was doing a fair bit of running, my mileage slowly climbing towards the kind of inevitable injuries that used to plague me. It is too long ago to remember how much, or how often, but it was less than now, and more than any other time in my life. After a few months of this, the weight began to fall off me. I got quite tanned because I was always out running in the sunshine. I lived at the northern end of Brighton on the south coast of England so could run only a mile and be on the South Downs. Glorious sunsets were to be had most evenings. There was also the silence, punctuated only by the occasional roar of a car and the chatter of birdsong. Most importantly, there was solitariness. I did not take my phone out with me. I could be absolutely alone for however long the run took. One weekend, at dinner with a couple we knew, the conversation turned to my running. My friend’s wife, always the one to say the least out of the four of us crashed through the conversation like a juggernaut when she meekly asked her husband in a stage whisper “But I don’t understand, what’s he running away from?”
Was this a joke? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I did not take it seriously at the time, but a few weeks later I left a relationship that I had been in for nearly seventeen years. Life found an answer to a question that I could not understand. Since then I have seen the process happen to others, too. They start to take more care of their appearance, spend a bit more on their haircut, lose a bit of the flab, get their teeth done, start exercising. The process builds slowly, but they (or I) are being slowly drawn back, like an arrow in an archer’s bow. Finally, they reach the point when they are quivering, almost bursting, with tensile energy waiting to be released. And they are gone.
So why do I run now? What is the answer to the wee boy’s question? I do not run to assuage the kinds of anxiety that I was trying to make sense of in 2006, nothing like. But I do still feel drawn to it. It is a way of stamping out the difficulties of redrafting a book, thinking about how to tackle a tricky lecture, or wondering why an article’s argument does not quite make sense (the list goes on). It is a way to be both profoundly alone and free.
In one of his many notebooks, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that freedom is ‘the chiefest gift of Nature’. Running certainly does give you a sense of freedom. You own (‘own’ is the wrong word) a landscape in a way that is unique to running. You are less governed by distance, route or venue than almost any sporting activity. It is also a means of escape. For me today, it is principally a means of escaping from the chair in my study without guilt. When you are writing a book, article, PhD thesis, Masters dissertation, or a school essay, there is so much guilt; you could always be doing a little bit more than you are. And Thomas Carlyle’s thesis on intellectual achievement is not much help: he believed that it was little more than ‘an infinite capacity for taking pains’. But I never resent or feel guilty about the time I spend running. Never. I can go running for two hours, return, express mild surprise at the time passed and get back to work. For a man of a certain age it is also, obviously, a way to escape the thing that I shouted in reply to the little boy’s question. “What is that man running away from?” The best I could muster in response was: “old age.” Only ‘mum’ laughed.
Walking was for the poet and philosopher of nature, Edward Thomas, also a means of escape from crippling depression. It all-but ruined his relatively short life (born 1878, he enlisted in 1915, and was killed in action two years later at the Battle of Arras). His widow, Helen Thomas, remarked that ‘his greatest pleasure, and certainly his greatest need, was to walk and be alone.’ (‘Oh, I like him’, I thought). Those that suffer serial depression, even those that do not, gambol through various inoculations against the disappointments that modern life flings at them: drink, drugs, TV, porn, sugar, chips. All of these, though, are about putting something else in, adding another ingredient to an already chaotic and confused chemical recipe. For many, the answer is not to balance the equation. Modern melancholia does not need a modern, deep-fried, or sweetened solution – it needs a very old one. It needs other life. As Marwood says in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I, ‘We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell, making an enemy of our own future. What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that.’ That is the pull of running. To take ‘time out of mind’ (as Bob Dylan said) and immerse yourself in something that is in balance, that is part of a system that is billions of years older than you are, and to osmotically absorb some of it, at least for a time. It is a way to experience a kind of freedom that we do not often get sight of in modern life. But be warned, it is just as addictive as all of those ‘bad’ things. Nowadays, even the sight of a landscape painting instils in me a deep desire to step into the frame, and beyond it. To run toward the horizon, feeling the cool grass beneath my feet, and be gone.