I’ve just come in from a very wet 6 mile, zero-drop run (that means in ‘barefoot’ shoes, more on this later) and how many runners did I see out on Blackheath and in Greenwich Park throughout the entirety of the run? It was lunchtime, midweek, and it’s mid-June (the solstice, if I’m not mistaken). The answer is two. Oh no, wait, he’s running for a bus. It was actually one person – and he didn’t look too happy in his leggings, tent-flapping shorts, and mushroom-hunched manner.
What’s going on? In January, in freezing, dark, glum, January, the Park and the Heath were thronging (I don’t actually know what that means – it’s like ‘rack and ruin’, what on earth does ‘rack’ mean? Or chit-chat, ‘chit’, anyone?). But they were thronging. Runners criss-crossed on the pathways like the choreographed beauties in a Busby Berkeley. It was of course the interminable rain that was keeping some away. (I should have known better than to go out running so near to Glastonbury weekend, the annual signal to the nation that rain is on its way.) It’s not just the rain, though; so many of those January runners have gone. Given up, some never to return. Why so many?
Most runners are unconscionably unkind to themselves. And, the beginners are the most brutish in their behaviour. Not for one moment would they countenance condemning their friends to the pain, occasional anguish, and punishment that they are forced to endure. Oh no, sorry, that they force ‘themselves’ to endure. That’s the point. They are downright mean to the unfit version of themselves, and unfortunately, that is the version of themselves that has turned up for those early ‘runs’. Not nice, quiet, jogs to get the heart, lungs and muscles warmed up, but ‘runs’. If they have allowed themselves to get so unfit, then they tell themselves they deserve this – it is only difficult for them because they haven’t been exercising. ‘So! I’ll show you, body!’ In the blink of an eye their body becomes their enemy and they are at war. Beginner runners wouldn’t treat their enemies the way that they treat themselves on their first runs.
1. Go slow – slower than you think. No, slower than that.
Poetry is not very helpful, here. Poetry tells us ‘now’, the novel tells us ‘later’. Think of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Robert Herrick’s ‘Gather ye Rosebuds’ (from ‘To the Virgins, to make much of Time’), or indeed most Metaphysical poetry, or of Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ when ‘all the clocks in the city/ Began to whirr and chime: “Oh let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time”‘. The wonderful centrifugal effect of ‘whirr’ whips up a sense of the chaotic rapidity of time spinning out of control, unravelling like an unattended reel of film. Lyric poetry always wants us to rush, it seems. Nibble-size literature to go.
The novel, though – that’s a different matter. The novel, all too often is happy to teach us to go slower than we want to. Novels are littered with failed sprinters who just aren’t up to the task. Uriah Heep comes a cropper in his bid to gain control over poor Wickfield and his business in Dickens’ David Copperfield. Mrs Thornton from Elizabeth Gaskell’s deliciously clever North and South is a more complex and certainly less comic version of what can go wrong when one leaps from one class to another. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is generous enough a novel to show us both sprinter and runner. Two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, both lured to love by maybe the wrong, maybe the right, man. Marianne professes her love privately, publicly, loudly and quickly and is crushed to discover her darling Willoughby has shagged and binned other women, and is promised instead to a woman whose charms are somewhat slighter than the contents of her purse. Steady Elinor keeps her ‘esteem’ for boring Edward as secret as she can, does not change her mind, and is finally rewarded with marriage. Too-fast Marianne has to be dragged and dangled over death’s abyss by a love-induced fever to learn her lesson: to shut up a bit, and slow down. She does, marries someone old, boring and virtually unsexed and is therefore ‘happy’ in Austen’s world.
Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp is about the only go-fast heroine I can think of that gets what she wants. But even louche Thackeray could not countenance Becky as a heroine. In case we too swiftly admire her adept social mountaineering we soon see her beating her child. And, in case we are still in any doubt, Thackeray drew an illustration of her and subtitled it ‘Becky’s second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra’. Having earlier played the role for Lord Steyne. Joss (Agamemnon), her husband, dies offstage and the companies insuring him reluctantly pay, making it known that it was ‘the blackest case’ ever.
Even in its form, the long and ponderous novel is one that can teach is to go slow. If you go at it too fast, you’ll run out of puff. First attempts at War and Peace, Moby Dick, Underworld, Romola, all for me fell at the second hurdle because the first was approached too fast. Sprint off too quickly and you just won’t make it. Why do we always want to go so fast? What for?
2. Think of how much you’d like to do. Then, think how much it might be wise to do. Then, quarter it.
|Lizzie and Laura, from a woodcut design
by Rossetti’s brother.
Binge and you will regret it. Lizzie and Laura go to market, a ‘Goblin Market’ (Christina Rossetti – 1862). Laura wants to eat the goblin’s fruit but has no money, so they agree to accept some of her hair as payment, then she
[…] sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock.
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore;
As readers, we do not need cautiously to invoke Freud to read this poem sexually. No one could really face a charge of over-interpretation if they were to assert that there was a sexual element to Laura's feverish sucking on the goblin's fruit. But if we sidestep (and it has to be quite a big step) a sexualised reading of the poem, it becomes a tale of suffering through excess. Laura is made to suffer for her indulgence with the goblin men. So many runners try and address either their desires or anxieties about fitness in one run. It may not be a wise method for planning a week's running, or a month's for that matter. Think what you might be able to do, then cut back on that because you are probably not experienced enough to plan your running, then pare it again just to make sure you don't suffer an early injury. If the figure you're left with is a few hundred yards, well that sounds just about right to me. Laura gobbled too much and it put her off for life.
3. Be kinder to yourself
The shudder in my son’s left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather light
to still his pen. He understands
the whole man must be his own brother
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the one hand’s kindness to another.
In Don Paterson’s ‘Correctives’ the tender image of one hand laid upon another is a peculiar moment of transaction precisely because it asks is one, one, or is it two? The son becomes the soothing parent to himself. For all its lightness of touch, it is a potent metaphor, one that suggests a fundamental split in the self between the mind and the body. Furthermore, the poem’s real beauty lies in the simplicity of its solution. The son’s featherlight touch is one that demonstrates an act of caring that we are all capable of, but too often ignore. Sometimes, we need as little as one hand’s kindness to another to get us through.