Running Archive

An Animal Diary, Animals, Running

Gulls coming home

seagullWatching the gulls come home is one of my favourite monents of the day. The Wearmouth Bridge, built in 1929 but with a history in different forms back to 1796, in its current shape a replica of the Tyne and Sydney Harbour bridges, all three of which I have walked over, is a good vantage point to watch the birds fly home. At sunset the sky above the bridge turns to orange and then pink, and the deep bottle green of the bridge iron turns a defiant purply-grey, and the gulls come in, singing on the wing, circling and spiralling on drafts of air we cannot see and barely notice as anything other than the cold on our cheeks. These are mainly common and herring gulls, flying at 500ft or higher, following as far as I can tell the flow of the Wear to the sea at its mouth.

I once saw a gull hanging off the St Peter’s basin wall just before the mouth of the Wear as it hits the North Sea. It was trapped in fishing line, tangled around its foot and around the iron railing, the barrier for us to avoid falling in. There were three teenagers fishing just a little way along, with the tools that could have helped to cut the bird free. Instead it hung off the side wall over the sea some thirty or forty feet below, strung up like shot game. There was always fishing line dumped along that walkway, from Sunderland out to Roker Beach. Yellow and pink and orange line, tangled messes of a frustrated day’s fishing. I used to put as much of it in the bins as I could.

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An Animal Diary, Running

Fallen Tree

fallen treeI run through Jesmond Dene a few times each week when running regularly. It is a long, thin and deep-delved park with the Ouseburn river running through it, a manicured end near Armstrong Bridge with a petting zoo and café, where it leads into Armstrong Park, a tree dominated, steep sided pathway of green, before the more open Heaton Park, with its Santana’s Italian restaurant in the old club house, and disused bowling green and open picnic spaces, packed full of students in summer and dog walkers all year round.

I begin the run by looping around the outside of Heaton Park and then dropping in at its southern gate and then run through in that direction, south to north. There is an access road between Heaton and Armstrong parks, and as I approached today I saw a police line blocking the way, where the top half of a tree had broken off and fallen. To the left, just inside Armstrong Park, stood the cracked tree stump from where the top half had fallen. Wind? Lightning? The broken stump, snapped like a lollypop stick, still sticky with sap, lay across the wall of Armstrong Park and into the road. It was already being dismantled. Many of its branches had been sawn off and lain in rows. The stricken tree itself was resting on the wall, perhaps five or six feet off the ground.

That’s when I should have gone round. But instead I crossed the blue line of plastic tape and went under the tree to carry on my run. That’s when I realised that the tree could still be ready to tip off the wall on which it had come to ret. It was still precariously balanced, perhaps and perhaps the branches I was hopping over and disturbing were not in fat detached, but still connected, and helping the tree balance. If it did come down on me it would rush me, no doubt. And for a moment the stupidity of what I was doing was apparent.

But then I was through, and running again, into Armstrong Park, then the Dene, following the cerise sunset, another clear night sky in the clear January, and forgetting the risk I’d taken to not divert my route. Perhaps there’s something about running that encourages risk in me – something I found out when I got stuck in the mud off Holy Island last summer, both legs up to the things and one arm, all sinking into a stretch of the mudflats they call ‘The Cages’ (the clue is in the name), a mile from any other human life and unable to reach my phone in my back pack.

I escaped from the mud. The tree didn’t fall on me. Yet both times this act of running had awakened in me, as it does for many, a desire to explore a world that is dangerous in ways that we insure ourselves against, with blue tape and pathways and an aversion to the animal feeling of simply not wanting to die; to live. And yet to test that feeling. I know that I needed something last summer, a shaking experience, something to waken me from lethargy; a near-death experience ought to do it. Consciously I was aware of a need for shaking up. Consciously I also was aware that my deeper brain systems wanted to seek out something dangerous. And so even though I didn’t intend to go through the mudflats, after I had, I was glad.

It is why, I think, in some ways, that through running and through experiences that bring to the fore this feeling in me—basics, all shared by we animals, we mammals—that I have to be able to empathise with the bodies of other animals and their needs. Other animals other than humans, but also humans.

Stepping under that tree as it lay fallen and with the threat of falling on me, I felt, for a moment, the same sense as what it must be like for a crow or a starling nesting in its branches in the wild wind. There’s something about the surprise of it that also threatens, and in that threat and surprise our physical animality and mortality is foregrounds. What a weak word. Lived. There is also, as Bessel van der Kolk makes clear in his book The Body Keeps the Score, the way we all, humans and nonhuman animals, keep ourselves from trauma is by mobilising against the threat. Face, fight, flight, run on, into the Dene, and in the dark half where most people do not wander, to run on, to leave the threat behind.

I did another 25 miles after being trapped in The Cages. All I lost was a sock. But what did I gain?

Image (cc) Deb Collins

Blog, Running, Writing

Running and academia: the intellectual aspect of pounding the pavements

This article was originally published on the Guardian running blog

Running has become socio-cosmic,” anthropologist Allen Abramson announces to his attentive audience, a group of artists, academics, writers and, collectively, runners, gathered at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. What he means by this, I think, is that running is now everywhere. Even – as the first International Festival of Running (Run Run Run, or #r3fest) hosted by University College London last week attests – in the hallowed halls of the academic department, where such highfalutin claims are not, as they might be on the track, out of place.

But outside sports science, what interest does running have for the academic? And is running safe in our hands (or should that be shoes)?

About 50 of us have come for this inaugural conference, which is also the beginnings of a new Running Research Network, exploring the intersections of the scientific with the spiritual, cultural and political sides of the thing we all love to do – and now also to study. What is clear, however, from the footwear as much as the debate, is that we’re runners first and foremost.

“We were worried it was just going to be the two of us,” says Alan Latham, a senior lecturer in the department of geography at UCL, of himself and his co-organiser, the artist Kai Syng Tan. “But the response has been phenomenal.”

They needn’t have worried. As the popularity of running has exploded in parks and on the pavements, an interest in exploring it has grown in academic departments. One of the joys of this interest, keenly felt in the positive atmosphere of the festival, is that it draws people from all walks: the philosophers, the anthropologists, the performance artists, graphic designers, cultural geographers, English departments, music and meditation experts.

Perhaps only at a running conference would you get the choice over lunch of a running film festival; an injury clinic with Dr Courtney Kipps, the medical director of the London Triathlon; or guided breathing with Devashishu Torpy, the UK Peace Run coordinator. I opted for the meditation, attracted by the relation of long-distance running to self-transendence that has grown out of the Sri Chinmoy school of Buddhism, which combines spirituality with marathons.

What, no option of running? That was later, at 2.50pm, with Collectif Totem, a group of geographers and town planners from France and Italy who are mapping cities through running.

The conference’s wide appeal is perhaps due to what “runner geographer” Hayden Lorimer describes as the “mythical and mundane” nature of running. Mythical in its origins and stories, from the Greek goddess Nike to today’s feats of ultra-endurance. Mundane in the earthy and physical nature of planting your feet on to the earth, and the practicalities that requires.

As if to prove his metaphor, we’re treated to a 45-minute exploration in excruciating detail of Lorimer’s feet. While he gives the opening keynote, a webcam is focused on his calloused toes, the missing toenail he lost on the incline up Sentinel Dome in Yosemite national nark, the torn skin across the balls of his feet after coming down a mountain in Tenerife. It is the perfect opening and the ideal riposte to claims that academia does not have its feet on the ground. Here they are in all their grimy, battered glory.

“I’ve not lost a toenail yet,” says Latham as he shows me around his Museum of Running, a collection of some of the first magazines, shoes and memorabilia from the beginnings of the running phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s, including the first ever published weekly training plan from Eugene, Oregon – home of Mo Farah’s Nike Project team. “Perhaps I’m not a real runner until I do.”

Some of the work being produced by artists and academics with and through their running throws a new light on the wider cultural, perhaps even political, implications of running. Véronique Chance’s wonderful Great Orbital Run, a nine-day, 150-mile run around London, is not only an endurance event mapped on to a 10x10ft wall hanging, but also a commentary on the status of negotiating a global city, with its uncharted waste grounds, traffic problems, pollution and hidden beauty. It is every bit as provocative and insightful as Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital.

With Ivo Gormley’s GoodGym project on show, what was really being explored is what another academic, Dr Russell Hitchings, called the phenomenon of “green exercise”, and the implications of how much better for you running in open green spaces can be over time in the gym.

“The idea of the conference was to bring people together and really see what all the difference disciplines could learn from one another,” says Tan – a little like the “motion-controlled collisions” of a thousand footfalls hitting the ground. “There will definitely be a second conference,” she continues. Around her neck are the whistle and stopwatch with which she timed, and then abruptly stopped, the conference papers after a firm eight minutes. Perhaps other conferences could take a leaf out of #r3fest’s book.

Blog, Churchill 2014, Running

Vancouver Canada Day 10k, race report

spirit park trailSmall world. You travel half way across the top of the globe to take on Vancouver’s finest* in the Run Canada Day 10k, and what’s actually going through your mind on the start line is the need to beat the guy from Wallington in the Great North Run t-shirt.

To be fair, Vancouver’s best weren’t going to be beat (by me, anyway). The eventual winner of the 10k through Pacific Spirit Park was Tony-Carter lookalike Jeremiah Johnson, who won in 33:11, about five minutes ahead of the 2nd place runner. Second place was a Kenny Mac-lookalike, Adam Morgan, six foot something and lithe, and when the gun went, they both flew off, leaving the rest of us to battle out for the rest of the top ten.

33:11 on this course? This hot day? That was some going. I went out for a quick reconnoitre (as they say in this bilingual city) of the last mile of the course, which was an easy incline, although if I’d feel the same after 9k was debatable. I was already suffering with the humidity and heat – by 10am, when the races (beginning with the kids’ 1k) got underway, it would be in the low-20s, and climbing.

And climbing. And climbing. Although not, the race organiser at Vancouver’s Running Room, warned us, until 5k, as the first half was downhill through the trails of Spirit Park, so to not go out too fast and pace it. We’d also be overtaking the fun runners/walkers on the 5k race before us, so to keep an eye out as we were letting the brakes off down the slopes.

Once the 5k runners were off the first straight road, the 10k runners lined up and waited for the lead bike. I had a funny feeling I might do okay. Despite my chronic hip strain seeming to have moved from the right leg to the left in the past two weeks, apart from the first twenty or so runners, the field didn’t look very fast. And so it turned out – or, my increase in training in the past few weeks, with a firm foundation of Pilates over the last six months laid (Pilates is absolutely the future people. Fill your glutes!) is starting to pay off.

Fortunately most of the race was in the shade of the magnificent Pacific Spirit Park trails. This is a park that sits next to the campus of UBC, but was part of the traditional Musqueam peoples’ territory. During my reccy earlier I’d stopped for what I realise now was a rather sacrilegious pee in the forest, and having stopped running for a few moments I was struck by the absolute silence of the place. It was a good place to find that peace of mind that running in nature, whether it be fells, trails, beach, mountains, can provide. Although there wasn’t going to be much of that after 4.3k.

Because at 4.3k that’s where the climb began. Up to that point I’d gone well. Turning into the first corner in about 12th, I picked off the two Swedes, and the heavy Wallington boots of my fellow Brit were nowhere to be heard. Then over the next 3k I slowly reeled in a Gateshead Conrad lookalike (what is it with all the lookalikes?) who I’d expected more of, for all the handshakes on the start line, and then also took a guy wearing a Spartathlon headband. But it was downhill and I was making the most of the freedom to breathe in the shade of the tall pines.

Then we turned. It wasn’t a straight uphill but a twisty-turny climb, all the more difficult for not being able to see the crests of the rises. About 5k we left the shelter of the trees and hit the road, where the heat and the climb really hit hard. Luckily we were only off for 500m or so, before we turned back into the park, but then also back up. Even so, I managed to pull in the guy in front of me, until about 7k when the hilly run got the better of me, and he pulled away. I looked behind to see if I could see Conrad/Spartathlon guy, to be surprised to see a runner in yellow.

Over the next kilometre he reeled me in, especially as around 8k the race took a deep incline followed by the related climb. Conditions underfoot were almost perfect. This was a really well looked after trail, solid and dry, and even though I had an ankle-wobble around the corner, that was my only mishap. It was enough to let the guy behind me pull me in, however, and when we next left the trails and got back onto the road, I let him take me, with the plan to sit on his shoulder.

Mentally, here’s where I made my mistake. Because I’d planned my long run back to the other side of town to follow the race, I had an excuse for not giving it everything. It was too easy an excuse, and he pulled away. Only five seconds gap or so, but it was enough. Luckily, when we finished, I discovered he was in the 40-49 category, so it wouldn’t have made a difference to getting a top 3 in the 30-39 category. Even so, it was a mental error in a race, one not to be made again.

The final kilometre was back onto the road and into Wesbrook Village and a twisty, turny path up to the finish line. I ungraciously barged my way past two slow finishers on the 5k (a mother and her six year old; hang your head in shame, young man) for a finishing time of 41:36. That’s a way off the PB, but on this course, in this heat, I was pleased with that, and knew I’d have a top 10 finish. Fourth M30-39, and most importantly for general reputation, first international finisher, all in the TBH vest. See all the results here.

A well organised, enjoyable race and a good way to start the tour of Canadian and US races over the next few weeks. Next up: the Windhorse Half Marathon in Bellingham on Saturday 19th July. Prizes for all runners are Mongolian khadags. As they say in these parts, “Go Figure, ay.”

* not actually the reason I’m here, boss. It’s work.

Image (c) of the magnificently named Presley Perswain

First published on TyneBridgeHarriers.com

Churchill 2014, Running

Running the Trail, Vancouver

I knew I was in trouble when I asked for their times. Patrick was sub-36m for the 10k, 1.18 for the half and 2.49 for the marathon. Unluckily (for him) he’s been out for three years with a torn patella tendon. He’s currently undergoing a new form of blood surgery which should supercharge a recovery. Sheila, however, was more than willing to take me out for a trail run. A former member of the V-Fac coached by John Hill, her PB was 36m for the 10k and sub-3hrs for the marathon. As a Vet she is a formidable runner. Both trained regularly on the steep sides of Lynn Canyon. Oh, good then.

I wasn’t to worry though, she said. She’d not been out enough recently: a new job and other life travails had gotten in the way. She was sure I would be fitter. I looked up to the mountains on the other side of Burrard Inlet. The mountains clad in a thin strip of cloud. Rainy, rainy Vancouver. That’s where we were heading, she said. Hills? Hills. Trails? Trails. Okay, then.

That was going to be Saturday morning. Friday I warmed up with a 14-miler around Stanley Park and English Bay at the far west end of downtown Vancouver. Stanley Park is cut in two by the Causeway that takes people out to West Vancouver, the expensive area, and North Vancouver, where people have begun to move now they cannot really afford to live in central Vancouver any more. The Lions Gate Bridge’s history is itself linked to wealth. The Guinness family had their summer homes over in West Vancouver, and to make it easier to reach they invested to have the bridge built. Now it’s a rush hour ruin, and to get to the North Shore mountains it’s easier to take another bridge further along the bay. That’s if you want to get out there during the week after work. And why would you not want to? Stanley Park is fine, and a great regular, close-by track. I ran around its edge and saw herons and an eagle (but no seals). But the mountains are the mountains. It’s why people live in Vancouver.

So Saturday morning, having Vitamixed the green smoothie and downed the Vega Prepare pre-run energy mix, I met Sheila outside the Vancouver Aquatic Centre at 830am and we headed to the mountains.

On the drive over we discussed what seemed to be a common topic for runners in both Canada and the UK: why aren’t people as good as they used to be in the 70s and 80s? Despite the advances in technology, shoes, training science, nutrition and psychology, as well as general improvements in health and longevity, the American and European long-distance runners have been going backwards, in terms of times. It seems also the arguments are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. That there is more choice for people in terms of sport; not as many people are running. And they are not running as much, in terms of distance. Where people used to train twice a day as normal, or run between work and training, and do many more non-sedentary jobs, nowadays people train less, sit down more, and run fewer miles. There are less good people in the top bracket (sub 2.40hr marathon runners) and so not as much competition or people to learn from.

lynn canyonIt was a cool, wet morning. It had rained overnight, but had stopped. We were some of the earliest people to the canyon. Just us, twenty or so fire-fighters practising abseiling off the suspension bridge, and half a dozen Twitchers with very high-calibre camera gear trained on the marvellously nonchalant young woodpecker poking its crested red head out of a hole at the top of a dead pine trunk fifty feet above us.

We began the run downhill, and then down steps, to the bridge over the Twin Falls, a yellow torrent that made me think of what mashed potato would look like if it were fizzy, and then into one of the loops. That began with a long, steep uphill. I let Sheila do most of the talking as I struggled to pull myself into a rhythm. We weren’t running at any great pace, but this was the beginning of the run, I shouldn’t be out of breath yet! I could feel yesterday’s 14-miler and the slightly broken, jetlagged sleep, more in my lungs than in my legs. I didn’t think it could be an altitude thing, although straight away, from the regular mist, it was clear even to a novitiate such as myself that we were running through cloud.

But once we got going, the reason why we were running here, and not through the city, began to exert itself. I could see it in the way Sheila opened up to the trail. As with all good runners who I’m lucky enough to run with, I tried to watch her form. She used her arms particularly well, and rotated the thoracic spine well as she hopped over roots and rocks. Downhill she took the lead, having a lower centre of gravity that I did, and let her stride extend to a full pace. We spoke about the quality of downhill runners, and compared ‘trail’ to ‘fell’ running, where of course discussion of quality runners such as John ‘The Badger’ Tollitt came up, and how proper off-road runners lean into the descent and let their feet tuck in under them as their body leads the way. It’s not unlike downhill skiing, explained Sheila. No wonder I stopped at snowboarding, I thought. Downhill skiing terrified me.

We ran up and around a number of loops, and while my sense of geography and lay is normally quite good what threw me were the inclines and descents, the ups and downs. It felt at times like one of those magic stair paintings—I swore we only went up and up and up, and yet then without the down, down and down we were at the same beginning of the loop. Not so, I was told, and then we took again the descent, the long, steep, fast run that I’d forgotten about but felt a whole lot better—and braver—about, second time down. We came back to the start of the Rice Lake Loop and then headed for the suspension bridge, forgetting we couldn’t get across it because of the fire-fighters. So we came back again and headed another way, jumping from foot to foot over the rooty, rocky, trail floor, all the while being brazened by the pinch of pine and uplift of moss in the air, being among the green without want or care.

Taking all the loops made me think about something the ‘runner geographer’ Hayden Lorimer had said to me during a break at the Run3Fest at UCL a few days before. He’s working on a (popular, not academic) book about running based on, or rather growing from, the essay he did for Radio 3 a few years ago on ‘Running the World’. But he’s having trouble getting the thread of the narrative together. That’s because, he says, he writes in swirls, and as he says this, he moves his hands through the air in swirling motions, a bit like the Karate Kid learning how to polish the bonnet of a car: wax on, wax off.

These swirls were the same shapes Sheila and I were making through the forest trails; the same shape our footfalls were leaving in the leafy, wet paths. Or maybe the swirls were just in my mind as I tried to remember the run even while running it, thinking about writing it down later. Like Lorimer, I’m interested in “how I can write running into being” and I want to “experiment with forms of writing about running”, not only because of the dissatisfaction with the forms of writing about running available, but also because there is something in the expressing of writing that adds to its value for me. (Perhaps this is something of a positive-multiplier-of-meaning-effect: that when put together, two things I find meaning from, running and writing, will increase the meaning of both. A strange, serendipitous benefit of combining forms.)

An hour and six miles in we were headed back, but somehow took a wrong turn over the Twin Falls bridge and climbed a steep set of stairs only to then take two more hills (inclines really—was I getting a bit more used to the ‘hill’?) which both turned out to be wrong turns. But then these wrong turns are part of the swirl of running off-road. The line is not so easy to grasp, nor is the meaning of the narrative, but then why should it be easy, always thought of in advance? Each foot fall is spontaneous on the trail, responding to the uneven world.

Then we were back at the Ecology Centre and the fire-fighters packing up their ropes and carabiners and then back past the photographers still trained on the still proud woodpecker, its head turning back and forth like a film star for its paparazzi on the forest red carpeted floor (it turns out to be a pileated woodpecker family). A quick stretch and a (vegan) home-baked cookie and a change of top and we were back in the car heading down the hill to the city.

Novel Writing, Running, Writing Blog

Murakami on Writing, Running

The thing I notice most about novelist Haruki Murakami’s style is this: a sense that when I pick up his work, the story has already been happening without me, and when I finish it and put it down, life inside is carrying on somewhere without me too. The fact there is a page 1 and an end page is almost accidental to the story.

His first book that I read, Dance Dance Dance, is about an unnamed protagonist who makes a living as a commercial writer and, for me, typifies this style. There is no real explanation for much of what happens and the motivation for the action comes from what has already gone before, before we meet the characters. This is not about a novelist dropping us into a plot in medea res, however. It is about creating a sense of open-endedness in character, perception and affect, as well as storyline.

Perhaps this open-endedness is something to do with Murakami’s life as a ‘running novelist’ that he captures in his travelogue/memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I read this over the summer, often sitting on a beach, or during a long walk, often alone. For a running would-be novelist, the book captures a sense of discipline and learning that is gently acerbic in its understanding of doing things of value (writing, running).

The value of running is always open-ended. Murakami experiences this when running a 62-mile ultra-marathon (well—wow). Beyond a certain point, he explains, “the end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” As for running, as for the metaphors of writing.

There are two key essences in the book that make it worth reading, beyond an appreciation of Murakami’s own style, his almost poker-faced honesty (perhaps to do with the translation between cultures).

First: instructions for novelists

What makes a novelist? Murakami says he’s asked this in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent” (p.76). But he also knows what else is needed:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.

And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance”:

If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.

Murakami then goes on to express this in a fundamentally embodied way:

You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day and making the effort to go out running. It is the same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance, to become a long-distance runner or a long-form writer. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”

Second: leading the curious life

The second essence, that is not written out so directly, is what brought Murakami, at the age of 33 (just a year younger than I am now) to begin his career as both a long-distance runner and a long-form writer of fiction. It was, in no small part, curiosity, and a curiosity about acquiring an openness to life, or even, I’d argue, an open-endedness to life.

Murakami went to college, ran a jazz bar, collected jazz records, got married, and had a whole host of life experiences before becoming a writer. On page 17, he says “By sticking my nose into all sorts of places, I acquired the practical skills I needed to live. Without those ten tough years I don’t think I would have written novels, and even if I’d tried, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

Curiosity then, “sticking my nose” into all sorts of things, to acquire practical skills to live. What are those skills? Murakami talks first and foremost about acceptance without judgement—one of the assets that Todd Kashdan describes of belonging to those ‘curious explorers’ who live fulfilled and happy lives. If we are open and do not close off judgement too soon – in Murakami’s words, “for now all I can do is put off making any judgements and accept things as they are” – then we are more able to see the potential novelty and meaning in any activity or moment, rather than searching for certainty.

For Murakami, this acceptance comes through the practice of concentration. Or, via running, through the “acquiring of the void” of a mental state where ideas do not fix themselves. As he explains:

I run to acquire a void… the thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run are subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void…

The thoughts are like clouds in the sky… and like the sky, “it has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”

The suggestion is, to me at least, that it is this void, this ability to accept all ideas, thoughts and substance, that both is a practice of concentration and the thing within us that makes writing possible. Without that void, created by curiosity and what sounds a lot like mindfulness (“continuing to breathe while holding your breath”), writing long fiction is impossible. At least for Murakami.

And I feel for me. Writing, mindfulness, running, and an academic search for curiosity, decision and their relationship to literary acts: these are my ‘supplements’, so to speak. In Murakami’s words:

The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes a part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.

Non-Fiction, Running, Writing

Flying

I

Four and a half miles into my run and I’m jumping from side to side over the slippery mud track of the Cornwall coastal path, drenched from the past week’s irascible and unpredictable showers. I’ve nearly slipped off the path once, about two miles in, with a hundred-foot drop beckoning—more a tumble into bramble than sheer cliff, but worth avoiding just the same.

I take a quick glimpse to my right. There: the glittering sea, two tankers and a cruiser waiting for refuelling, half not there at the waterline in the haze of heat. The levelness of the ocean is like a nod from my granddad: you’re alright, get on, go on with you. There’s hardly anyone else on the path—the morning’s heavy downpour saw to that, although now it’s turned sunny—that pinpoint spring blaze that surprises as the sun fizzes out from the clouds. Yesterday’s 40mph gales have settled into more subdued bluster. What I’m jumping around and over and almost waddling through (a scene from one of those 80s overcoming-the-odds films: a double row of tires on the assault course) is the caramel-coloured aftermath underfoot of a wet weekend on the southerly-most point of Britain.

Every time I put my foot down, the ground under me slips sideways six seven inches. It’s as if I’m running on silk. Bobbly silk, granted. I’m leaping across puddles that cover the whole path; I’m jumbling left right left over half-buried stone and slate; over mounds of trodden clay and lichen-covered branches that blew off in the storms and lie in the middle of the path like lost crooked legs.

And I know I could fall at any moment, but I don’t slow down. I go faster. The major slip earlier, the one that nearly took me over the edge, flinched me in exactly the spot of the fatigue that I’ve been carrying around, from the middle of my spine through the left shoulder blade and neck as I shot out an arm to balance, and shifted something: set it loose and free. The climber Douglas Scott has felt it on higher and dangerous mountains: “We were frequently right on the edge and at the limits of our endurance. It is then that areas of our being that are normally hidden are revealed.” Being somewhere near an edge, and tending to the danger, but taking it on, going faster. It has dislodged what I’d held too close in my shoulders and arm, something hidden about myself: the loci of my fatigue.

I jump across a wide puddle. I feel the tug on my hip flexor not in the landing leg, but in the leg I jumped off. But the six weeks of nothing but stretching, nothing but core stability, has done its work. I feel it, but it goes. I jar my left ankle on a stiff angled rock, coming out of the path like the end of a buried book, spine out. I feel the flexor, but it’s not injured. It’s strengthening. I go on. I go faster. I taste salt on my top lip. I think: I’m flying. It’s here, on the return of this six mile run, the first serious run since injury, that I realise I’ve stopped counting how far I’ve run. I’m not noticing the distance or how far to go. I’m just running. Not for a race. Not to get fit. Not to get anything or anywhere.

And the fear that took me back to bed that same morning, only four hours earlier, the fatigue I’d carried in my shoulders since I’d burnt out two months earlier and couldn’t write one more single sentence, couldn’t even go out for a walk, the fear that crippled me almost as soon as I’d gotten up and then given up and thought: I can’t do this, I can’t do this, was gone. Just gone. It had tumbled over the edge of the coastal path as it had left my shoulders and run down my arm. In steadying myself to run faster I had flicked it out and away, into the great sea, down below.

I knew running would save me that morning. It always has.

II

The relationship between running and writing, and between both of those and emotional balance, was well laid out by the novelist Haruki Murakami a few years ago in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I’ve written about that elsewhere as have others. For Murakami, there are clear parallels between running and writing: he does both to reach a void. There are many similarities in what it takes to be both a runner and a writer. Murakami says he’s asked ‘what makes a writer’ in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent”. But he also knows what else is needed:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.

And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance”:

If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.

Murakami then goes on to express this in a fundamentally embodied way:

You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.”

Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day and making the effort to go out running. It is the same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance, to become a long-distance runner or a long-form writer. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”

It was no coincidence that in March this year I stopped running at the same time that I stopped writing. Both were injuries that meant I had to ‘give up’. For running, it was my calves. For writing, my head. I sat down at the laptop one morning after what Irvine Welsh calls a ‘binge’ of writing (a highly productive binge) and stared at it for 21 minutes before closing the laptop again, and I haven’t really been able to write anything of significance since. And I hadn’t been able to run, either.

For my running, this was a blessing. I’d reached a point where I was too frustrated with always getting injured. So I went to a physiotherapist, Steve, who diagnosed a misaligned pelvis, weak core, and underdeveloped hip flexor and calf muscles. Rather than run, I was instructed to stretch properly every day, and to exercise my core. Like most semi-serious runners, I already knew this. Unlike most serious runners, I ignored it. But I was fed up of getting injured. So this time, I did what I was told. Stretching every morning, sometimes twice a day, and doing it properly (a minute each stretch, and the sciatic nerve twice a day in quick bursts). And focusing on the core, static strength exercises, five or six times a week. And the result: flying.

But I’ve not yet been able to do the same with the other injury. The head. The writing muscle. Somehow I’ve still not worked out how to strengthen it properly, and give it good rest.

III

That morning. And I thought things were getting better. But as Colin Espie, head of the Glasgow Sleep Centre, writes in his book Overcoming Insomnia, recovery from long-term chronic insomnia is an ‘uneven path’. This was my second sweep at the programme. The first, between May and August 2011, had worked. It took me from being a bad sleeper to an average one. That was a success. But it’s easy to fall back.

That morning. I got up at 602am, like every morning, got up, did my half hour of stretching, had breakfast, but didn’t feel right. Still felt too tired. So short of sleep. An average of 5hrs 42minutes last week. This week, improved: 6hrs 15m so far. But it’s not restorative. Not always restorative.

Sitting at the breakfast table with S, I was short tempered. Fatigued already. Already annoyed that I could not get out for the run at 7am, as I’d promised I would (promised who? My perfect self, that’s who). But what could I do? I couldn’t go back to bed: not allowed. So I put my shoes on, packed up my laptop and books, and readied myself to go out. S told me about a new vegetarian cafe. Turn left not right out of the house. Down the first steps, then right, or was it left? I don’t listen: I’m not going to go there. He’s telling me another way. I say it’s a small town, just tell me where it is off the high-street. He sees my short-temperedness, is annoyed. But he shrugs it off, is immediately calm and friendly as he says goodbye. I leave and turn right, like every morning.

And then in the cafe, I’ve no clarity on what I’m doing there. No purpose. It’s what I do every morning, get up, go out, write. For two months it worked well. And then—too many words. Too many projects piled up one on the other. Two hundred thousand words in two months. A hundred thousand words a month. Book chapter, article, essay, project, half the novel, flash pieces, morning pages. Not counting the emails, the teaching preparation, the getting-out-ofs, the corrections.

I try just writing the morning pages, the messy and unfettered and unedited journaling that Natalie Goldberg and Brenda Ueland and Joanna Field all recommend; the letters that John Steinbeck wrote on the left hand side of the book in which he wrote East of Eden on the right. Despite all of these precursors, all of these successes, all of these expert guides, I look at what I’m doing and think: pointless. Useless. I struggle on for eighty-one minutes. The frustration is deadening. I feel it as a physical fatigue clamped into my back. Then a short lift: the caffeine, some email and Facebook communication. Then a plunge: a contemporary announces the publisher deal for his second novel.

I close the laptop. I pack away my stuff, I can’t breathe into my belly, just a high, anxious grasping of air into the chest lungs. I lunge out of the cafe, left, left, left again, up Jacob’s ladder, and into the house. I kick off my shoes, they fly along the corridor, I tramp upstairs without even taking off my coat and climb into bed with the last forty pages of Never Let Me Go to read. Don’t do it, I say to the book and its imaginary world which is just as real if not more real than my own. Don’t do it to them.

I lay there, afraid of getting up. Afraid that I’ve wasted too much of my life. Afraid I’m not good enough to write. The fear is heavier than the duvet. It’s the thing I can’t lift up.

I finish the book and I close my eyes and I cry. Just one tear, two. This is the worst it’s been for a long time. I need to tell G that I’m suffering from significant depression. That it’s been the same every April and May for the last four years, perhaps earlier, some form of dissolution at the time of my father’s birthday. That I’m not a safe bet. I’ve written emails to her three, four times but not sent them, asking her to let this one go. Nothing depresses me more than that. So I think of Kathy and Tommy and Ruth in Never Let Me Go. “Poor creatures,” Madame calls them. “Poor creatures.” A life set out for them as cloned human donors. No parents, only guardians. Kept always in the dark until their bodies are stripped of every usable organ. They never even consider resisting. Without any choice of how to live and grow old.

And that’s when I get up.

IV

Flying. It lasted for maybe half-a-mile, maybe not even that. But it was enough. At some level, I know it’s chemical: the endorphins rushing through my brain as the physical activity of running boosts my immune system, lifts the depressive mood and the physical exertion takes me out of the cycle of rumination, the closed circle of non-awareness that comes with anxiety and depression. But that’s ok. I’ll take it. I’ll take whatever I can get. What I’ll also take is the feeling that my legs and core are strong. I said to K a few weeks ago that I wanted to run for ever: for the rest of my life. And if I wanted to do that, I would need to take it all seriously. Grown-up. Stretching, core, diet.

This was the first run of my life when I knew I would run all my life. And if I am running my life—well, the metaphor says it all. It isn’t running me. I want to write all my life too. How to solve the deeper muscle trauma? What rest, what stretch? How to build up the endurance?

And there, just as I turn off the coastal path at Swanpool for the short stretch of road before it begins again, climbing up for the round-cliff stretch to Gyllgynvase, I see it, him, her: my first swallow of the summer! It swoops below a bush and then back up again. I follow it and watch it come to land on the edge of the outside bin area of the Indaba restaurant, where its partner, I suppose, is already resting. I stop, lift up onto my tiptoes, pause my Garmin, put a hand over my eyes to shade the sun, and stand for a moment watching. The first swallows, all the way from Africa. My six miles seems inconsequential. Good. They are. It’s not my distance travelled in miles that I need to measure.

I stand watching. I’m desperate to keep running, but I also want to watch the swallows fly just once more. They look around as if weighing up the situation. Their white bellies heaving under dark, deep blue heads. That word heaving. I’d written it down earlier in the morning in the cafe, a slip of the pen, I thought at the time, as I’d meant to write heaven: ‘the mind can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven’. I’d written heaving instead of heaven. I’ve been heaving around a lot of baggage—literally and metaphorically—taking my laptop with me everywhere, to write, even if I couldn’t. Even if my mind had given up. Making a hell of heaving.

Then one swallow dips down and up into the eaves of the restaurant. Good, I think, they’ve found their home. They’ve come back to it. And I think the other swallow will follow, but it dips down and then over my head and up into the sky and does a circle first, before coming down and swooping up into the eaves to disappear.

And as I’m coming back I know I’m doing a Louis, ending too fast, should keep the even pace of the run, but I don’t care. I don’t think of slowing down. I run on, Swanpool far behind me now, coming into the narrow concreted path that leads down to Gyllgynvase beach, and I’m shouting for a group of three lads to get out of the way, only too late seeing that the one in front is being cared for by the other two, that he has learning difficulties or some disability, and I just miss him as I twist past, still unable to slow down. And then I’m pounding past the final family, mother father two daughters, and onto the flat, and then onto the beach, and the sun is fully out, it’s midday, and the sea is a-glimmer, and I run over the shingle and blood-red seaweed drying like ringlets of radicchio pasta in a thick tidal line, and I’m kicking off my trainers and pulling off the socks that are worn away at the in-step and left me with blisters (blisters! Blissters… I’m running again, I was afraid I couldn’t) and I’m walking into the sea.

Freezing ankles, then up and over the calves and the knees, and the gentle waves that look barely ripples from a distance are suddenly much larger, more powerful, but still easily waded through, and my hands are up on my head as the cold starts to take my bones, but I know, guess, can already feel the swelling being taken out of my muscles by the brine and bream. I keep walking to ward off the worst of the cold, until four or five minutes in, and I start to get used to it, and can stand still and enjoy the air and the glimmer and the peace.

(A version of this was originally published on The Peripatetic Studio)