academia Archive

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, Writing Blog

Writing in Iowa City

Saturday 29th March, 804am, Heirloom Java House, Iowa City

There are a couple of Japanese girls at the table next to mine getting exited about the dresses they’re looking at online. I can’t tell what exactly, they’re talking in Japanese. On the desk there’s a book: Wartime America. The subtle relations between book and laptop, past and present, seem to sit lightly in this place. A place for writers, more than anything, to interrogate connections. Normally, when I get to the café in the morning around 745am, I’m the only person in there with a laptop. Although this morning the Java House is not quite as busy, when I came here Friday at around the same time it was almost impossible to get a table. Each one was already filled by a young student or older writer, laptop up, drinking their coffees and waters and eating their bowls of oatmeal, already hard at work. The same happens in the evenings. When I came here for a vegan salad bowl, there was more writerly activity. One middle-aged and one elderly poet were looking over drafts, while another professor and a younger student were working through her script. This is a place for writers. It’s the café that is the microcosm of this writerly city, the UNESCO City of Literature, home of the Iowa Writers’ Centre, and to Prairie Light Books, a Midwestern city.

It’s been a delight to be here, to discover the city. To discover the Java House with its brewed coffee, its alt-folk music on in the background, its set up for writers. A delight, also, that I can run again, and have run up and down the Iowa River Trail, seeing more of the city than most walkers will, or most other people at the conference I’m here for.

Although to say I’m here for the conference is an ostensible reason. It doesn’t feel like the real reason at all. Why’s that? I don’t know—maybe that will reveal itself only later. The conference itself, although not yet over, has been…okay, with a strange energy that befits an Affect and Inquiry conference, perhaps, but the general consensus is there are a couple of badly behaving academics lobbing grenades to see what explodes. Although the initial senses of exclusion can only be counter-productive to what Jasbir Puar, from the Women & Gender Studies programme at Rutgers University, was calling ‘conviviality’, an attempt to live with the crises points that are being pointed to by the moments where affect is pushing at the edges of different disciplines to bring attention to for-too-long excluded questions, such as ‘what does being a woman of colour in the academy feel like?’.

There was a debate about the ‘sweetness’ of conviviality and the ‘disgust’ of the bleed/edge as two contrasting approaches to these questions of how to do research, how to explore the making of happening. That other sense of conviviality, its companionable enjoyment, was very welcome last night as I went to dinner with three medics from the local hospital who I met at Prairie Lights bookstore following a reading by the essayist David Lazar from his collection Occasional Desire. The three took me to dinner at Devotay, a Spanish tapas restaurant; they went out of their way to make sure everything could be vegan for me, as well as gluten-free for one of the medics. The evening was pleasurably free from academic infighting (“this isn’t a competition to see who is grieving most, is it?” one awkward moment at the memorial session for the critic Jose Munoz, who died awfully young) and full of talk about books, travel, dogs and jobs (not necessarily in that order), things that people should be talking about when they’ve only just met. My dinner and two bottles of Portuguese red was paid for. The finest hospitality from those grounded in workplaces of everyday life and death.

And this morning I’m bunking off the first session so I can come here and spend a little time writing. Just writing. The first session yesterday was from a wonderful presenter, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, from the National Centre for Faculty Development and Diversity, on addressing the pressures and resistances to writing in the academic role. It was very well presented, very generous, and yet if there was anything that I drew from the session it was how very well I have progressed over the last few years in developing my own writing practices. Although it is still always mostly hard work, the problems she was raising (three types of resistance, based on technical errors, psychological obstructions, and external realities) were all problems I had faced and in many ways dealt with, or developed strategies for dealing with, in the past few years. Writing every day. Check. Finding effective ways to motivate via recording and networking. Check. Breaking tasks down into chunks. Yep, etc. In that way, the PhD has been a very useful training ground, giving me the time and focus to learn how to work better as a writer.

Two key words she didn’t mention, and, if there had been time for questions, I would have raised. Identification, and play. She touched upon them, nearly. The presentation remained introductory, if useful for many if not most of the people in the room.

But what I wanted to know were here thoughts on how identification with a particular role (“I am an academic” for example, or rather, putting it into Byron Katie’s terms, the negative impact of beliefs such as “I must be an academic”) can be so strong and forceful, something so critical to one’s sense of self, that it paralyses, or certainly obstructs, fierce productivity and the ability to ensure a healthy work/life balance. Talking with another academic in the room who had been trained as a journalist, we both felt academic work was much easier than many others seemed to feel it to be. Not only perhaps because we had a more thorough understanding and set of tools to tackle the technical errors than many of the other writers in the room—in particular the need to simply let go of stuff on deadline for publication, having done it so many times we’re trained to do so. But also because, at least for me, my identification is not so strongly as an academic, but as a creative writer, and so academic work feels to me much easier. I care less about it, which means I can enjoy it a bit more.

[Talking of which; one of the Japanese girls is a photojournalism major and she’s just asked if she can take my photo for her class project. She’s sending me the photos she took of this place.]

Which leads to the other point. Play. When I write academic work, I don’t struggle with it so much. I play with it. I sit down and think about not just what I want to say, but how to say it. That’s not to say it’s always easy. It can be a challenge. But a good challenge. One of the conference organisers introduced a panel, and the conference, by talking about how we can enter flow in our dialogue as academics, and how really good critical debate can help us reach that high challenge-high skill place that characterises flow (that I’ve written about elsewhere in relation to running). And I’ve worked really hard, through writing every day, through addressing the heavy-laden psychological ‘need’ to be a creative writer/novelist and taking off some of that pressure, to bring more play (back) into my creative writing.

Which is why this morning I’m taking a break from the non-fiction book proposal I’ve been working on. It’s actually been a lot of fun to write. But over the last few days, with the conference, the jet-lag, and dalliance with strong coffee (a day spent sweating, palpitating—how is this stuff not contraband?!), I’ve found it a struggle, and I want to stop, give it some space, come back to it when I feel more creative, more playful with it. It hasn’t reached the hard-ass honing stage yet (I feel I may be adopting the tone of my temporary residence). There’s more to say, to play, before getting there.

And one more thing on writing. Another way of becoming unstuck, and a reason why I put away the book proposal. I was trying to work out how to link together some of the still disparate elements. I couldn’t think how. And now I can again, after five months, I went for a run. On that run, pushing myself enough so that my mind couldn’t really ask itself questions, after a while I found myself writing in my mind the introduction I needed to do for the panel I was chairing later that day. Ah! So the reason I couldn’t find the answers to how to knit together the disparate parts of my book proposal was because my unconscious was already working on/worrying out another thing that needed writing. It was a lovely lesson. Rather than pushing too hard against what was being crafted internally to try to fit an conscious demand, I let the mind rest, and let what was going on inside come out.

It’s very good to be running again, not least for the job it does in my writing.

I’ve just a few more hours in Iowa City, this city of writers, before I have to check out, see the last of the keynotes at the conference, and head to Chicago. And back to that question. Do I know why I needed to come here yet? Was it to experience what a writing city feels like? To meet the doctors, have fun, and make those connections? To have my photo taken by a journalism student? To learn that my writing habits are actually strong, healthy, advanced, developed? (Although not perfect, not that! Still always work to do.) All these things?

When will I find out. Perhaps I won’t. Either way, it’s been an Iowan delight.