Hayden Lorimer 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.

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.