Wed, 26 Apr, 2006
Why I Run
This may seem a little ironic, considering that I'm sitting here at home suffering from a back-spasm (occuring not through running, mind you, but by otherwise inoculous prepartions for university of a morning), but I have determined for some time to put down a reflection on running, and now, with some time to kill, is as good as any.
There are many things that one could reflect on, but for me, my running is seen by others (mostly non-runners) as abnormal, perhaps even silly, or maybe even in envious terms because of the distances and times with which I accomplish these runs. People are often asking, `why?', not least my mother, but friends also question in some kind of attempt to get at the driving desire, if that be it.
Sitting here, I am aware that I may not be able to give I good depiction on my thinking, but I shall try. Part of the problem is that the question is one that I ask myself, often, chiefly at times of difficulty or discomfort. It might be the darkness of the morning's alarm, supposedly meant to get me up and out the door to run; or it may be towards the end of a mountain marathon, where the question comes on in a loud cry, with legs pained and breathing constricted to short shart yelps; or it is on perfectly clear days, but when the route of the day has taken me far from home, and I am by myself, wondering about all the other things I could be doing, than just pushing myself along a path. However, hopefully I can remember my answer at these times, and depict it faithfully here.
My first answer is that I run because I like being outside. This is something seemingly inherited or at the least learnt very early-on in life, in childhood, where perhaps the pattern of weather and activity begins to etch furrows of enjoyment into the character, becoming the focus of enjoyment for later life. And to be honest, I guess I don't just mean being outside on a warm, friendly, sunny day -- though this is fine enough on occassion, though makes for hot and uncomfortable running -- I mean outside when the weather is cool, crisp, the other climatic factors are of less importance -- sun, snow, wind, rain -- so long as it is cool, I find myself more happy; especially so when running, I am a cold-weather runner. No doubt, Melbourne's mornings and evenings have a lot to do with this. Running down south along the foreshore at Elwood, St Kilda or Sandringham on the coastal path often brought thermals and beanies out to deal with icy southerlies. But for me, that is when the experience is all the more vivid. Perhaps it is to do with a straight energy balance -- I get hot when doing nothing on sunny warm days, so the cold, especially when running is what I prefer. Being outside, in the early morning or evening gives this.
But it is not all about the temperature, being outside, but it is also about getting out to wild places. Sure enough, in Sydney's Eastern suburbs, this has meant the coastal path from La Perouse to South Head mostly, but here, and especially on the southern section, the experience is wild indeed -- on many a morning I haven't seen another soul, and the tracks take you right along the cliff-tops, waves crashing against the sandstone below, throwing up a plume of spray, not a house or man-made object to be seen. This is my favourite: the remote places. So could I walk there and get the same feeling? Possibly, but I would be impatient to move on -- there is something additive about running through these places, doing hard work in them, feeling the lurch of rises in the legs, jolting down the sandstone cliff-steps, breathing deeply the cool, salt-laden sprays from the cliffs. Running through these places is the magnifier of their wildness. I guess the wildness is another vein that runs deep in my interests, along with the cold -- put together I am rent giggly with excitement. The snowy plains and peaks of the Alpine National Park, are to me, where the most brilliant outdoor experiences are had -- here, the combination of crisp, un-touched air, crystalline views, untouched snow bound slopes, and yes, the edge of danger that all this brings, makes these conditions the ones for me. I can happily lug myself up and down slopes (running, walking, skiing) for days and days, it is just what I like, completely refreshing and uncomplicated. The living is not easy -- in the sense of cushioned -- rather, it requires dedication, alertness and hard-work to keep on in these conditions, and their changes, but the living is clean. It smacks of the pure natural world that lies on this earth, and it is fearsomely made. So running serves as a stand-in when not in the mountains, it is the top-up dosage that keeps my mind clear, and my senses connected to the wilds of the outside world, until the next precipitous mountain adventure.
My next answer would be that running, the way that I have mostly done it -- alone, is a study in solitude. Not that being alone is intrinsically enjoyable, far from it -- I get lonely like the next man, especially so since being so happily married for the last few years, but there is precious little time in today's world to be away from others. Running is a self-enforced time of solitude. And I don't chose to fill it, as many do today, with sounds or reports through ear-phones, but I have chosen, and likely will continue to chose, to allow my brain to wander where it wishes. I say wander purposely -- I rarely, if ever, head out onto a run and consciously determine the topic of the run's thought, far from it, I am normally too excited about getting out there to worry about such things. Instead, thoughts catch up to me, over-take me, some lingering, for my brain to think through slowly, others moving on, forgotten in an instant. Sometimes it is the stimuli of what I see -- the light on the bush, the cloud shapes and patterns, other runners, or walkers, or people, kids. But more often, my `other' life, outside running, drifts into my running brain and are taken up to be turned over. And turned over slowly -- it is always surprising, and disconcerting to me, to notice how slowly the brain functions whilst running; it has taken me 4-5km's of running (about 20min) before to do a single division calculation in my head in a marathon, the numbers seeming to slip through my registers too quickly to be operated on again. It takes unexpected persistence and determination to make calculations whilst running.
Thinking is one benefit, but the isolation of running, especially running the longer distances of the trained runner, give access to remote places that are a supreme delight whilst out there. Whether it be wildlife (mostly birds) found along the way, or the last light of the day falling on desolate cliff-lines, or a full rainbow arching over the horizon on a stormy backdrop -- the opportunities to be awed by nature are many, and being away from the crowds, through running make these moments special.
A further answer, which I believe is what most people think is the sole purpose of such running, is the fitness it gives. There is a well-worn saying around athletic types that, `there is no fitness like running fitness,' which I believe whole-heartedly after a few years of mixed training. To get the same benefit (i.e. do the same work-load) as an hour's run would take about three hours on a bike, or one and a half in the pool, and then, in each of the other two, the muscles exercised (in the former) and the heart-rates attained (in the latter) just don't seem to provide the same dose-response characteristics as running. Running, as many find quickly, is hard work. Most people can ride a bike along the flat (you are sitting down, afterall), and less, though still a large number are happy to swim some stroke for a considerable distance (you are practically lieing down, so the heart is not pushing either against the earth, or up-hill), but running? Many hate it with a passion. I can understand that in part. I'm sure that a large part of running being the form of fitness that I chose to do more regularly than the other sports has to do with my body shape. I seem to be suited (not perfectly) to running: longer-legs, low body fat by type, and relatively small upper-body build makes for a good long-distance running character. And in turn, the fact that I seem suited to it, feeds back to being able to run with a degree of proficiency, which feeds back to more enjoyment I'm sure. But overall, I'm happy to pursue running because it makes sense of a busy work and family life, injecting a good physical aerobic and muscular fitness into a very short time-scale.
There is a down-side to this intensity, however, that of the impact on joints. Many look at my miles per week (eratic, but sometimes large) and sagely note that my knees will go by 50 years of age. Whilst in some ways I will not be surprised if this comes true (and very sad to see them go), I have a quiet confidence and belief that I can look forward to better prospects on this score. Firstly, it has to be said that the blokes who's knees are going at 50+ today, were running their biggest mileages on shoes such as Dunlop's KT26 (I still buy these exclusively as my 'soft' shoe), if they were right on the fore-front of shoe design thirty years ago. In constrast, excepting my first pair of Nike `air' shoes which blew out their rear air-chamber within a few weeks of running training, I have run exclusively in Asics brand 'gel' shoes -- a shoe that has the approval of at least one national peadiatric body, and the brand that millions of runners swear by today. Some say that times are changing, and that Asics may no longer have `the edge', but the point remains that my substantive running will be done on far better shoe technology than the generation before. That has to count for something. Second, I make a practice of running of-trail, that is, on mixed surfaces such as grass, dirt, rocks, cliff-lines, fire-trails and tracks. Thankfully, there is an abundance of such material in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, the main drag from Coogee to Bondi not withstanding. I'm led to believe that such 'mixed' running is far better for ankle and knee care, in a paradoxical rule that the less stable surfaces makes them stronger. Third, though not always as strict, I do try to keep my overall training strategy of mixed sport types -- running is the main one (for the moment), but riding and sometime swimming together with more casual sports like tennis supplement the straight mileage. Again, I'm led to believe that muscle imbalances caused by only running are to be avoided, and that other sports, especially riding, largely overcome such problems.
Finally, and perhaps a combination of the three mentioned above, my answer that I find myself at times confusedly giving on many aspects of my life, including running, is that I like challenges. I like things that are difficult. At this point, when ventured, most look at me ascanse and don't know what to say, life is for comfort, ease, and relaxation, no? No. I firmly believe that to have one with out the other is no comfort at all. So when the wind picks up, and the rains come on, or it is snowing horizontally, or the visibility is down, or the route proposed is long, arduous and untracked, then I will shoulder my ruck-sac, or go to my running shoes, or strap my ski-boots tighter, and yearn to get out there and put my strength to the test. And it is at this point, that I am aware of an evil of the adventurer -- the small two-letter word in the last sentence. Who's strength? 'My' strength. It is a kind of thinking that can put you well down the track of a self-serving, self-focussed indestructibility that speaks an ill-wind. I'm sure that this capacity still has a firm root in me, but I work to take the better part, and leave behind the worse. For to say 'it is only me' and 'I will over-come' is tantamount to, the meta-physical 'there is no God', and it's human variant, 'I am in control'. Patently, I am not in control. And so, the part of this character that speaks of resilience, persistence, determination, will, effort, endurance and patience is retained, and the other -- of pride, self-reliance, impatient lust for prized accomplishemnts, egotistical desires, and selfish hurtfullness -- must be put away. The last of these is particularly sobering for me, for I'm sure that now married, with the prospect of extending our family with children in the future, I have an altogether different view of the relative values of certain pursuits. The adventurous younger man I was would be enchanted by the more ridiculous plan, the longer and harder the route, the more exposed the climate, or the ever more constricted means of support or aid. But this is folly. It is folly on two levels. First, it is a recklessness that does not guarantee an increase in enjoyment or even accomplishment in the event, and second, it completely denies responsibilities to others. It is, above all, a manifestation of the selfish adventurer. This I cannot be.
In talking over such things with S. recently (towards the end of an extended trip in the Australian Alps), we talked of the metamorphosis of the explorer. Once, it was about discovery under God, of God's world, for His glory. Although distressing to those left behind, they took solace in the 'rightness' of the expedition -- the noble cause, the pure attitude. Whereas today, it is about man's glory in his own achievements -- about progressing the human spirit, or human race (for those, like a recent climbing author I read, who have cultivated a supremist evolutionary view of development). Gone are the epitaphs as with Mawson's ill-fated south magnetic pole diary as he feared imminent death, his concerns for the geological samples his upmost thought for their expedition, and his fears for the care of their loved-ones his ready, parting word. In their place, are the heroics of climbing peaks 'for man', gathering them up in the event, inspiring them, and engaging with higher psychological plains through ice-climbing, mountaineering and associated casualties. No wonder the hollow feeling that three books worth of mountaineering I have just read have left in their wake -- the authors to the number not sure why they do what they do, why they dance with death, and in one case, clearly lamenting the senseless loss, no rationalisations or quick sayings-away able to bring back close-friends lost in the mountains; a `Game of Ghosts' he titled, the book's great and repulsive truth.
This is not a point of view that I have come to willingly. Infact, the obsessiveness of the recent reading is testament to a final death-pang of my former beliefs on mountaineering and the like. But it is the final chapter in a line of thinking that started with my own trip to the mountains. To Nepal some years ago, when I read on the plane Jon Krakeur's, Into Thin Air, the story of the Everest tragedy of the late nineties, where a dozen climbers were lost on the mountian in a single 48 hour period. Most stikingly for me, as Simpson seems to come to in his reflections of the last pages in the book just mentioned before, there were some deaths that were easier to rationalise -- inexperience, poor equipment or judgement took the climber, it was in their control and they messed up -- but others, notably for me, Rob Hall, a New Zealand mountaineering great, died plainly because he was on the mountain when the weather turned bad. No argument about lack of experience or equipment failure could be made. The take-home point was that on a bad day in the mountains, the best climber is vulnerable. That is, despite beliefs to the contrary, that often must be what get them up the fiercest faces, the risks are not 'in control', the climber is each time he ventures onto a face, placing his life on a roulette wheel, the probabilities will eventually see the ball fall on his number. This was a sobering realisation, and one that begun a questioning of my own trajectory of outdoor experiences. One that ultimately has lead to an acceptance that refusal is the best course of action, when an offer of mountaineering activity comes along.
So to return to running, the challenge of it -- of getting through the route or the night, or the weather is a great attraction to me, albeit in a more benign dosage than that which is meted out in the mountains. And consequently, as I have been fortunate to experience a few times in longer runs, when my fitness is good, and the running is scenic, enjoyable, remote and exhilarating, to be able to meet the challenge and drive over hills with apparent ease are the moments of true delight that the sport affords. This does not come quickly, nor easily, but recently, I have been fortunate to experience this often, as a patch of longer training seems to have combined to give strong legs and lungs for the most arduous routes; my body seemingly wanting to go faster as the run progresses, not slower!
In a longer way than I first intended, I believe I have made some attempt at an answer. More could be said -- about the very enjoyable social times running, about the sated feeling that arises after a run, about the cross-over fitness and mental application that seem to result from the training -- but for now, this collection of thoughts will suffice. This is why I run.