Zen and the Art of Marathon Running

A milestone birthday feels like an appropriate a time to reflect.  In my experience, looking back can engender pangs of regret and isn’t always healthy.   However, since turning 50, I haven’t been able to completely resist the urge to review and reflect on running and on life in general (don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with any of the life stuff).

A Facebook friend whom I don’t see in person anymore commented last year on one of the numerous running posts on my timeline.  She asked “Why on Earth do you do that to yourself, why put yourself through all that pain?”

Initially, I found it difficult to provide her with a coherent answer. To a non-runner, going out running looks ridiculous and maybe fundamentally pointless. The only answer I could provide was to simply say “I run because I have to”.

Sport has always been the central focus of my leisure time.  As a boy of 7 or 8, I whiled away hundreds hours on my own on the back patio throwing a tennis ball against the garage wall and hitting the rebound with my cricket bat.  I fantasized that I was opening the batting for England against Australia, playing imaginary commentary through my head.

I’ve always loved the competition that sport provides, the struggle to beat your rivals producing either the ecstasy of victory or the despair of narrow but heroic defeat.  Sport is beautiful.

In my view running is the purest sport – there’s little equipment required, no judges, no subjective scoring and hardly any rules – simply propel yourself as fast as you can over the distance and try to beat your rivals.

Although I love the sport of running, competing isn’t the sole reason why I run.  In fact, it’s a minor element. Even if I couldn’t race, I would still run nearly every day. I crave the feeling of having a fit and able body and of connecting with nature.

My single favourite run of the whole of this year was not a race or even a time when I ran quickly. It was a slow solitarily jog on woodland trails in Athens Georgia in April.

At the start of 2016, I’d suffered three or four months of chronic and depressing achilles injury. For several weeks, I couldn’t run at all – not even twenty yards. Finally as the injury started to recede I was able to venture out.

On holiday in the USA and still jetlagged, I snuck out of the hotel at 7 a.m. on the first morning and found some deserted forest trails alongside a river. It was an idyllic day – like a cool early summer’s day in England with heady scents of blossom and growth in the air.

I jogged slowly along the unfamiliar springy trails and then all of a sudden chanced across a deer, startled but motionless – staring straight at me and maybe only 10 metres away. We shared one of those incredible frozen moments – it felt like ages but was probably only a second or two before he bolted off in fright. Running alone in such a beautiful place that morning was unforgettable.

***

It wasn’t always a runner. Ten years ago, I would have called myself a cricketer. I was mediocre at best, but I loved the game and had played it on most summer weekends throughout my life since being twelve years old.

Running was a minor interest, a means to keep fit and to enjoy the occasional race, but my primary focus was on playing cricket.

However, I knew that the cricket love affair was coming to a conclusion. My body was failing a bit, my abilities diminishing – only slightly, but I knew that I wasn’t as good as I was. Consequently, I didn’t enjoy playing as much and the craic at my club wasn’t that great any more.

I used to run a bit, I’d jog a 2.4 mile loop around my village two or three times a week and being a competitive soul I’d sometimes record my time and try to beat it every couple of weeks. I also ran the Abbey Dash 10K race most years, usually completing it between 40 and 45 minutes.

However, on Saturday January 8th 2008 I had something of an epiphany, a transformative life moment. I didn’t find religion,  I found parkrun.

I ran my first parkrun in just under 22 minutes, finishing wheezing with hands on knees, but I soon became addicted. In common with most parkrunners, I improved rapidly in the early days – by April that year my PB was just over 19 minutes. Since then, I’ve run a parkrun on most Saturday mornings, it’s now part of my life.

Eight and a half years later, I no longer call myself a cricketer – I am a runner.

***

Although I (largely) enjoy my job, my working environment is not particular conducive to good mental health. I work in a broom-cupboard sized office entirely on my own. This wouldn’t suit everyone and I’m not sure it really suits me, though I am able to cope with it.

When I worked for my previous employer, I headed up a small insurance office with four others in central Leeds. Because of holidays, illness, training courses etc, there were occasionally days when one would be in the office all alone.

I employed a gregarious chap from another firm who’d worked for fifteen years in a large noisy office. A couple of weeks into his time working for me, he had to spend most of the day entirely by himself in the office.  When I returned late in the afternoon after a client visit, he was almost in tears, saying that he couldn’t possibly stand another day all alone like that, he would go out of his mind.

I’m better able to cope, more used to spending time on my own, but I have a fear that the isolation will be injurious to my sanity.  An old friend suffered a horrendous mental breakdown some years back after working alone at home for a number of months. There were probably other factors at play, but lone working is risky to good mental health. Running isn’t the antidote, but I know it helps enormously.

My favourite runs during the week are my lunchtime excursions along the Leeds-Liverpool canal.  They are an escape from insidious and intrusive demands for immediate response that curse modern life – a chance to unplug and let the mind meander for an hour. Its nourishment for the soul.

***

I love radio. There are at least six radios in my house, one for every room so that I can quickly switch on and listen no matter what I’m doing.  If I had to choose between radio or TV, radio would win.

In common with many people, as I get older the proportion of my listening time devoted to Radio 4 has increased.

One of my favourite programmes is Desert Island Discs. I’m sure everyone knows the format – each week a notable person is marooned on an imaginary desert island and alongside a probing interview they reveal the eight records that they would take together with a book and a ‘luxury’.

To me, revealing your eight favourite records is like baring your soul – it is wonderful way to learn a lot about a person (good or bad).

If I were asked to go on Desert Island Discs, I’d struggle to select eight records, in common with most people the arbitrary list  of my eight favourite records would change almost daily (If anyone is interested, today’s list in a footnote below, feel free to tell me your list.)

However, I am certain which book I would choose. A book that I first read around the age of twenty and one of the few books that I have re-read more than once as you can see from this vigorously thumbed copy:

zen-and

It’s a mind-blowing work. Part travelogue, part ghost story, part detailed treatise on the history of Philosophy, part motorcycle maintenance manual – it got under my skin the first time I read it and still intrigues me each time I read it again.

At times it’s a difficult and confusing book, drilling deep into the nature of what it means to even exist; yet at other times it is amazingly clear and wise. It’s also a deeply dark and troubling book – the author has a dark secret and a deep malcontent that is slowly revealed.  If you haven’t read it, you must try. Many people will hate it, but I hope many will love it as I do.

One of Pirsig’s core philosophical ideas is the struggle between the Romantic and the Classical personalities. By Romantic he means a carefree, muddle through and leave things to chance philosophy. His friend and fellow motorcycle traveller is like that. He doesn’t bother to look after his motorcycle much and when it breaks down, he is forced to pay for expensive professional repairs.

Pirsig is of the Classical mould – rational, logical, problem-solving.  He doesn’t leave things to chance. His motorcycle doesn’t break down much because (a) he knows how to maintain it and (b) he actually cares about looking after it. Pirsig views the Classical way as the way to achieve Quality in life (whatever that means…)

Of course the central ideas of the book are much more numerous and complex than this, I can’t possible do justice to such a work of genius in a few lines.

As a runner, I used to be very much in the Romantic mould – I didn’t think about it or plan much. I’d simply put on my trainers and set off with only a vague idea of a route or how long I would be out.  At races, I wouldn’t even do a warm-up or think about pacing, I’d just set off and see what happened. Consequently, I wasn’t very good.

Over the years, as I have improved and learned, I have moved much more into the Classical mode.  I now plan out my training, building towards a sequence of short term goals with longer-term goals in the background. I think carefully about how fast I should run intervals and how many miles I should do per week. Prior to races I analyse my training times and research websites to see what pace I might expect to run over each race distance.  I get to parkruns and races early and warm up for at least 20 minutes. I even undertake a bit of maintenance on my body – going to yoga each Monday and sometimes treating myself to a sports massage.

Unsurprisingly, the more I became engaged in the details of running, the harder I worked and the faster I got. I also care more about doing better. As Malcolm Gladwell espouses, talent is overrated – hard work is usually what’s required.

So after my spluttering near 22 minute parkrun on that winter’s morning in January 2008, I reflect that I’ve come a long way with running in 8 years.

This week I learned that I have qualified to run in an England vest next year as part of the age group marathon team.

It’s not perhaps as grand as it sounds.  To earn the right, you simply had to be a registered athlete and then finish in the top 5 in your age category group in one of five qualifying marathon races.  I was third MV50 at the Yorkshire marathon so I’m in.

Still, from a twenty two minute mid-pack parkrunner to an international vest, I think that’s quite cool.

Footnote:

My Desert Island Discs:

  1. Pretty Vacant – The Sex Pistols
  2. Hello Earth – Kate Bush
  3. Scheherazade – Rimsky Korsakov
  4. Lover, You Should have come over – Jeff Buckley
  5. S.O.S – Abba
  6. Thrill has Gone (Live at Crossroads festival) – B.B. King
  7. Nimrod – Elgar
  8. America – Simon & Garfunkel
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