Can running be just what it is?

2010-05-26 00:00

Many a runner, over the 89 kilometres of the Comrades on Sunday, will be wondering what it’s all about.

Even though I’m crocked, or maybe especially because I am, I ask: Can running be just what it is? I have a friend who’s a damn good runner, one of those natural ones. He loves to run. Obviously. He joined us on a club run once, a fiendish thing crawling with hills. I’d say Donna and I were probably fitter than James at the time, because we were ‘in training’, but her hip was hurting and I was just plain hurting. James wasn’t fit, but put him among a bunch of other runners and whether he intends to or not, a switch flips and he’s in race mode. On his own he says he’s mellower. On that day we ate his dust. His run had to make a point. And it did.

Does one run to run? Does one run to race? Or does one run as a means of transcendence? All these options presuppose a certain level of fitness. Through fitness one achieves the grace one seeks, needs, to articulate one’s objective. Achieving fitness requires effort, which offers its own satisfaction once the pain wears off. Some people can indeed put on a pair of shoes and ‘just do it’. They don’t count. So for the rest of us, is it possible just to enjoy a run? But before answering that it’s necessary to ask what constitutes running? Does one have to achieve a certain speed? Does movement have to have an ease about it? Is there a minimum distance that can be defined as a ‘run’? Does the running have to be continuous? Does one have to pick up a sweat?

These are questions I’m asking because I’m not running. If I were running I wouldn’t have the time to think, but since my brain’s knees are still working I’m taking it for a bit of a jog instead of actually hitting the road myself. At least there’s little chance of injury, unless I get tied up in knots and trip into incoherence.

I’m wondering about running because I’ve been thinking about swimming. I have in fact been swimming, but it’s not enough just to swim. I can aim to go as fast as I can, but speed when one gets to a certain age is a thing that goes backwards. So trying to go faster is purely an exercise in not going slower too quickly. So I can’t aim for speed. Distance then? Somewhere along that path (paths in water?) lies the zone that makes all effort come together in rhythmic calm. A little further lies rotator-cuff injury, most likely. So that objective has its limitations.

I’m reading a book called A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. She’s a feminist, writer, Catholic and more recently hermit in search of solitary silence. She observes on how often athletes who pursue extreme sports _ mountaineering, arctic exploration _ talk about heightened sensory awareness when you put your body ‘out there’; how the awesomeness of nature sharpens one’s sense of relish. Other writers talk of the ‘thin spaces’ in the fabric of the world, where, through extreme exertion, self and cosmos come together in a moment of transcendence. Some call it plain masochism. But whatever one calls it, physical activity, at its extreme limits, is imbued with meaning beyond just the thing itself.

So you see where I’m going with this. If the road is perforce being less travelled, and water isn’t quite enough to float my boat, how will I measure myself, if that’s what this is all about, ever? Climbing mountains is out. I plead vertigo. Parachuting likewise. And bungee jumping. If it wasn’t vertigo I’d be worrying about broken bones anyway. I have a friend who’s done the Robben Island swim. Very cold. Very wet. Quite far. Now that’s got me thinking. I think Lewis Pugh’s onto something with his Everest jaunt. But vertigo nixes that one too.

I think I’ll just get on with seconding Donna on Sunday and worry about these things later.

Yves on twitter.

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