Running is in rude health. Two million adults in England alone lace up their running shoes each week. The parkrun initiative – free, Saturday morning, timed 5km events open to all – started as a small get-together in 2004; 15 years later there are more than 5 million parkrunners worldwide. The act of putting one foot in front of another is simple, so what’s the appeal?
Writers of all stripes have questioned why we run. In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall discovers a hidden tribe in Mexico’s Copper Canyon; the realisation dawns that “the world’s most enlightened people were also the world’s most amazing runners”. An author’s quest to run injury-free broadens into an anthropological study of our running lineage.
There are plenty of celebrated writer-runners, from Jonathan Swift to Joyce Carol Oates, Andre Dubus to Don DeLillo. Another is Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who maps marathon running on to various aspects of life in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It observes the qualities and experiences that running and the creative act of writing share: routine, transformation, joy, even defiance. Reflecting on the rigours of training, Murakami concludes that “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned from distance running”.
Defiance is at the heart of Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Smith, an inmate at a young offenders’ institution, finds running a source of strength and a matter of principle, refusing to cross the finish line and glorify the borstal’s governor. “I’ll show him what honesty means if it’s the last thing I do.” While Sillitoe’s story examines class conflict, it also offers insight into the “barmy runner-brain”.
Most of us feel our pulses quicken at the soundtrack for 1981’s Chariots of Fire. To fully appreciate the inspiring story of Olympic hero Eric Liddell, Duncan Hamilton’s For the Glory is required reading. He explores the relationship between sport and faith – Liddell refused to run the 100m in the 1924 Paris Olympics, since his Christian faith forbade him to compete on the Sabbath – and his time imprisoned in a PoW camp. We learn of “the human condition in pursuit of its glories”, but also how the mentality required for serious running can transcend the sport.
Running has produced many unsung heroes. Richard Askwith’s Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession charts a season of tackling the mountainous terrain of the Lake District, while also paying tribute to some of the greatest, yet largely unknown British athletes. Joss Naylor, Billy Bland and Bill Teasdale are fell runners tough as the landscapes they raced across.
Running is its own reward, as the philosopher Mark Rowlands argues in Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality. At its best, it is “something done for its own sake; play not work”. As Bella Mackie illustrates in Jog On, a candid account of how running helped the author overcome depression and anxiety after the end of her marriage, many are drawn to the activity as a catalyst for happiness. It is a truth recognised in The Song of the Ungirt Runners, Charles Hamilton Sorley’s poetic hymn to those “who do not run for prize”, but who run “because they like it”.
• Ben Wilkinson is co?editor of The Result Is What You See Today: Poems about Running, published by smith/doorstop in October.