The Loneliness of a Short Distance Runner: Or, Why I Run

Look, I’m as lazy as the next person. But being lazy doesn’t always work out so well when you have a portfolio career, young children and are trying to finish that heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

And so, belatedly, I’ve started running.

I’m a writer who reluctantly runs and as such I’m following in the footsteps of a whole bunch of other writers who run (and who write about running).

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2015), a memoir of running and writing, follows Murakami’s journey from jazz bar manager to long distance runner and thereby legitimised the game-changing shift from literary louche to speed freak (in the cleanest sense of the word).

I still haven’t quite got used to this cultural sea-change. I like Murakami’s brand of surreal, effortless cool. I don’t want to visualise him all sweaty, post-run.  Maybe this is because writers used to occupy – in our readerly imaginations at least – a different dimension, in which genius and excess were bedfellows (or so the story goes).

I wrote a cocktail book once and, through my research about the Algonquin, learned that writers used to be respected for their decadent lifestyles.  Hemingway, a renowned boozehound, was a case in point.

Frederic Henry’s drink of choice in  A Farewell to Arms  is the martini, because martinis ‘Make me feel civilized’. 

Quite. Not to be beaten by a man, Margeurite Duras’ mantra was: ‘Every hour a glass of wine’. It’s hard to imaginge Duras and de Beauvoir donning their training tights and sprinting a circuit round the Louvre. It just doesn’t fit with the notion of the literary network or with the imagined conditions necessary for formulating philosophical treatise for our times.

But in these time-tight individualistic days, writers are more likely to celebrate abstinence and endurance and to focus on the self. Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexander Heminsley follows on from Running Like a Girl, both of which are parables of positive thinking for our times.

This shift in behavior reflects the professionalisation of cultural industries that are under increasing pressure to perform. Novelists are required to be social self-publicists, journalists operate within an era of contracting print markets and ‘thumb-stopping moments’ and in a competitive context of ever-ready citizen journalists.

It seems that the only way to deliver on deadline these days is to stay sober and sharpen your focus, not through a martini at lunchtime but with a 5K run and a wheatgrass shot.

I got my first job at André Deutsch publishing when it was OK to smoke while manning the phones on reception (the chairman smoked cigars in his office). We went to the pub at lunchtime, hoovered free wine at book launches and filed wine under ‘W’ in the production office.

But I have a growing sense of unease that I haven’t got everything done that my 22-year-year old self imagined I would have by now. And I suspect that may be for genuinely social (rather than digitally social) reasons that are characteristic of my generation of ‘middle youth’.

So I run. I run three times a week. I run when it’s raining and I run when I have no time to run. I’m not sure if I enjoy running but still I run. I run because it clears my head and I have the kind of head that needs clearing regularly, methodically and forgivingly. I run because it helps me to become more like the sort of person I want to be – focused, calm, kind and self-possessed.

In Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen describes the first time he became aware that he was depressed:

Several days into a late-summer road trip across the US, a man in his early 30s stops at dusk to observe a fair taking place in a small Texas town. A band is playing. A couple dance. “From nowhere,” the man recalls, “a despair overcomes me … right now, all I can think is that I want to be amongst them, of them, and I know I can’t. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I do not engage, and if and when I do, my terms are so stringent, they suck the lifeblood and possibility out of any good thing, any real thing.”

Springsteen’s alienated self-portrait is familiar to me. I run so that when the time comes to dance – which, let’s be honest, is so much more fun than running – I’m not an onlooker.

Don’t get me wrong, running doesn’t give me the buzz that a glass of champagne in a secret club in Soho once did, but it does allow me a sense of possibility and occasionally exaltation. It also forces me to gulp down the sea air and gives me the time alone that I need to process ideas, recover from the mayhem of the school run, and quieten my racing mind.

I’m not a clean eating kind of girl. And I’m not generally keen on writing that is written doggedly to deadline rather than with flair and occasional doses of illicit fuel. But for me, every time I run, writing becomes a little easier, as does life. So I run.

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