Tuesday, 27 January 2015


From my friend Simon Cook's blog -  We are organising a series of events on themes connected to and around running.  See below if you're interested.

Announcing: Running Dialogues – A Public Seminar Series on Running

*News and an Invitation*
After the excitement of announcing the run-commuting scheme I am involved with at the University of Manchester last week, I have yet more announcements this week. Along with colleagues from Surrey and Kent, I am heading up a team establishing an interdisciplinary, public and free seminar series around running. The news came through last Monday and our ideas have been formulating very quickly since then. Whilst the exact details are still very much to be confirmed, I can provide an overview of what it is we are doing and why it is we are doing it.
In academia, running has generally been the studied by those in the sport and life sciences. This work is often concerned with science of performance improvement, injury reduction and understanding the physiology of the running body. Running, however, is so much more than just a sport.  Running is an inclusive social practice that significantly animates the everyday lives of millions. It is a simple, accessible and low cost activity that can involve socioeconomically and culturally diverse swathes of society, improving health and wellbeing, and engaging communities both locally and across society. It alleviates the sedentariness of modern life and acts as a way of caring for the body and self; as a form of self-expression and identification; as a focus for different socialities; and a mode of engaging and being in the world. Parkrun is a case in point – it involves over 50,000 participants across the UK each weekend, including 5,000 volunteers and 7,000 first-time joiners across over 200 green space venues.
The social and cultural aspects of running are just beginning to be studied by academics, and a growing body of work is emerging from right across the social sciences, arts and humanities. This work provides critical new understandings into the practice of running that is of immense value to those involved in the planning, encouragement and promotion of running. Such perspectives could generate new insights for policy agendas including public health promotion, social wellbeing, sustainable travel and urban planning. The work is also of immense value to runners themselves, offering new perspectives and ways to understand a practice they already know so well. We therefore applied for funding to set up this seminar series that will not only bring researchers from diverse background into contact with one another, but also to connect the researchers with those interested in running and the possibilities it presents: governing bodies, health organisations, sport kit companies, activists, charities, running networks, journalists, bloggers, authors and runners themselves.
We will have 4 seminars in total and each seminar will be based on a theme central to the practice of running but with a broader academic and public resonance as well. We will be inviting three to four speakers along to each seminar, from a great diversity of arenas, as well as an open invite for anybody interested in running to come along to discuss and engage with us. These should be really fun and informative events.
So the provisional dates for your diary.
  • 9th March – Evening
  • 13th April – Lunchtime
  • 11th May – Evening
  • 8th June – Lunchtime
All are going to be held at the Roxy Bar & Screen, 128-132 Borough High Street, London SE1 1LB. This is a really great informal venue where drinks are available through the seminar.
We will be launching a website for the seminar series in due course and there will be much more information forthcoming shortly about these very exciting events. We have received funding from the ESRC for these seminars so many thanks to them. I am working on this project with Katy Kennedy, a psychology PhD student at Surrey researching the emotions of running, and Vybarr Cregan-Reid, a senior lecturer in English at Kent who is better known as psychojographer and is currently writing a book on running for Ebury Press (Random House) – Footnotes: a study of running, meaning and modern life.
So please come along and join us, bring your family, bring your friends, bring your colleagues and keep an eye on the website for more details shortly!

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Everyday Run-ins

Most of the time when I go out barefoot I will get a comment (fair enough, it is a bit odd).  Today I got two, and I noticed for the first time that they represent a kind of sexism.  Not because of what the commenters do or say, but because of who they are.

Today I got "Yo! Do you know what year it is?"  It was well-meant and delivered with a laugh.  I thought it was quite good and certainly have not had its ilk before.  The second wasn't quite so pleasant.  I was running along a path and another walking-runner approached me in the opposite direction.  As I smiled a nod, he didn't return it.  Instead, he coughed a short sneer and looked away shaking his head with such vigour that it could have been seen from the back of the dress circle.  I caught myself thinking, "Yes, but at least one of us is running." This thought was quickly rinsed with the relief that he hadn't seen me tightroping in pain across some gravelly road.  So here is a completely unscientific breakdown of the people that make comments:

Teenage boy: 0%
Teenage boys: 0%
Teenage girl: 0%
Teenage girls: 5%
Older men: 10% (usually quite witty)
Older women: 1%
Women 20-50: 0%
Men 20-50: like, 85% (I said 'completely unscientific').

It's not that men say a lot, but that adult women say NOTHING. In years of running, I've not had one comment. Men feel entitled to share their wit or disdain publicly.  The walking-runner (for pete's sake) felt the need for me to know that he was looking down on me. He wanted to put me in my place in some social order that he found very important, and likely placed himself near the apex of. While I don't find the teenage girls' comments particularly pleasant, their diminuendo is a sad reminder of the fact that as they get a little older, that energy will be quietened, attenuated into a submissiveness that is more socially digestible. I am not a victim of everyday sexism, but it is there, operating all around me.

Saturday, 17 May 2014


As I was running barefoot in Ladywell today, my mind wandered to why I have found it so easy lately.  Last year when I stopped and had to start from nothing, I had cramps and numerous niggling injuries that wouldn't let me continue to build up to a standard three miles. (On one occasion I even managed to garner an injury on a 1 mile walk).  This time round, nothing.  I have done everything barefoot and I have not had a single twitch or twang anywhere.  I have made mistakes.  I let my feet get too wet and a sharp stone scratched my heel.  And you do get the occasional discomfort from those metatarsal twigs under giant elms.  They seem to settle themselves into the tonsures between the struggling tussocks under the canopy. These 'eeks' are easily offset by the changing landscape that you can feel beneath your feet, from the cool dewy grass in the shade, to the moist warmth of that which has been in the sun.

I don't know why, but it made me think of Robert Zemeckis' 1997 film Contact (from Carl Sagan's novel) which tries to imagine how first contact with alien life would play out, politically. Ambient research continues for years with Jodie Foster's character working tirelessly listening in on the galaxy for whispers of life. After seemingly endless work a data signal is discovered, containing blueprints beamed across the galaxies to any intelligences smart enough to read them.  The plans provide detailed instructions for how to construct a pod that will transport one human to who-knows-where. The suits and safety technicians construct a chair and a safety harness for the pod, but Jodie's character is mindful.  She wants to trust the plans which say nothing about any contents in the pod, except a person.  As the machinery around the pod boots up, comms go down, weird magnetic fields are created outside the pod, but Jodie whimpers that she's 'OK to go'.   The floor of the pod starts to become translucent, a wormhole is opening up beneath her feet 'I'm OK to go'. The pod is dropped and she is travelling faster than the speed of light.  And it's a rough ride.  Jodie starts to judder like buggery. The vibration becomes so severe that it sounds like the pod will fall apart.  At the end of one wormhole she enters another. The vibration now becomes life-threatening. Then she sees that her necklace has come off; it floats, buoyant in the air.  She decides to detach her chest harness from the seat and, she too floats. The screws and hinges of the chair rattle so hard like they will explode.  Then the chair breaks, and it floats, too.  All is peaceful in the land of pod. The deafening noise is silenced. 
Ladywell Fields

I wondered if running shoes might not be a little bit like the chair in the pod? For the body's biomechanics, and especially that of the foot, are already incredibly technologically complex. Our feet have cushioning, sprung mechanisms, a 100 moving parts; they are already built to do exactly what they are supposed to do. Their design is the best that nature has come up with over millions of years. The spongy motion-control shoe is like the chair in the pod, it is a clunky safety mechanism designed by the suits because they know best. It introduces all kinds of statistical noise into what is already a highly complex mechanism.

One of the many attractions of running, for me and for many, is that I can step out of the door and run. I don't have to remember to take my gym membership card, carry a towel, remember my shampoo, rely on a friend to hit the ball back over the net. Running barefoot means that I have got this list down to shorts, shirt, door key. And this time round, at least, instead of being injured, or nagged by niggles, when the air beckons, 'I'm OK to go'.


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Personal Bests

Out on Blackheath during Sunday worship.  Runners cross one another’s paths as busily as the dancers in a Busby-Berkeley musical from the ‘30s.  They all look like they are doing the same thing, shuffling along at various speeds.  But running is like reading.  A room full of readers may share what they are doing, but their experiences from the different things being read are chalk and ink. The linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure explained that for a language to function it needed to possess two aspects 'langue' and 'parole'. The 'langue' is, for example, the sounds made by a voice, or the shapes drawn on to page.  But the 'parole' endows these sounds and shapes with meaning, because it is the structure, or rules, in which these things become speech or an alphabet.  Running is the 'langue'; it is a kind of movement, nothing more.  It is the 'paroles' that are different. Runners may be performing the same movement, but they are doing very different things.
One of the ways that runners measure how they do what they do is by ‘personal bests’ - the best time achieved over a given distance, or given race.  This is what I would call sport, as it’s governed by context and competition (even if it is with oneself).  There are lots of runners who don’t do this.  They just want to get outside and play.  They want to freewheel with their thoughts, garner enjoyment from movement for its own sake.  So when people ask me how fast I do something, or what my personal best is, it makes as much sense to me as being asked how fast I read Bleak House, or Anna Karenina, or a poem.  If someone asked you that, might you think that it is the quality of experience that measures the book?  This is how I feel about running. These are my personal bests, runs I will never forget because of how they felt. 
It is the quality of experience that matters to me - not how fast it happens.

Go slow - enjoy it as much as you like.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

This month's blog can be found on The Guardian webpages. It is an article for beginners about the top 5 reasons to keep going with their training, about all the hidden benefits of running.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Optical Yoga (and what the eye evolved to see)

"...we'll take the launch down to the Thames Barrier. You've never seen it after dark."
"I havent seen it at all. Won't it be cold?"
"Not particularly. Wear something warm. I'll bring a thermos of soup and the wine. It really is worth seeing, Declan, those great hoods rising out of the dark river towering over you. Do come. We could put in at Greenwich for a pub meal."

(P.D. James - Original Sin)

Runner's can be inclined to dithering.  Once they are out of the house, that's different.  But when I have my long run to do, boy!, I can dither.  I need to eat at the right time.  I need to drink the right amount (too little and I won't last the 12 miles, too much and I'll be stopping to ...). Shall I take music?  What kind? Which earphones? What will I wear? How will I keep my iPod dry if it rains? (ans. cling film)  Will I need my Oyster Card? What about a £20 note? Which shoes?  I am going to stop there, as I could go on for several hundred more words.  Anyway, the last question that I always ask is: 'Oh, where am I going to go?'  12 miles (as it was in this case) is a lot of pavement to eat up, and if you're going out for a couple of hours, you may as well go somewhere nice.  In South-East London we are not spoiled for nice open spaces.

I always end up orbiting Blackheath in some way.  So after there, I wandered towards Greenwich, and with several miles still to use, headed for the Thames Path.  When I hit the path on the South side of the river, I usually go east because it's quieter, and because of the Thames Barrier. There is something about it that I love.  It is beautiful.  It doesn't look like a flood barrier at all, more like an oversized Christmas decoration left to float. Once you turn south on the Greenwich peninsula it comes into view in the distance and every shuffling step brings you closer and closer, and it just gets bigger and bigger.

I think the other reason that I like the Thames Path is the constant motion in one's eyeline.  Years ago, when LCD computer screens first began shrinking (and so expanding the real-estate of our desks), there was the problem of the dead-pixel. LCDs use the light-modulating properties of liquid crystals that behave in certain ways when tiny amounts of electricity are run through them. In the earlier days of LCD displays, it was common to have a couple of dead or stuck pixels on your screen.  If you were lucky, you could gently massage them back to life - a carefully-applied fingernail, a little gentle rub, and a pixel stuck in the 'off' position might come back to life.

When I'm running, I feel like this is what is happening to my retinas.  In the urban landscape, almost everything is static; the pixels are stuck in the 'grey' position. Features of the landscape are more difficult to notice because they don't move. This is what is so amazing for me about the Thames Path, on one side, there are cranes, fences, the giraffe-heads of CCTV cameras peering from out of their pens, the Dome, the Barrier.  Everything is statue still.

And on the other side, is the broad Thames with its million wavelets.  There is something restful about seeing this movement, like my eyes are getting a workout, a long and deep yogic stretch that they can't get in the town.  And so it seems that movement is the essence of vision.  We have a highly adapted flicker fusion frequency of about '60'.  This means that we can see at approximately '60 frames per second'.  Urban landscapes are discordant with our wellbeing in ways that we don't yet understand, but it seems to make some sense to me that my eyes feel restored, somehow, by this omnimovement of the Thames.  It is as close as they can get to experiencing the dynamism and fluidity of the paleolithic landscapes of the past.  Those are the landscapes, after all, the eye evolved to see.

(Many studies have linked the modern pandemic of myopia with too much time spent indoors looking at books or screens.  See, Nina Jacobsen, Hanne Jensen, Ernst Goldschmidt, ‘Does the Level of Physical Activity in University Students Influence Development and Progression of Myopia?—A 2-Year Prospective Cohort Study’, Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, April 2008, 49:4, pp. 1322-7.)

Monday, 18 November 2013

Sunday Worship

It used to be a day of worship, but in an increasingly secular society we still seem to go in search of out-of-body experiences on a Sunday

Blackheath village is a basin. It sinks down into its centre; and because that is where life is busiest, a runner can't take advantage of the slope.  Then they have to climb all the way out again like a spider out of a bath.  Today, I was still on the village's outskirts when I saw a Sunday worshipper (doing her long run) on her descent after clambering the village's walls.  In a moment, believing herself unseen, she threw her arms out like wings, closed her eyes, her head dropped back to look up at the sun, and she was gone; falling into a world of her own.  Her runner's high had struck.  The brain's endocannabinoid system had activated and anandamide flooded her system.  The effect is euphoric.  her heart will have slowed as her blood vessels dilate.  Pains and niggles will disappear as the analgesic effect of anandamide kicked in.  It was wonderful to see it happening to someone else.

Sunday is the day that most people do their long-run. It is slower, longer, and probably the most looked-forward-to date in the runners' diary.  Like being pregnant, or growing a beard (trust me on this), once it's something you've done you can see it everywhere.

It was several months ago, end of March 2014.  I know the date because of the conversation I was having with a friend.  We were driving through some of London's outer suburbs (Beckenham / Bromley), and on one of the longer straighter roads were some runners.  I said to my mate H.
   'They're training for the marathon; they're doing they're long run.'
   'How can you possibly know that? You can't know that?'
He's right; I couldn't.  But it was THAT day, the one where you have to do that last 18-22 miler before the three week taper for race day.  It wasn't just that, though.  There was something about the way that they were running.  Their gait was rhythmic and minimalist - their clothes were fit for the rainy day. They were upright, economic, efficient.  They didn't shuffle.  Their was nothing about them that suggested 'beginner' or 'short run'. Of course, Sunday is the day that is most-free in people's schedules, but I wonder if there isn't some kind of social or atavistic throwback to the way we lived a thousand or so years ago.  The rhythm of life was one in which (in this example, going to church) was time away from work, not leisure, but rest. And, for anyone that has experienced a runner's high, they will tell you that it is as close to a religious experience as they can imagine.  Is running, then, a kind of worship, an expression of gratitude, to and for... something?  Being, perhaps.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Breaking the rules.

I've hit on a very expensive, but great fun, way to run.

I have had a pretty tiring week that has bled into Saturday morning, so I was looking forward to today's run.  I didn't have far to go to get my weekly miles, but found myself dithering when it was time to leave the house.  I usually don't really have to think about where I'm going, but just couldn't make a decision.  So I broke one of my rules. I've only got two.

There are loads of 'rules' about running. Doing it off and on for years, I've learnt that most don't seem to have a great deal of depth to them.  I'm not going to go through them systematically - thereby revealing my ignorance and stupidity - instead, I'll just say what my two rules are.

1. Don't use runs instrumentally.
That means run because you like running.  Doing it for a reason is the fastest route to falling out of love with it.  If you're trying to lose weight, or something like that, there is a good chance that you will be disappointed.

2. Go fast OR far - never do both on the same run.
This one is simple, if you want to run faster than normal, don't do it on the same day that you are doing your longer run.

Anyway, I broke both today.  Like I was on an adventure in a preschooler's primer - I ran to the shops, all the way to Covent Garden. I went faster than I have done for weeks (probably because I wasn't running while at work - I have been sneaking in Crab & Winkle Way adventures into my lunch hours.) Today, I finished my 8 miles at the Paul Smith Shop and my runner's high got the better of me. I emerged 10 minutes later swinging bags of shopping. Train home - all done.

An expensive way to run, but what a brilliant day.

This is the run.

What running rules do you like breaking?

The Crab and Winkle Way - the path is lined with brambles, so as long as you don't mind a few cobwebs, you can feast on blackberries.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Foraging (for blackberries, the past, and Mistry)

The house loaded with books (golf course on the left).
   Like God is riffling a deck of shuffled cards, the seasons keep changing.  I started in winter, dodged the wet and wind of autumn, and now it's summer again.  I'm carrying a fat hardback that I've picked up en route.
   I checked out the map before I left and decided to head out east, run for a mile and then follow an arc that took me from three to six on the clockface, to make my way back north, and home.
   I start off in a hamlet called Hampton Fields.  I feel tired, but not in a sleepy way; more like the rickettiness associated with being in your mid-forties. and upping your mileage.  As always, the shadows and stiffnesses vanish as soon as I start shuffling to the ryhthm that my feet know so well. I have made the rare decision to underdress for the weather - I always wear too much when there's a little bite in the air,  but I have come out in only a thin shirt. (and shorts, etc.)
   Autumm is snapping at the heels of summer.  Pheasants cross my path in a lane and defecate with fear as they flutter away into the air.  Then there's a shower.  As I look across a shorn crop of hay, I can see that the rain's deep - twinkling in the sun for miles.  I'm already warm, so bring it.
   Up ahead is a place I saw on the map called the Devil's Graveyard.  I imagine all manner of Romantic iconography: a ruined abbey, rugged landscape; but all I can see is a house with a trim hedge and a dancing golden retriever who wants to get out and say 'hello'. In the distance a church spire rises from a copse like the mast of a ship amongst the waves.
   I am relying on the sun for my direction, so inevitably I lose my way when I come to an unclear junction and take the most-defined route.  Down a long pathway there are a handful of poppies and elder.  The fields are bleach clean. For the next generation, this will be 'normal'.  This is what nature will look like.  But ever since intensive agriculture began, the diversity of wildflowers and colour seen in the fields has diminished.  To this. Eight wispy poppies, huddled together, on a square mile of land.  It is a kind of generational amnesia where every thirty years, the baseline for what is called 'nature' has to retreat farther and farther.
   After a mile, I arrive at a farm, convinced I have gone wrong.  Two daschunds eye across from across the paddock.  Their tails curl up, their hackles rise and they start sprinting towards me yapping.  Their owner can't see or hear any of this as she is engrossed with what looks like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up horseshit.  The sausage dogs' confindence wains and they slow as they approach me - I'm not wearing socks, so I really don't fancy a nip on the ankle. The woman finally sees me and runs over to tell me that I have indeed gone wrong, and she sets me back on the path (the way I came, past the poppies).

   The rain stops. I go up and down vale - through gulleys, over hillocks.  When I finally see a village I recognise, without audience, I raise my arms like I'm crossing a finish line (endorphins are a funny thing). Then, as I pass an old red phone box, I see that it has been stripped of its ontological identity (this is 'philosopher' for: 'it has no phone'); it is instead lined with bookshelves.  The group of us that have rented the house in which we are staying have done little else but buy books.  We've acquired at least thirty between us since our holiday began.  And now, I see a hardback of Rohinton Mistry's 'Family Matters' - a book I bought in paperback just two days ago, and so I am now returning from a run with another big, fat, weighty, book.
   The finish is a steep climb which I gamely attack.  A man sees me carrying the tome and yells 'bravo!' from his garden. I smile, but as soon as I'm out of sight I splutter to a stop - it's too much of a climb. On one side of me is a golf course - another kind of bleached landscape (see top photo); on the other, there are nettles, celandines, clematis, all kinds of grasses, the blackberries are out, too - so I stop and grab at some, they are round and sweet - except one.  And then I notice that diversity isn't in the fields anymore; its last line of defence, it seems, is the roadside.

The last place for life to crowd into the frame.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Tractor and the Caterpillar - The Dymock Poets and the Cotswolds

I'm five miles in and I have a fly up my nose. My legs are tired from wobbling on the tussocky grass; baby-fists of chalk protrude from the path, punching me through my shoes.
It is a much better run than it sounds. The fly doesn't make it.
All year I have found it hard to get back into a running rhythm and today is the first six-miler in many months. Because I've been easing my way back to regular running, I've been using Saucony Kinvaras - they're light, with some cushioning (a little too much for me to 'love' them), but at least they're flexible - I like a shoe that gives to my foot, not bars its way. But they're a London shoe; a roadrunner. They're not built for Cotswold stone.  Now that I'm in the land of the Dymock poets, or Laurie Lee if you prefer, neither they nor I am cut out for this hilly and changeable terrain.
In only my first mile, the ground gives way so steeply that I have to walk the single-track road. I start to run again and the tarmac gives way to a footpath that leads into the tiny
hamlet of Nag's Head - it has a plaque on the wall listing the eighteen men that died in the First World War - about a quarter of its inhabitants. One was only seventeen.
Down the side of a cottage, three men are working and they smile at me as I dance down a pathway littered with clumps of chalk. Then I realise why they were smiling: the pathway (after a few metres) comes to an end in a steep hillock like a 20 metre tide of grass. The psychology of the runner will not let me retrace my steps so early in the game, so I start fighting through 'the nature' to find the pathway. The wisps of grass are so tall they brush against my face, then the nettles attack.  All around my legs up to hips start tingling with stings (that go on to last for days). I angle my way up the hill only to discover there is a clear and short path that I somehow missed. The next couple of miles are all under the dappled luminosity of beeches. And I'm STILL climbing. To my left is a shorn meadow, golden, with great drums of gathered hay. There is something colour-wheel perfect about these three shades, gold, green and blue, that feels restorative, like an easy yoga-stretch for the eye. 
These are the landscapes that inspired the Dymock poets, a loose collection of lads who, for one reason or another, found their way out of London to their quiet hideaway. Although Edward Thomas was closely connected with them, he wasn't yet writing poetry when he stayed here with Robert Frost, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Wilfrid Gibson. The Dymockers set themselves against the modernist turn that began to take place in the city.
Lascelles Abercrombie in later life
When Ezra Pound was busy recruiting Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington to his Imagist collective (espousing the importance of directness, precision, and spare musicality that ignored the metronome), the Georgians were rustic and simple, employing the language of the everyday, imitating the natural cadences of speech (we runners know all about cadence). It's hard not to get behind an aesthetic whose founding principle is so democratic. Like pages tossed into a fire, many of the Dymock poets were consumed in the First World War. Edward Thomas, a career spent in prose, did not live to see his first collection of poems in print.
The beech cover breaks and I'm in a gulley that has been recently cut. Stubs of weeds snap and poke at me under foot; and the nettles, sensing their chance for dominance are creeping back into the empty space left by the cutter. After another mile I am back on single-track tarmac. It looks like a painting. The road, lined with hedges, runs straight to the horizon, then gold and green fields appear either side.  A tractor ambles over the hill and I have to flatten myself into the side of the road as it thunders past. And it is only then that I see a caterpillar, in the middle of the road, perfectly perpendicular, in full sprint to the other side. It oxbows and stretches in a line like it has done this journey tens of times. I laugh at the preposterous dynamic of perspective.
Signs of life are ahead. I reach a junction which signposts one way for Bath; the other, Cirencester.  Do I want times-old Roman, or times new Roman? After a few yards, I decide neither. There is no footpath and the thunderous traffic is so fast and heavy that the distraction of a dinging text in a lorry-driver's cab would be enough to kill me. I am running for nothing, so I turn back onto the footpath and retrace my steps.
After Thomas's death, Harold Monro's collections of Georgian Poetry continued until that hot year of modernism, 1922; the year that saw the publication of Ulysses, Jacob's Room, and The Waste Land. Even though Georgian Poetry sold more than 70,000 copies, its moment had passed. How could a verse form, so sense-making, so clear in its expression, survive the chaotic lunacy of a war that slaughtered so many?