Running Wild; running fast

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Boff Whalley will be best-know to most readers of this blog as the guitarist from Chumbawamba; he is also a  talented fell runner. In 1990, his small local running club Pudsey & Bramley were British fell-running champions, and one  of the times he mentions in the book is his 1 hour 38 personal best for the Ben Nevis race, which involves running a dozen miles ascending and descending the tallest mountain in Britain (although he’s too modest to add this detail, Whalley’s time brought him home 16th of the 385 runners who took part that day…).

Whalley came into politics through being active in the Anti-Nazi League in Burnley, and there are pages dedicated to Alf Tupper, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, Alan Sillitoe, being a parent, and the strange slowing-down of both elite (at least in Britain) and non-elite running (in 20 years, the average finishing time in an American marathon has dropped from 3 hours 32 minutes to 4 hours 20 minutes).

For me at least, reading Run Wild was therefore rather like looking into a special kind of distorting mirror. I could see a life not so different my own, save that Whalley runs further than I do, more “wildly” than I do (more on this shortly), in different parts of England, and is a decade older. But, these differences aside, I felt that I was finding again and again ideas in his writing, which I have attempted to convey – albeit less perfectly – in my own.

The greatest familiarity was in the tone of the book which brings together personal memoir and running history. The historian in me would complain that the story drifts everywhere and follows no chronological narrative at all, but the runner in me recognises that this style reflects the dream-like condition of a book written in an author’s head while running. It reflects, in other words, the consciousness of a runner, the sense that you can pick up a train of thought you left hanging the last time you passed a particular stone or nettle patch, the knowledge that running is a continuous activity, interrupted only by the non-running episodes that everyone else considers your “life”.

The book contains certain villains – including Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon, who despite the sympathetic treatment he gets in Without Limits, where he is played by Donald Sutherland, did millions of runners a disservice by inventing and popularising Nike “jogging” shoes  with an enlarged heel, changing our collective running style, and causing literally tens of millions of unnecessary running injuries.

But the greatest villain is the institution of the marathon – which diminishes running by telling vast numbers of people that they are not real runners unless they have raced the same distance, on the same routes, wearing the same clothes – to which Whalley counterposes the free spirit of fell running (the “running Wild” of the book’s title).

I will never be a fell runner, I live in London where we genuinely don’t have mountains. And while I share Whalley’s vivid sense of the rapid destruction of wild spaces (something I feel intensely whenever I return to the rural parts of southern England where I spent long passages of my childhood), the “nature” against which I best enjoy testing myself is the limited and slowly but continuously declining strength of my own body.

There are two passages in the book which caused me the deepest pleasure. One is where Whalley describes the joy of running as a part of a team: “The camaraderie and spirit of running as a communal sport came as a surprise; here was a bunch of people of various ages and backgrounds who, on the face of it, had very little in common. The running, I discovered, was reason enough for community … There’s a place for focused, self-centred individualism in running, bit when it’s most appealing is when it runs alongside a selfless community.” I’ve recognised that same sense of community, repeatedly, in running – even in the last few weeks, in event such as the Counter Olympics Network relay, or running with my new club, the Mornington Chasers.

Finally, Whalley tells a story from history – of the Luddite “Rayner” (I will pretend to myself that this is a Yorkshire  corruption of an original Scottish surname, such as Renton), who in 1812 was charged with machine-breaking after being part of an armed attack at a mill at Rawfolds near Halifax and faced the death penalty if convicted. A paid informer claimed to have seen Rayner at Rawfold after 11.40pm. But a church warden, and other witnesses, had seen Rayner in his home town of Brighouse, four miles away, listening to the church bells sound for midnight. The magistrate Ratcliffe, notorious for his hostility to the workers, checked both times carefully, before finally accepting that no ordinary person would be capable of running that 4 mile distance in less than 20 minutes.

Neither Rayner himself, nor any of the many other witnesses from the town, volunteered the information that the Luddite was Brighouse’s champion cross-country runner.

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