Category Archives: Running

All the People, So many People



Saturday, for those of you who have run it (if not, why not?) was the tenth anniversary of the founding of Parkrun. Not so much an athletics event, as a social movement, Parkun is an idea and a website. At about 290 locations in the UK it is possible to run a timed 5k in company, without charge, each Saturday, starting at 9am. Volunteers collect the runners’ times and enter them on a huge database. When I say “huge”, I do mean it: the last time I looked it the number of runners whose times had been logged was a staggering 549,859.

Between us the UK parkrunners have run 5.2 million times, at a total running time of 267 years, and 211 days. We have covered, give or take, 26 million kilometres.

Parkrun has also spread to about 200 locations outside the UK.

The 5k format turns out to be surprisingly fluid: whether that is the London parkrun which cuts through a marsh and is rumoured to be 50 metres under distance (making it ideal for personal bests) or the ones around it, on roads or parks, offering a variable mix of hills and flat. I have run at events in rural southern England where there were more people parkrunning on Saturday at 9 than could be found in the town centre 2 hours later.

There are events in London where barely one in fifteen participants is a child, and events in Manchester where adults running with children are a clear majority and parkrun has become essentially a family affair.

Parkrun is not advertised but spread by word of mouth. Extensive volunteering keeps the costs low. Being free to enter, it has something of the feel of the internet where, in general, the provider of free content “wins”.

Occasionally, the local sports shop owner may come down and bid the runners welcome, but apart from that there is zero business involvement, no marketing, no message from the sponsors; in fact, it is hard to discern any sponsors at all.

It is a superbly contemporary phenomenon – the Syriza or Podemos of participation sport.


Thoughts on Running



A guest post by Anna Mobbs

Black, narrow and muddy, the path ahead curves enticingly around the next tree. I can smell the elder trees, blackbird and thrush sing about their space, the drone of a high plane . A smile spreads from my heart to my face. I know that for the next 20 minutes there will be no people around me, I can enjoy the challenge of uneven ground as I quicken my pace and feel my thoughts drift like the seed husks floating through the air.

Since running longer distances  I have felt the London I live in kaleidoscope. Places I rarely bother to go to have become minutes away. I have also felt my neighbourhood expand as I have explored the rivers near my home on foot. There have been moments of beauty and surprise (a naked runner! Only seen in fog or summer dawn)

3 years ago I tried running as the cheapest exercise available to get fit.  I ran one mile and then my legs refused to go further.

I joined a running club which was aimed at people like me, the coach is an inspiring woman, for £1 every time you turned up she encouraged distance, then speed, and tricep dips and squats, and or sit ups. Sunday morning exercise in the snow, rain, sun or gloom she was there and the women who were also there run in solidarity with each other. I stopped.

A year later I started again, this time I was running at that group and joined a group at work. This exercise thing was good. I started running home with a colleague. The summer came, I nearly expired in the combination of pollution and heat. I stopped.

Then at the new year David Renton coaxed me out of my torpor and with another friend we ran around a bit of Bath. It was not that difficult. I ran again on my own and then the Hackney half marathon was announced and as it was running near my front door I thought why not?

Well I can tell you why not. Longer distance running at the pace I achieve means quite a long time with your own thoughts. As a full time public sector worker and mother of two you’d think a bit of time to think would be good, but actually I was having the same thoughts again and again … A bit like when I experience insomnia.

Then there have been the grumbling of my hips and knees, sometimes hurting so much I have not been able to sleep despite fatigue. Recently the heat has made running uncomfortable and some days I have set off thinking ‘it’s only 5 miles’ but after a couple I am longing for it all to be over.

I am going to do the inaugural Hackney half marathon on Sunday  and I plan to run regularly afterwards because running is also rather wonderful. First I am truly amazed that if I ask my body to do something then my body says ‘yes’. I sometimes can’t remember the person who had to stop after a lap round the park. Experienced runners talk about running as something we are evolved to do. My ‘happy zone’ is between mile 5 and mile 9 at the moment. Who is that person who knows that about herself?

It’s not just distance though, I had the wonderful experience of being led on a run by a fell runner. He routinely competes in 20 mile hill races. He ‘slowed down’ for me for a 9 mile training run. I did the first 5k and then 10k  the fastest I had ever managed. I did not expect to run like that and yet my body did it.

So much of our travelling in London is to get to places it’s easy to forget how to move. My running has been about covering ground. The absence of a  destination with my increasing sense of strength and ability has been truly liberating, transformative even. It’s hard to explain. I have run myself out of my self imposed limits. Whether we can run, walk,  wheel or dance, in moving we can enjoy our breath; enjoy life and live.

Not Running For Gold


Mark Perryman, editor of the new book London 2012 How Was It For Us explores the meaning of sport one year on from the Olympics

In his excellent book chronicling the sins of modern football Richer Than God journalist David Conn sums up neatly the way the game has been commodified:

“All around us is a celebration and injunction to watch other people playing sport, the hype that supporting a professional football ‘club’ is compulsory, Sky TV’s relentless persuasion that paying £50 a month will provide endlessly exciting hours on the sofa, the newspapers, whose sections are wholly about following the skills of a very few, and almost never about helping people play sport themselves.”

A Manchester City fan, David in between celebrating City winning the league accounts for the consequences of what football has turned into: “Arriving at Manchester City, and all the other stadiums, to find the burger vans lined up and some seriously unhealthy looking middle-aged fans in extra-large replica shirt, who look like they have not broken into a jog for years, has become part of the landscape of football’s boom. Its flipside are the rotting public pitches and decline in people exercising. And it is seen as a great credit to England that we are exporting around the world our multimillion pound Premier League, for more people in other countries to watch on television.”

For the duration of the Olympics and a chunk of the Paralympics football didn’t enjoy its customary absolute dominance in the shaping of sports culture. But within days that domination was re-established and it’s been the same ever since. Football has led the way in the transformation of modern sport into a business, and it has grabbed the biggest share of the spoils too. But the Olympics has never been very far behind, and sometimes ahead in this particular race. It is a process founded on the commercialisation of sport’s traditions and the commodification of sport’s practice. The result, in the words of that wonderful quote from Marx, “ All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

After London 2012, and his victory in The Tour De France Bradley Wiggins was certainly a demi-god, but holy? Maybe. Cycling offers a potential counter to the commercialised and commodified meltdown Marx was prefacing, though perhaps not in the guise of Olympism. What other sport can you use as a way to get to work, to school or college, with a handlebar mounted basket or decent pair of panniers double up with a shopping trip? We can do it as a family , use it as a basis for a day out or for the more adventurous a holiday. Cycle for a good cause, challenge ourselves to beat clock and body completing a hundred-mile century ride. Never have to stand in a queue for a bus or wait for an overcrowded train, sail past cars stuck in a traffic jam and keep our carbon footprint small into the bargain. With Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s success in last year’s Le Tour, Lizzie Armistead and Emma Pooley on the roads too, Chris Hoy and, Victoria Pendelton being overtaken by a new generation headed up by Laura Trott on the track , we have the poster boys and girls of aspiration too. Its a potent mix yet the Olympics and elite success are only one part of cycling’s potential to engage those not active, or getting those who are, more active.

We may well be in the middle of a cycling boom. There are certainly reports that suggest this is so. Jackie Ashley in the Guardian wasn’t alone in dubbing 2012 while at the same time pointing to some of the messy contradictions that remain:

“A quarter of us, roughly, are obese, children as well as adults. Our urban air is filthy. We are using too much carbon. But the great thing is millions of us are getting the message. Real revolutions come from below, and this one is too. That’s perhaps the greatest message from 2012, the year of the bike.”

In the early 1980s it was the running boom that was making similar headlines. Accompanied by the success of Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott on the track jogging became a social phenomenon, the first London marathon was run, almost every city and town could boast a fun run of sorts, many raising funds for good causes. In the USA Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running became a best seller, pretty soon with a world-wide readership too. In GB it was the late, and no longer anything but great, Jimmy Savile who helped popularise the link between running and reducing the risk of heart disease. A Radio One DJ, chomping on his trademark cigar, wrists and chest covered in what today we call bling, the message seemed to be if JImmy could do it then anybody could, and tens of thousands of us did.

I was one of those. The first Olympics I can properly remember, Munich ‘72, a Games of Team GB disappointment on the track. With his Zapata moustache, trademark red socks and a cockiness that we traditionally didn’t associate with our Olympians, David Bedford was going to Munich to win, telling us back home to “stop what they were doing to watch him win a gold medal“. He never even came close, attempting the same double as Mo triumphed in at the 2012 Games Dave finished sixth in the 5000m, and a lowly twelfth in the 10,000m. A fantastic runner, a year later Bedford was to run a world record time for the 10,000m, at Munich though he failed to live up to my boyhood expectations. But another runner did catch my eye, Dave Wottle, a US athlete, who wore a battered old golf cap when he ran, symbolising an almost carefree attitude to his sport. When he won 800m gold with a quite incredible sprint to the line from almost last position he even forgot to take the cap off during the medal ceremony. Reviewing Wottle’s career the US magazine Running Times described his Munich victory as “marking the end of age of innocence for sport.” For me it was the beginning, and I’ve hardly stopped running since. In the 1980s just like cycling today, running seemed to be part of a boom, and by the 1990s commentators were dubbing the era ‘the Age of Sport’. Yet the twenty-first century has seen Britain report record levels of physical inactivity and obesity with all the health problems associated with both. Some run, cycle, swim too, most don’t.

Mark Rowlands is a philosopher of running, in his book Running With the Pack he makes two key observations of the sport. Firstly , for runners what we do has a variety of instrumental purposes. “Different people run for different reasons: some because they enjoy it, some because it makes them feel good, look good, because it keeps them healthy, happy even alive. Some run for company, others to relieve the stress of everyday life. Some like to push themselves, test their limits; others to compare their limits with the limits of others.”

But Mark then adds a second observation. That the appeal of running lies not in any of these reasons at all, the point of running is that it is pointless: “It is true that running has multifarious forms of instrumental value. However at its purest and its best running has an entirely different sort of value. This is sometimes known as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘inherent’ value. To say that something has intrinsic value is to say that it is valuable for what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow to get or possess. Running is intrinsically valuable, when one runs one is in contact with intrinsic value in life.”

As I clock up another week’s running mileage I’ve come to realise all those years on from Dave Wottle and the Munich ‘72 games that the appeal of an early morning run lies in that it has no purpose other than its appeal. Yes my legs are stronger and fat-free, I can run a distance and in a time plenty half my age couldn’t even start. But the instrumentalism of running will always disappoint. I’ve scarcely ever won a race, despite all those miles I’ve still got a bigger waistline than I’d prefer, running has left me less resistant to colds, flu and sundry other viruses.

So why do I run? Because its free and it is freedom, it is the most basic form of sporting activity, I run because I can. And the reason I can is in large measure socially constructed. I have a lifestyle which enables me to put ninety minutes or so aside most days for a run. I’m male, the dark mornings from October through to March don’t hold too much fear for me. Today I live on the edge of the South Downs, my gravest fear is a randy Bull taking an unnatural fancy to me. For twenty odd years though I ran along the towpath of the River Lea, circumnavigating what was to become the Olympic Park . In those two decades along my route there were two shootings, and on a couple of occasions I was chased by a variety of the deranged and the inebriated. Fortunately I have a decent finishing kick, which can come in useful when you least expect it. And when I started my running I went to a school with a playing field to run round, next to a heath too, the basic facilities to nurture my childhood enthusiasm existed. I’ve never joined a running club, this is a sport you can do individually or collectively, but when I wanted to race there were events I could easily and cheaply enter, family and friends to provide the transport and support I would sometimes rely upon. I have come to value and protect the time I spend on my runs, but in order to do so I had to have the time to run in the first place.

My access to my sport is socially constructed. All sports are. The best Olympic Games ever will be the one that both recognises this and changes it. London 2012 was one great party, me and tens of millions more, we’ll always be grateful for that. For a precious few it will have changed their lives, for most it hasn’t. You can’t keep politics out of sport. Sport is politics.

London 2012 How Was It For Us is published by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, David Renton, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Gareth Edwards, and others. Available pre-publication, £2 off, just £12.99, post-free signed by Mark Steel from here

“My best run”: an arrested anti-fascist speaks


A guest post 

When they let me out I was too polite, I said ‘night night’ to the duty skipper and then instantly regretted it. Once I got out of the yard S, L, M and some people from Green and Black Cross were waiting for anyone who was coming out and started cheering. At half past three in the morning that means something. They all headed up north and I trotted up to the bus stop. Sitting down, realising that the next bus wasn’t coming for at least another 50 minutes, one of the Made in Chelsea knock-offs that were piling out of the Brasseries guffawed at me; “you know your flies are undone don’t you”. I tried to give him a withering look, I wanted to show him my bail sheet, but he was too fucked to keep up the jibe. Rather than waiting, I started running home.

My flies weren’t undone: my trousers were just completely shorn of buttons, they had holes on the knees where I’d been dragged along the ground. My shirt was ripped apart completely. One of the ways I tried to kill time in the cell was by fashioning a belt from the shredded remains of my shirt. When the Met’s Tactical Support Group officers were ordered to lift people they were impressively efficient. I just remember them pointing at me and then grabbing. They were so determined to get me that they ripped every piece of material on me, my bag, my trousers, my shirt and, when they were walking me away back behind the police lines, journalists were just taking pictures of me with my chest out and my trousers trailing around my ankles. I asked them ‘Is that really necessary?’. I should have told them to fuck themselves.

It was a stupid way to run. My shoes had no laces. They had been taken out in case I decided to strangle myself. I could hear them wheezing and flopping. My clothes were held together by knots and I couldn’t wear my bag because the straps had been torn off, so I had to switch it from hand to hand and pump the alternate arm. But it felt  wonderful.

In spite of the exhaustion, where I’d tried to sleep only to wake up again on the plastic mat covered in sweat, the halogen still on and still sneering, in spite of that I was just able to run. It definitely wasn’t my best pace, and I could feel that my bones were suffering from what my muscles were refusing to do as I clodhopped up through Wandsworth towards Clapham Common. The difference between this run and all of my best runs was that I had forced myself to run well in the past. Now I was running because I was compelled to, because I wanted to be as far as possible from Battersea police station, because I could. I’d spent those nine hours pacing, estimating the dimensions of the cell, practising handstands, looking up at the grated window and trying not to be melodramatic. I ran the four miles home, across South London and enjoyed every moment.

Not once, in the whole process, did I panicked. When your face is being ground in the tarmac and your hands are being cable-tied together behind your back you quite quickly recognise that there’s little you can do. Either that or I’m just a pushover. I was only really concerned that my partner would be mad with me that I had ruined our holiday plans. She wasn’t, for the record.

What happened between 3 and half 4 that afternoon was incredibly confusing. When I got back, when the sun was rising, my partner woke up and reminded me we’d won, because the BNP couldn’t march. It was of course far better than Monday, but it didn’t feel like we’d won. It felt like we’d been punished. We held the line because we were led to believe that was what was necessary to stop them passing. I hope it was. I think to some extent we had the easier target, we didn’t have the EDL. We need to remember that when the police pulls a fascist attempt to march before it ends, its because they realise that they can’t police it if the community tries to drive them back. If they move it from outer to central London, its because they want to ensure that they can control the situation and disarm resistance with greater ease. Its their turf. We can’t get away with the things we got away with in Tower Hamlets and Walthamstow. Ironically the first time I was arrested was on the second demonstration I ever went to, and it was less than fifty metres away from where I got arrested on Saturday, when the EDL marched on parliament in solidarity with Geert Wilders.

I can’t pretend that a night in a holding cell is anything like custodial sentence. But you can feel the things that become the themes of prison films start to show themselves. The loneliness and the boredom, the sensory deprivation, then mistaking the people who check on you and who bring you water for anything other than screws. So when I was running, I didn’t feel miserable, I felt rejuvenated. I ran past cul-de-sacs in backstreet Wandsworth that looked like the art deco suburbs from Hollywood’s boom. I ran down Clapham High Street. I ran past bus stops of people going in for early morning cleaning shifts in central London. The run wasn’t my best time, it wasn’t particularly fast or the longest distance. But it was my best run.

The author is among 58 anti-fascists who were arrested at Whitehall on 1st June

The story of ‘Rethinking track and field’


Guest post by Ian Stone

In 2002, an Italian Publishing company called SEP Editrice posthumously published Professor Alphonse Juilland’s book  Rethinking track and field; The future of the world’s oldest sport. One of the more striking things about it; aside from it having a foreword written by then newly-installed President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Lamine Diack, was that it was a statistics work written with the verve of a true athletics fan who had participated in the sport for many years, and indeed achieved World records in the sport as a veteran athlete. Juilland’s book is an oddity because it advances an egalitarian basis for the future of athletic competition which ostensibly has a socialist flavour to it. Yet Julliand was a mass of contradictions. According to his memorial resolution from Stanford University, he did not believe in science or reason, yet his interest in statistics suggests that he had at least a fascination with concrete facts.

Julliand was not a physiologist, or a statistician, although his work on athletics points to an appreciable grasp of both. An introduction to his personal archive in the Stanford University Department of Special Collections and University Archives provides a neat summary of his life and work. He was born in 1922 in Bucharest, where he took his first degree in the 1940s, obtaining a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1951.He taught language, literature, linguistics and philosophy in France, Canada and the US, teaching at Washington, Pennsylvania , Columbia, and taught at Stanford from 1961-2000, where he died in his room on campus. He is regarded as ‘an international pioneer in his studies of the application of structural  methods in historical linguistics and in linguistic structural theory, gaining acclaim as one of the first linguists to analyse language using quantitative methods using computers.’ He wrote the first structuralist history of French pronunciation and the first inverse dictionary of the French language.

The story of how Julliand became an athlete himself is related by Julliand’s long term friend and the eventual editor of Rethinking track and field, William D. Gairdner in the Editor’s foreword to Rethinking. When Gairdner was a 24 year old runner, he visited the Stanford University track where the then forty-something Professor was being timed by his wife training for middle distance. The Professor and Gairdner became friends, and one day Juilland revealed one of his great ambitions was to run a sub-six minute mile. A deal was struck; the Professor would school Gairdner in academia in exchange for a rigorous training regime that would see the aspirant veteran athlete achieve his dream. It worked; the Professor agreed to quit cigarettes, dropped about 35 pounds and within a year had got down to an impressive 5:59.8.

However, Juilland had not yet found his calling athletics-wise. By chance, when ‘slogging through a lamentable two-mile race’ he found himself to be a talented sprinter. A member of his training group had been instructed to go on the track and encourage him across the line, and the prof had used the intervention as competition to the extent where Juilland ‘came flying down the final straightaway at a very high speed, with impeccable form, having left the struggling youngster-and all the spectators-in a state of utter disbelief’. Juilland began to call Gairdner ‘Frankenstein’ and himself ‘the monster’. His sprint times, from the off, were extraordinary for an athlete of any age-and he began winning masters races in earnest. He ran 10.6 for 100 yards at age 49, and the 200m in 23.6 and 400m in 56.3 the same year:

‘…his records stood for decades and he would periodically return to training, lose the weight he had gained all over again, and display his amazing talent. I have a photo of him age 64 in my study. He is grinning in his beguiling way, pipe in mouth, after winning a masters 200m race in 26.46’.

Rethinking track and field itself has numerous innovative suggestions, drawn from his experiences as a fan and participant in athletics, on how the sport might be improved. The first chapter, for instance, looks on how old events might be improved. A brace of suggestions are made on how to improve the jumping events, such as holding boardless long and triple jumps, where the distance would be measured from wherever the take-off point was rather than from behind a board, the argument being that the use of boards has led to some enormous fouls being nullified, when there was nothing intrinsically wrong with these jumps. Indeed, he cites at length the case of Carl Lewis’ legendary foul jump at Indianapolis in 1982, which some observers felt was over 30’ (9.14m), yet no mark was found in the board plasticene (the determining factor in issuing a foul jump) leading to it being rendered null and void. This jump would have easily been a world record had Julliand’s suggestion been in effect. The use of laser beams to measure the exact height cleared in the high jump and pole vault is also suggested, as sometimes athletes will clear the bar by as much as three or four inches with their best jump, or up to around a foot in the pole vault. Laser technology could also be employed as a way of determining false starts, it is suggested, rather than having the arbitrary rule in place that the athlete is penalised if they move faster than 0.1 after the gun has sounded.

In the same chapter, Julliand asserts that the best ever instrinsic high jump, relative to the efficacy of dynamic shifting of ‘payload’ i.e. weight is actually not that of Javier Sotomayor, world record holder with 2.45m, but Werner Gunthor, the 130kg world class shot putter, with an impressive 2.00m, prompting the strange thought that Gunthor is a world record holder, but not at his ‘best’ event! In (chapter 3, Juilland develops this theme. The chapter is entitled ‘Physical attributes, performance, and the democracy of sport.’ In a section entitled ‘should flyweights throw against the heavyweights?’ Julliand draws on the example of Paralympic sport, where athletes with similar physical attributes are pitted against each other, so as to equalise the event and create a ‘level playing field’. Conversely, in the Shot Putt events, it is true to say that some athletes are advantaged by their size-height creates greater leverage, and weight exacts more propulsive force behind the Shot. On the basis of factoring in information from a huge selection of athletes profiles, Julliand discovers that Dan O’Brien, the former world record holder at the decathlon, can be regarded as pound-for-pound the greatest ever Shot putter.

An intriguing set of juxtapositions are proffered as to possible new athletics events- eg high throwing, long vaulting. ’Change areas’ in relays are suggested as dispensable and a 3 leg 100m relay is proposed, where each athlete would run 133.33m. A 500m oval track is proposed, as is the idea of running clockwise round the track-and having separate records for anti-clockwise and clockwise runs. Julliand also devises a complex system of determining ‘the ten best  (i.e. World)record holders ever, whether female or male’ incorporating factors such as the total percentage by which they improved the marks they broke, and the total duration of their records. On this basis Bob Beamon’s incredible 8.90m Long Jump comes out on top, but there are 4 women in the top ten.

Juilland’s interrogation of performances across time (the disadvantages of cinder tracks and a time formula for measuring their effects are also addressed) and across genders gives us a truer picture of extraordinary performances, one where they can be appreciated fully on their own merit. Some of his ideas on how to develop athletics extend this possibility. His athletics odyssey well into old age-he was still competing when he died aged 77-are also a source of inspiration. Yet Juilland’s conservative politics remain a source of frustration, and we see that in the introduction of Rethinking entitled ‘Track and field on trial: an acrimonious debate with myself’ he simultaneously advocates developments in track and field for the enrichment of the spectator and to preserve [Track and Field’s] ‘market share’.

The spectre of athletics as a highly monetised event removes it from its constituency – namely those who want to participate for the pure fun of it. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a great deal of pleasure to be had from watching the best athletes compete. But this experirence is becoming rare. Many of the athletics finals were unaffordable for most people at the 2012 Olympic Games. Many fans experienced the disappointment of not being able to go because corporate sponsors had taken seats but, as the TV cameras then revealed, didn’t take them up. There were a tiny amount of free events-the Marathon was one; but those who paid extra were permitted to see video screens showing the parts of the race it was not possible to see up close i.e. most of it. Also, of course, money dictated that the Games had to be in a certain place; much to the annoyance of several thousand eastenders who had to move as a result.

The Conservative Government meanwhile continue to slash school sports budgets for state schools, and thereby limit the majority of people’s ability to participate in sport. The success of the Paralympics is being used as an exemplar to show people being able to overcome physical adversity. Yet people are being refused benefits when they are seriously ill, or in some cases, dying. More than a debt reduction exercise, the austerity drive is the manifestation of an intolerance of the poor, the sick and disabled. Writing on athletics has to be politically conscious of this, and to be subtly aware of the ways in which oppositions of physical strength/weakness were artificially posed by the far right in the past, and will posit again if they are given the chance. Economic Conservatism is a gift for racist, sexist and anti-disabled groups such as the BNP and EDL as it encourages their survivalist mentality and adds to the ranks of the alienated and disenfranchised. Juilland’s writings are imaginative and contentious. It is just incredibly disappointing that he ultimately falls back into an economic conservatism that negates his suggestions as nothing more than considerations for the advancement of the athletics ‘market’. Ultimately Juilland tries to break out of paradigms only to find that for all his imagination, he cannot conceive of a society outside Capitalism, the all–encompassing paradigm that negates our dreams the moment they are born.

Nike: making workers poor and runners lame


Mark Perryman’s recent book on the Olympics offers a useful short history of where the present running boom comes from. Like both Thatcherism and punk, it seems, jogging in Britain began at the end of the 1970s. Its start was a “National Fun Run” sponsored by the Sunday Times, to which 12,000 people signed up. The sport’s rise was fuelled by the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics, including Steve Ovett’s 800 metre gold in 1980, and Seb Coe’s 1500 metres golds in 1980 and 1984. Jimmy Savile fronted a weekend television show promoting running. The London Marathon received financial support from Ken Livingstone’s GLC, while such sponsors as Mars tried to muscle in on the act, promoting chocolate as the perfect mid-race snack…

Jimmy Savile’s Nike costume

A part of this story which I’d like to develop further is the role played by shoe manufacturers. One company closely associated with the jogging boom was Nike, whose shoes sold in Britain from 1978, the same year as the Sunday Times run. The company was then in the middle of an extraordinary boom, the value of its worldwide sales increasing 70-fold from $14 million in 1976 to $1 billion ten years later.

Part of Nike’s appeal was that it promoted itself as a young and vaguely counter-cultural business. In much the same way that Richard Branson’s Virgin began by distributing the Sex Pistols but has ended up profiting from privatisation, so Nike was originally associated with a generation of runners at the University of Oregon, headed by US Olympian Steve Prefontaine and his coach Bill Bowerman.

At his death in 1975, “Pre” was the American record-holder at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 metres. In 1972, he had finished fourth in the Olympic 5,000 metre final, an extraordinary race in which Prefontaine held but lost the lead three times in the final two laps. Pre was part of the student generation who had challenged the Vietnam War. He fought a series of battles with the administrators of US amateur athletics, at the climax of which he told the New York Times, that he was an internationalist who would hand in his US citizenship if given the chance.

In many ways the perfect expression of Pre’s radicalism was a TV film which came out four years after his death and which ostensibly has no links to him at all. Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile is a purely fictional account of a convict Larry Murphy who is discovered in prison to be running mile times within seconds of the US record. Given a chance to compete in US Olympic trials, he is opposed by a local gang leader who attempts to frustrate the race but is beaten back by a united front of politicised Black and Mexican inmates. The authorities then withdraw Murphy from the race. The actor (Peter Strauss) plays the part with shoulder-length blond hair and a thick moustache, making him a virtual twin of the real-life runner Prefontaine. The film is a kind of idealised, hyper-politicised version of Pre’s own radical journey.

Prefontaine’s coach Bowerman designed the first Nike shoes, supposedly on his home waffle-maker. Prefontaine was the first celebrity to endorse them, while others later to get on board included John McEnroe and the former Maoist and newly-elected Green parliamentarian in Germany Joschka Fischer, photographed in white Nike shoes while being sworn in as a member of regional government in Hesse in 1985. Nike played the game brilliantly of appearing imprecisely rebellious, while carving out a niche for itself as a giant corporation with a vast turnover and a global workforce largely situated in some of the very worst-paying areas of the world.

Nike is increasingly criticised on the grounds that is that its shoes have been badly designed and have made millions of runners more vulnerable to running injuries. The starting point is the shoe designed by Bowerman at the height of Prefontaine’s fame in 1972. The Nike Cortez had a thick rubber outer sole, and was the most cushioned running shoe that had ever been produced. Named after the explorer who subjected America to smallpox, it was also the first shoe to feature Nike’s “swoosh” logo. The Cortez had this additional padding because it was intended to extend the distance that an ordinary club runner could jog, in the direction of up to 100 miles per week. Yet the effect of the padding was to make the runner’s footfall heavier, and less efficient. When runners switched from the lighter shoes which predated the Cortez to Nike shoes, they found themselves striking the ground harder, to less effect. The weight of the “jogging” step was moved backwards towards the heel, realigning the human running gait in ways which were at odds to several million years of evolution.

The first writer to have brought home the destructiveness of Nike’s design was Christopher McDougall, whose book Born to Run cites a wide range of authorities including Daniel Lieberman, a Professor of biological anthropology at Harvard to show that running shoes are a main cause of runners’ injuries:

A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to overpronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.

One compelling sign of the malaise has been the decline in running times in the countries which were the first strongholds of the running boom. Over the past thirty years, as Boff Whalley observes, the average time of a male runner completing an America marathon has increased from 3 hours 32 minutes to 4 hours 20 minutes.

To this day, Nike remains an employer of sweat-shop labour and reports posted on the Playfair website in the last 18 months describe Nike workers being beaten and abused, being prevented from joining unions, and factories closing without notice leaving their workers without pay for periods of up to 6 months.

“No man is an island”, John Donne wrote: “Entire of itself / Each is a piece of the continent / A part of the main.” The Nike shoes a runner wears may have cost her or him between £80 and £100. The people making them will have been paid a pound an hour or less.

The shoes which we wear make other people poor and us lame.

Paul Ryan superhero, elite Marathon runner, and … ?


The point of the Vice President in the American constitution is that they are never meant to get anywhere near the levers of power. Even a President is powerless through the entirety of their second four year-term, and this powerlessness is multiplied in the case of their deputy who has no job in the system at all. The people chosen for President are often characterless nobodies picked for the purposes of some secondary talent (eg LBJ’s skill for bulldozing legislation through Congress) to redeem them for an essentially meaningless role. Most Presidents do not die in office; I doubt even many politics nerds could name the last four US “veeps”. BUT in those rare cases where the Vice President takes on the top job, their truth quotient becomes a matter of concern to billions of people.

Which brings me neatly to the Republican candidate for Vice President. Last week, Paul Ryan told the journalist Hugh Hewitt that he “was a distance runner”, had run “marathons” (note that tricky plural), and had a “two hour and fifty-something” personal best. This week, Runners World reports that he has in fact run one marathon, over 20 ago, finishing in over 4 hours.

If Ryan had been telling the truth, he would be one of the fastest 25% of runners in his field – in fact, he was almost at the mid-point. It’s the difference between getting an A grade in a GCSE exam and a C.

Dave Zirin has skewered Ryan by comparing him to Rosie Ruiz, I’m more interested in the light the incident shines on what may be a general tendency for runners to estimate their times “down”, the equivalent of a middle-managed man standing by a mirror and sucking his tummy in.

Many of us, when we are asked about how fast we could run a particular distance, will tend to shave off a second or two. I’ve blogged before about the Marathon Talk podcast which invites its guests to estimate how fast they could run a mile with the proper training. Those who have done it well but stopped tend to guess “up” and will often say six or seven minutes; those who’ve never run, ten to guess down – saying “5 minutes”, when they’ve never even run a six or seven minute mile, have a poor sense of their body’s ageing, or its susceptibility to injury after even modest training.

Without much difficulty any runner can pick a race at which the environment will be no more than a residual factor – say a Parkrun through central London, with an ascent or descent of no  more than a few degrees. If you plan to run that sort of race in under 20 minutes, but finish in over 25, or do not finish at all (both of which, I have done), it’s a pretty salutory experience.

Either you learn from it, and learn about yourself – or you’re Paul Ryan, stuck forever in a world of your own imagining.

(Hat-tip: Colin Wilson)

Running Wild; running fast


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.

When athletes spoke their minds


Thanks to Jules Boycoff, who recently sent me this article about Steve Prefontaine who at his death in 1975 held the US record for every distance between 2000 and 10,000 metres and who was, I suppose, an American version of Steve Ovett (if more so…). This was Prefontaine, quoted in the New York Times in March 1975:

“To hell with love of country”, says Steve Prefontaine, America’s best amateur distance runner. “I compete for myself.”

Prefontaine said he’s so fed up with the treatment of American athletes that he would change his citizenship tomorrow if given the chance. He described himself as an “internationalist”.

“People say I should be running for a gold medal for the old red, white and blue and all that bull, but it’s not gonna be that way”, Prefontaine said in an interview.

“I’m the one who has made all the sacrifices. Those are my American records, not the country’s…”

For all his deviation from the script, Prefontaine was an incredibly popular athlete in Oregon, and his life is celebrated in a 10k which is still run today. The film Without Limits which tell his life story is on YouTube (helpfully broken into 9-minute sections…). There aren’t many films about running which are worth watching. This is one.

Joschka Fischer; from Maoist to Marathoner to …


As a socialist and a runner, I feel bereft of recent role models. I’ve blogged about Steve Ovett‘s red vest, the race and class politics of Chariots of Fire, and  of the Workers’ Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s. But these all belong to a history which is over. A decent case could be made for the radical politics of South Africa’s Comrades ultra-marathon which opens with an amplifed blast of Shosholoza (“we share”) and clearly taps into something deep in the transformed South African psyche. But two friends John and Anya have encouraged me to write about Germany’s best known politician of the 1968 generation, Joschka Fischer.

It is hard to be entirely sympathetic.

In the early years of the new Millennium, Fischer seemed better than most of his generation. In 2000, the German news magazine Stern ran a series of photograps of Fischer in a motorcycle helmet confronting a police officer during a 1973 demonstration, while the Greens were both untested by government and (at least in terms of their programme) far to the left of our own new Labour.

In 1985, while being sworn in as a member of regional government in Hesse, Fischer attended the state Parliament in white Nike running shoes.  (The shoes are now on display at the German museum in Bonn). The image was seen at the time as indicating Fischer’s iconoclasm. But when you compare it to, say, Tommy Sheridan’s clenched fist at Holyrood, it’s pretty clear that Fischer’s was the shallower transgression.

Fischer published in 2001 a first memoir, Mein langer Lauf zu mir selbst (“My long run towards myself”), describing how he had responded to press jibes that he was overweight by taking up marathon running and by sustained and intense dieting, a combination which enabled him to shed five and half stones. Fischer took part in the 1999 New York marathon, finishing in a little under 4 hours.

He was preparing himself, he invited his readers to conclude, for a bid for power.

Now, Fischer is best known as the Foreign Minister of the last SPD-Green coalition, and an advocate of military intervention in Afghanistan but not Iraq, to which Fischer’s government was ostensibly opposed (while allowing American military aircraft to fly over German airspace, using German soldiers to guard American installations, and sending armored reconnaissance vehicles to Kuwait etc). In recent years he has come over as a pretty average member of the Daniel Cohn-Bendit generation who slunk from Marxism to neo-liberalism: no worse, but certainly no better than his UK counterparts, Straw, Blunkett, Blair …

Like others of this generation (two well-known contributors to Observer and Vanity Fair spring to mind), Fischer added pounds while moving to the right. By the middle years he was rumoured to be a regular diner  at the happily-named Gargantua restaurant in Frankfurt, best known for its liver, beef and creamy soups. There haven’t been any reports for a while of Fischer taking part in marathons.

I don’t want to overdo the link between Fischer’s politics and his running: mere sporting participation by itself doesn’t make you a better person (just ask the part-time jogger Dave Cameron). On the other hand, it’s hard not to see anything in Fischer’s simultaneous political and physical degeneration in the middle years of the last decade.