Category Archives: Running

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.

When athletes spoke their minds

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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 …

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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.

Zola Budd and the futility of winning

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I have written elsewhere about Coe and Ovett as runners; about the pleasure that Ovett took in detaching himself from top-class competition, and about the joylessness with which Coe raced and won. This is by no means an isolated story; the history of top-class sport is littered with instances of athletes cursed by talent.

The South African athlete Zola Budd is a case in point.

On 5 January 1984, aged just 17, Budd took part in a 5,000 metre race in Stellenbosch. Racing barefoot, almost alone, and defying the heavy winds, she produced lap after lap at an extraordinarily steady pace of 72 seconds. Her time of 15:01.83 was six seconds faster than Mary Decker’s world record.

Budd became a sporting celebrity; wooed by universities in America, her cause was taken up by David English, the editor of Britain‘s Daily Mail. English decided, as part of his paper’s support for apartheid-South Africa (then subject to an Olympic ban), to take up Budd’s cause. The Mail brought the Budds to England, promising them hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash, and in just 10 days managed to obtain British citizenship for the athlete.

“A Flight To A Stormy Haven” is how Sports Illustrated reported Budd’s departure from South Africa.

Budd won the British Olympics trials, and was selected to run in Los Angeles, clashing in her final with Decker, who fell to the track. Booed by the stadium, Budd was desperate for the race to end, slowing down and eventually finishing seventh.

Budd was desperate not to return to England, where the Mail kept her and her family under conditions of virtual house arrest.

Her parents’ marriage broke up, and her father instructed in his will that Zola should not be allowed to his funeral, nor be buried alongside him in the family plot.

“When I was a child, running gave me a means of escape and direction to my life”, Budd has said. The victory at Stellenbosch deprived her of that pleasure.

“I have always told people that it was about the worst thing that could have happened to me, as it resulted in four years of trauma with a handful of bright spots in between … 5 January 1984 was probably the worst day of my life.”

In sport, as in life generally, winning isn’t anything.

On the uselessness of running magazines

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I find myself, for the first time in twenty years, reading the running magazines. It is a curiously alienating experience. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the pages are given over to advertisements, for GPS watches capable of tracking a runner’s route and uploading it to a home computer (£250-£350), merino wool running tops (£75), running sunglasses (£125-£200), energy gels, ie snacks (£36 for three boxes), an “essential” personal trainer kit composed of a long strip of elastic (£150), etc.

When I was young, and an aspirant professional runner, I would have disdained the contents as useless. I wanted to run. I was fast, and effortlessly so. I was constantly seeking to simplify my running experience. One of the things I liked about running was precisely its separation from the cash-nexus. I could sprint on a track; I could run through fields of wet clay; neither of these required spending, neither experience would in way be enhanced if I was running in specially-designed sports socks rather than my ordinary size 9 black socks from Peter Jones

Now, I am a fun runner: I run for pleasure, and am only very loosely connected to a running club. My ambition is to run half a dozen times a year or less under someone else’s stopwatch. I run slowly and freely acknowledge the weight of my years, the absence of my former speed. Just avoiding injury is a sufficient goal. Before I was outside the magazine’s key demographic, that of the amateur runner, now I have by-passed it, and remain outside, but at the opposite pole.

An amateur runner is defined now by how regularly, quickly or happily they run, but by how often they purchase. The magazines provide quick bursts of training advice provided by physios-for-hire, the authors happily revealing their hourly and monthly fees in case a reader is looking for a personal trainer of their own. The (limited) content is given over to inspirational stories, tips on avoiding injuries. Advertisements for races emphasise that the uniqueness of every particular event: the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it provides for sea views, running at altitude, etc…

In the amateur runners’ magazines, there is a very strange tension between creativity and rule-following: a running-consumer is marked by their I-fear-no-one approach to running through Eastern European cities, across African wildernesses, etc. But should they make a mistake of warming-down by stretching (a 1980s throwback) or eating fatty food before a long run, then they can expect the full censure of an amateur culture that expects increasing uniformity of its consumers.

I have written before about how the running boom of the 1980s associated with the Coe-Ovett rivalry and the launch of the London Marathon has given way to the relative malaise of British elite running: there are fewer people in their 20s running, there are many more “ultra-marathon runners” but relatively fewer people capable of running seriously fast times

More people are wearing sports gear; fewer people are doing sports. The consumer-driven technologies are not leading to a general increase in sporting participation, rather they are “raising the bar”, making ordinary physical activity seem more demanding, more difficult, and a harder thing to do.

Readers of pornographic magazines are (notoriously) under- and not over-sexed. It is the same with sports porn.