Monday, 24 April 2017

We run to run: running philosophy post-London Marathon

I completed my second London marathon yesterday and was pleased enough to take 17 minutes off my 2015 time/PB (strava run). It was tough though in parts and I slowed down from miles 16 onwards. The big London crowds, seeing your friends and family cheering you on, watching Kenenisa Bekele go cruising by in the opposite direction and knowing that there are 50 other members of your running club out there somewhere all helps with motivation earlier on. As a South Londoner so does running the first half of the course on the home streets of our very own tri-boroughs of Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark. 

But there comes a point when all of this fades away, it is just you willing yourself to continue at as close to your target pace as your legs will allow you. In this long-distance dark night of the sole everybody probably wonders sometimes, 'why am I doing this'?

This is something the philosopher Mark Rowlands explores in his book 'Running with the Pack' (Granta, 2013) where he draws on the insights of philosophers such as Descartes, Hume and Sartre to explore the meaning of running (actually his favourite is Heidegger, sorry I find it hard to get over his anti-semitism and support for the Nazis, even if Rowlands manages to utilise him to make some interesting points).

After running a particularly painful Marathon in Miami, Rowlands muses:

'What was the point of these last few hours, these 26 miles and 385 yards? Was it really worth it? That is the beauty of it – there was no point. It is in the places where points and purposes of life stop that you find things that are 'worth it'. We live in a utilitarian age where we tend to think of the value of everything as a function of its purpose. The defining question of our age is: 'what is it good for?' And to say that something is good for nothing is equivalent to saying that is worthless... If something is worth doing in life it must be for the sake of something else. If running is worth doing – whether it is a marathon or a gentle jog around the block – it must be worth doing because of the health it promotes, the sense of satisfaction or self-worth it engenders, the stress it relieves, the social opportunities it affords. If an activity is valuable at all, it must be useful for something'.

Against this, Rowlands argues that 'running has an entirely different sort of value', an 'intrinsic value... that is valuable for what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow one to get or possess':

'If we want to find value in life, something that might be a candidate for life's meaning or one of its meanings - then we must look to things that have no purpose. Put another way: it is a necessary condition of something being truly important in life that it have no purpose outside itself – that it be useless for anything else. Worthlessness – in this sense - is a necessary condition of real value...  The purpose and value of running is intrinsic to it. The purpose and value of running is simply to run. Running is one of the places in life where the points or purposes stop. As such, running is one of the things that can make life 'worth the trouble''.

For the 2017 London Marathon organisers put out a call for runners to give their reason for running: 'We know every single runner has a unique #ReasonToRun the world’s greatest marathon,” said Hugh Brasher, Event Director. “Whether it’s to set a PB, to raise money for a cause, to remember a loved one, to break a Guinness World Record, to win, to remain an Ever Present, to qualify for Great Britain or just because it’s always been a dream to run the London Marathon – the reasons are endless and we would love to hear them.” This is all good, but maybe at the base of it is the fact that we run in order to run, while we can. 

And once we have started a race we carry on running because no reason can stop us - something that Rowlands elaborates on with reference to Jean-Paul Sartre - 'When I understood that no reason could ever make me stop, what I experienced was joy... To run on in freedom - to run in the freedom of the gap between reasons and actions - is one of the intrinsically valuable ways of being in the world. To run in this freedom is to run in joy'.  Not sure I felt particularly joyful at mile 16 yesterday, but in this sense we exercise our freedom by choosing to keep pushing on and not to listen to all the reasons swimming around our heads to take it easy and settle for less than we can achieve.

Oh and we also run to get the t-shirt and  medal of course!

Proud of my club Kent AC, 51 finishers and I think top three positions in both the men's and women's club competitions within the marathon (based on cumulative times of first three finishers from each club in the race). But beyond that each performance had a story, whether it be PBs, first marathons or just getting round despite injury. For all a back story of hundreds of miles of training since the New Year, a collective effort in groups not only running together but sharing tips on nutrition, tactics and more. Deep in the run it may get to a point where we feel that we are each alone, but we are sustained not only by those immediately around us but all those on the journey to the start line. My number one tip to improve your marathon time would be... join a running club. And if you're in South London, come join our club!

(nice piece here from Kent's Russell Bentley on his London Marathon - a reminder that even 2:22 finishers sometimes have to stop by the side of the road and to 'run the mile you are in')

Friday, 21 April 2017

Greenwich Park Temple of Running

The 37th London Marathon starts this Sunday from Blackheath and the top of the adjoining Greenwich Park, winding its way via Woolwich to run back through Greenwich next to the bottom of the park - all 40,000 of us. 

If you're looking for a bit of inspiration for your run look no further than a site in Greenwich Park itself. Other than a slight mound there's not much to see, but there is helpful sign to tell you what you're looking at: the site of what is now believed to be a Romano-Celtic temple, first discovered in 1902 and re-excavated by archaeologists for Channel 4's Time Team programme in 2000.

So what's all this got to do with running? Well for a start, there's a fragment of a statue found there which is believed to be the arm of the Goddess Diana. It is possible therefore that the temple was dedicated to Diana, the Goddess of the moon, woodlands and the hunt.  Sometimes referred to as 'fleet footed Diana' she was often described as running through the forest with her animals. 

Greenwich Diana fragment

Roman statute of Diana at Versailles
(Roman author Ovid also refers to her as the 'high skirted huntress' on account of her practical running attire)

Like many runners, Diana liked to bathe her feet after a hard day's exertion, a scene featuring in many paintings over the centuries including Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon' (above). In the Roman writer Ovid's version of this legend, this takes place at a pool  where 'the woodland goddess, weary from the hunt, would bathe her virgin limbs' accompanied by her nymphs. Actaeon, also out hunting in the woods, spies the naked Diana and in punishment she turns him into a stag who is chased and killed by his own hounds. Poor Actaeon doesn't realize at first that he has been transformed and he 'took off, marveling at how fast he was running. But when he saw his face and horns in a pool, he tried to say 'Oh no' but no words came' (Stanley Lombardo's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses)

I guess the lesson for runners here is if you find yourself running faster than expected, especially at the start of a marathon, you might regret it!

If  Diana fleet of foot is not enough to get you running, another object found in Greenwich Park  depicts a female figure holding a shield, which the information board states is likely to represent the Roman goddess Victory, probably better known to runners as her Greek equivalent - Nike.

Yes, Greenwich Park is a veritable temple of running and on Sunday thousands of devotees will be celebrating there.

Monday, 17 April 2017

parkrun and free public parks consultation

The government 'is consulting on proposals to legislate to put it beyond doubt that local authorities, including parish councils, cannot charge parkrun or junior parkrun for the use of public parks'. This would apply to all Councils in England.

Parkrun has grown to be massively popular in the past few years, with free, volunteer-organised 5K runs taking place in parks all over the country and now internationally. Most local Councils have seen the benefit of this in terms of encouraging use of parks,  promoting healthy exercise and building communities (not to mention generating income for the Council indirectly through runners spending on car parks and cafes).

However there was controversy last year when Stoke Gifford Parish Council (in the Bristol area) insisted on charging parkrun for the use of Little Stoke Park which it had previously allowed to be used free of charge.  Parkrun cancelled this event, anxious not to set a precedent which could lead to cash-strapped councils round the country levying charges and therefore potentially undermining the model of free events for runners.

It is precisely to prevent this eventuality that the government is now proposing to explicitly prohibit councils from charging for Parkrun. The paper 'Running Free' argues that charging for such activities undermines the  'the long tradition of the free use of public parks. Our public parks and green spaces are, at once, places where individuals and groups can to go to for exercise, to relax, to enjoy being part of a community, or to find peace and solitude'.

This is very welcome. It does however raise some quite complex questions. Firstly other sports routinely pay for the use of parks, such as hiring football pitches, and there is no proposal to change this. The consultation paper draws a distinction here on the basis that with parkrun there 'is no exclusive use of the park. Parkrunners share the park with other members of the public during the parkrun. This is quite different to the use of a facility in a park that is subject to exclusive use such as a tennis court, or even a facility such as a football pitch that is exclusively used by groups of players at certain times of the week'.

But what about other runs in parks? Most other events do charge an entry fee and/or generate income for the organiser. On this basis the Government argues that they are distinct from parkrun and whether to charge for them would be left for local Councils to decide.

The Government leaves open as a consultation question whether there 'Is there any specific activity, in addition to parkrun or junior parkrun, that takes place in a public park, that does not require exclusive use of the park or a part of the park, that should be considered for inclusion in provisions to prevent local authorities charging for that activity?'.

It would seem unusual to give legal exemption to one organisation in this way, in this case limiting exemption to events organised by parkrun UK. At the moment and for the foreseeable future parkrun is the main organiser of these kind of events, but that may not always be the case. In principle if a group of people wanted to organise something similar - i.e. a weekly free run in the park- but did not do so under the parkrun umbrella, should they be financially penalised? It would be far better to establish the principle at this stage of free use of parks for runners where there is no exclusive use, no charge and no profit. Activities of a similar kind should be treated in the same way, regardless of who is organising them. For instance I take part in Assembly League races held in a number of London parks. These are free to enter, do not have exclusive use of the parks and are low impact - once or twice a year in each park and all pretty much over in half an hour. I believe we have never been charged for this, but this summer for the first time Wandsworth are charging us for the use of Battersea Park. I think this should be treated in the same way as parkrun.

I have seen criticism elsewhere  of the principle of making what is in effect a private company – Parkrun Limited – such a special case. Having looked into the company structure of parkrun – which anybody can do with the records online at Companies House – I think the company status is a bit of a red herring. Parkrun is a company limited by guarantee which means that any profits get ploughed back into it work. No dividends are paid out to shareholders – it is in effect a not-for-profit company, though parkrun's website could perhaps be a bit clearer about this. Some people assume it is a charity while others think that it is a profit making vehicle on the backs of which some are enriching themselves. Neither is true.

Another interesting point is whether Councils have the power to prevent parkruns happening. Looking around London it is obvious that some Local Authorities have actively encouraged the development of parkrun, including providing start up funding.  Southwark Council for instance hosts four parkruns in its parks (Burgess, Southwark, Dulwich, Peckham Rye). Wandsworth Council only hosts one, in Tooting, and this was only agreed after a long local campaign. The sticking point in Wandsworth was that the Council wanted to charge parkrun and agreed to Tooting only as a special case. If the government proceeds with banning charges does that mean that parkrun could start up in other Wandsworth parks or could the Council put other obstacles in its way?

As well as parkrun, the consultation asks for views on the thorny question of whether activities that involve a financial charge to a client or clients by a professional or business, but do not involve exclusive use of a public park or part of the park... should be considered for inclusion in provisions to prevent local authorities charging for that activity'. This would include for instance fitness groups or paid dog walkers. Some of these are small local businesses, but others (such as British Military Fitness) are big national concerns that make a lot of money from charging users - it doesn't seem unreasonable for them to make a contribution to the upkeep of the parks they use. 

It is easy enough for the Government to insist Councils should not charge, but at the same time Councils are struggling to keep parks and other community facilities going because of funding cuts. A recent report found that 'between 2014/15 and 2015/16 local authorities across England closed 214 children’s playgrounds, and when asked about future plans they admitted their aim to close a further 234'. Continuing to deliver free access requires funding as well as law changes.

Nevertheless it is great news that the future of free parkruns looks to be secure and the principle has been restated 'that the use of public parks by the public for everyday use is, and should remain, free'.

The public have until July 7th 2017 to respond to Running Free: Consultation on preserving the free use of public parks.

(a coincidence that they used the same name for this paper as for Seb Coe's autobiography?!)

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Cherry blossom running in Dulwich Park

A beautiful Spring day in sunny South London last weekend (8th April 2017), I went to Dulwich Park unaware that it was its parkrun's 5th birthday. There was bunting, birthday balloons and of course cake.

As I was in the middle of a long marathon training run I didn't go flat out so was surprized when I got to the end to see that it was my fastest parkrun in over a year  - I know Dulwich is reputed to be a fast course on account of being flat(ish) with no sharp corners, but I haven't always run fast (for me) there.  As I wasn't really timing myself I didn't look at my watch on the way round, just concentrated on maintaining a steady pace - maybe that's something I should try more often!

I had more miles to do afterwards and wanted to run off road as much as possible so I decided to stay in the park. What I hadn't realized despite going to the park for years is that there is a proper woodland trail whereby you can run more or less the entire outside circuit of the park on trail, much of it in shaded woodland.

This includes the 'Village Copse' at the north-west corner of the park (pictured above). Only planted in 2006 by  TRUE (The Trust for Urban Ecology) it has now matured enough to let you run under trees, and at this time of year to be showered with cherry blossom while doing so.

 The romantic painter Samuel Palmer, who grew up in Walworth and often wandered in Dulwich wrote of  'Dulwich as the gate into the world of vision' and considered how to paint its hills 'to bring up a mystic glimmer like that which lights our dreams. And those same hills (hard task) should give us promise that the country beyond them is Paradise'. His 1834 painting The Shearers, painted when he was living at Shoreham in Kent, was an attempt to realize this landscape first glimpsed in the Dulwich 'valley of vision' 

No sheep being sheared in Dulwich today but maybe if you're lucky the occasional glimpse of paradise! 

Dulwich park - the outer perimeter is the woodland trail, just find a stretch of pathway as close to the edge of the park as you can get and follow it round, taking care to head to far side of the football pitches to the village copse section. The distance of the Outer Dulwich Park loop (see Strava segment) is around 1.3 miles.

See previous posts:

Running London: Dulwich Park

Midsummer running in Dulwich Park

Monday, 10 April 2017

Running down the mountain Jack Kerouac-style

The great Beat writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a college athlete, in fact he got a scholarship to Columbia University as a result of his prowess as an American Football running back.  A broken leg and arguments with his coach finished his sports career.

Jack Kerouac's merchant navy enlistment photo, 1943
At his writing peak though he was no stranger to physical exercise, and his novels 'The Dharma Bums' (1958) and 'Desolation Angels' (1965) both feature fictionalised accounts of his real experiences in the mountains of California and Washington state.

A central episode in 'The Dharma Bums' is a climb of the Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada Kerouac made with the poet/Buddhist/anarchist Gary Snyder (named 'Japhy Ryder' in the novel). At one point on the way up, Kerouac despairs:

'I nudged myself closer to the ledge and closed my eyes and thought 'Oh what a life this is, why do we have to be born in the first place, and only so we can have our poor gentle flesh laid out to such impossible horrors as huge mountains and rock and empty space,' and with horror I remembered the famous Zen saying, 'When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.' The saying made my hair stand on end'.

However the way back down is a lot more fun:

'Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it's impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I'd guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn't care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats or I'd say like Chinese lunatics of a thousand years ago, enough to raise the hair on the head of the meditating Morley by the lake, who said he looked up and saw us flying down and couldn't believe it. In fact with one of my greatest leaps and loudest screams of joy I came flying right down to the edge of the lake and dug my sneakered heels into the mud and just fell sitting there, glad. Japhy was already taking his shoes off and pouring sand and pebbles out. It was great. I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said "Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can't fall off a mountain"'.

In 1956, Kerouac lived alone for 63 days on Desolation Peak in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington state, working as a fire look out. In 'Desolation Angels' he again describes running down, this time with the added incentive that he has to catch a boat at the bottom and is anxious to return to the 'sweet cities below' with their 'burlesque shows, cigars and wines and papers in a room, fogs, ferries, bacon and eggs and toast in the morning'. Although few of us have had to run quite like he describes, the struggle of keeping going through the pain will resonate with many of us I am sure:

'The best way to come down a mountain is like running, swing your arms free and fall as you come, your feet will hold you up for the rest – but O I had no feet because no shoes, I was “barefooted” (as the saying goes) and far from stomping down on big trail-singin steps as I bash along tra la tra la I could hardly even mincingly place them the soles were so thin and the rocks so sudden some of them with a sharp bruise – A John Bunyan morning, it was all I could do to keep my mind on other things – I tried to sing, think, daydream, do as I did by the desolation stove – but Karma your trail is laid out for you – Could have no more escaped that morning of bruised torn feet and burning-ache thighs (and eventual searing blisters like needles) and the gasping sweats, the attack of insects, than I can escape and than you can escape being eternally around to go through the emptiness of form (including the emptiness of form of your complaining personality) – I had to do it, not rest, my only concern was keeping the boat...

...So I up I get and lunge along with pack, thumbed, and wince on ankled pains and turn and turn the trail faster and faster under my growing trot and pretty soon I’m running, bent, like a Chinese woman with a pack of faggots on her neck, jingle jingle drumming and pumping stiff knees thru rock underbrush and around corners, sometimes I crash off the trail and bellow back on’t, somehow, never lose, the way was made to be followed...  Sometimes I fall, on haunches, slipt, the pack is my back bumper... it’s a dance, dance from rock to rock, hurt to hurt, wince down the mountain...

... The trail, last halfmile, is worse than above, the rocks, big, small, twisted ravines for your feet - Now I begin sobbing for myself, cursing of course - 'It never ends!' is my big complaint... 'But this is only a Samsara-World-of-Suffering trail, subject to time and space, therefore must end, but my God it will never end!' and I come running and thwapping finally no more - For the first time I fall exhausted without planning.. I push myself up and try on - Every step wont do, it wont work, that my thighs hold it up's'mystery to me - plah -

Finally I'm loading my step on ahead of me, like placing topheavy things on a platform with outstretched arms, the kind of strain you cant keep up - other than the bare feet (now battered with torn skin and blisters and blood) I could just plow and push down the hill, like a falling drunk almost falling never quite falling and if so would it hurt as much as my feet? - nu - gotta push and place each up-keen and down with the barbfoot of Blakean Perfidy with worms and howlings everywhere - dust - I fall on my knees. Rest that way awhile and go on.... the wild flowers don't interest me no more - 'I can't make it' is my only thought as I keep going, which thought is like phosphorescent negative red glow imprinting the film of my brain 'Gotta make it' -

... I rounded the final little shelf-trail to the boat - This I plodded and waved with a smile, letting the feet go by, blister in left shoe that I thought was a sharp pebble ground into my skin - In all the excitement, dont realize I am back in the world at last'.

This was no doubt not Kerouac's most pleasurable journey, but elsewhere in 'The Dharma Bums' he listed running as one of the elements of the good life - and who could disagree?:

'Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running — that's the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there'.

More running related literature: