Everyone writes books on running. If you run (maybe a little, maybe a lot), you write about it (maybe a little, maybe a lot). I think at some point these running books gain critical mass, and become more than the sum of their pages. Why? Because if you run (maybe a little, maybe a lot), your probably read (maybe a little, maybe a lot).
I love imagining the emergent properties of things, as though you observed it strictly from its behaviour, and don’t understand its innate nature. Running books would have a great story. In the beginning there may have been one or two running books, little critters cowering in the corner of the sports section, thin and emaciated, travelling alone. Then the running book-beast, by all observations, began to multiple at a geometric rate. At some point they gained critical mass – a Phillip Ball phase change, no doubt. They began travelling in herds, swarming across the great plains of bookstores.
The humans continued picking at their masses, but they only grew more – the progeny of word of mouth. They began flocking into your bedroom, lying passively supine, waiting for you to gorge on their dietary suggestions, training regimes, and introspections. Now, few bedside tables have gone untouched, the running book-beast as ubiquitous as its domesticated distant cousin, the post-thanksgiving diet book.
By some groups, it has gained almost religious status, with rituals and doctrines that indicate (again solely by observation) that this animal is almost sacrosanct. ‘Coming of age’ rituals develop between the runners and the book-beasts, e.g. when a running group leader ‘borrows’ a dog-eared, coffee-stained, beast to a neophyte runner uttering sacred words such as “…oh you don’t know about fartleks? This is a great book on it which will help you set up a training regime using fartleks to increase your pace.”
This all went through my head while I was running this weekend. Yes, almost definitely a dehydration-induced notion that grew legs (excuse the punnery). I was running in the Naperville marathon, keeping with the pacer group, when we started talking about books. I had a slightly breathless, highly sweaty epiphany:
- Discussing things is one of the greatest ways to distract yourself while running –
- Discussing these book-beasts is a great topic, mostly because all runners seem to read about running –
- – And they love talking about it
But why do people write about running? Why do they propagate these grazing plains of book-beasts?
Personally, I run because it’s a game, and I love games. For me, a really good game has a challenge you’re not certain you can overcome, a significant loss if you fail, and a good reward if you succeed. I sometimes feel that I design my life around games that I like – my job, my sports, my hobbies. This is a topic that I chew over while running, how and why I get involved in challenges.
For me this year, the running challenge was to run 3 marathons in 3 weeks – Marine Corps in Washington D.C., New York, and Naperville (Illinois). The possible loss was of injuring myself. or psychologically crashing and backing out. The reward was to know that my body can take the damage, that I have the ability to train myself to mentally and physically to recover from a marathon within a week. It’s a personal thing, an almost private challenge. Also, it was hardcore enough to be alluring, without having a long-term physical risk like mountain climbing or boxing.
Running is not an ‘enjoyable’ sport. You run, run a little more, and then in case you didn’t do enough, you run a bit more. If you run more than a few miles, it whittles down from a physical battle to a game of pain management. If you run past the 16 mile boundary, you enter the zone where your body wants to start shutting down. There are fancy words for this, but I prefer the four letter expressions… like ‘bonk’ or ‘wall’. Your body literally starts begging you to quit because you can’t process any energy to maintain the run. If you run a marathon, the first 16 miles are literally just a warmup for the last 10 (making a total of 26.2 miles – the standard distance of a marathon). The last 6 miles are truly brutal, because your body is depleted of everything – the last 6 are almost totally a mental game. This is why, at least for me, a marathon is so appealing: it’s a strategy game. You can prepare yourself to battle this beast, define a strategy, and optimize yourself to best succeed. You can play with different tactics and have the flexibility to think on your feet if something goes wrong (aargh, so much pun opportunity). Also, success is instantaneous – 2 minutes off your finish time, being able to drink a beer afterwards, being able to walk the next day.
Back to the epiphany: I think that is why people write about running. Also, why people read about it. Yes, people read to find an edge, to help optimize their training and nutrition. But show me a running book that’s a best seller and I will show you one that contains a section on the mental game of running. The pain management, and how you can best battle it, how that runner conquered it. For such a solitary sport, I believe nearly ever runner feels kinship to other runners because they know that pain, and whether they owned it or backed down.
I believe this kinship fuels the herd. People write about running, and read about running, because it’s a team sport comprised solely of lone wolves. Every lone wolf has his own strategy, kind of like chess. The two topics are somehow similar. Except that with chess books you don’t discuss managing cramps, and what to do if you have a bowel battle during a chess game… So exactly the same, but completely different I guess. Running writers open their souls onto the pages, because you know they come from hard learned lessons discovered when they were at their weakest. You can almost taste the salty defeat they suffered to write a simple line like ‘Never run a marathon in new shoes… never’.They provide tactics, strategies, and the mental coaching required to know that you can do what you want. That it’s possible I guess, and I think the catharsis of putting it on paper helps them as well. I know I fed from the herd, and when it’s rough I quote the notable pages, almost like a mantra.
Just thought it would be nice to let you know that I thought about this while running 🙂
“One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”
― Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
P.S. My last run for the year is going to be the Honolulu marathon. It’s almost poetic because a good friend of mine/co-runner/training beast/cultural mentor read Haruki Murakami’s ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, and (during a run) she described to me how he enjoyed the Honolulu marathon and ran it regularly. I think that may have inspired her to ask that we run Honolulu together. She then gave me a copy of this book-beast to me, which I read while flying to New York for the marathon (another strong topic in the book). Literally folded like a Japanese ham sandwich in coach, with my feet kneading the reading lights above my head, trying to stretch out after Marine Corps. Book wedged between my knees, cogitating on his preparations for New York. Now I’m setting up a training schedule for her and I to get ready for Honolulu…
Always have to appreciate a decent bit of synchronicity 🙂