Summer hedonism season is over — now's the perfect time to fall in love with the world's simplest sport. Here’s a shortlist of things that running has definitively solved for me over the years: relationships, pitches, stories, existential problems, petty problems, medium problems, and my great tax-filing mishap of 2011. It’s the world’s cheapest workout. It’s the world’s cheapest therapy. It’s the surest cure for creative block I’ve ever found. The way you remember running is entirely different to what running really is. I don’t know why it works this way, but it does.
Deep in the mind’s eye, running is a sweat-stained horror. Sole pounding on pavement, force and shock zigzagging up rapidly dulling shins and knees, face turning an angry, bloated red – and all just to wobble another metre forward. It’s sweaty, it’s itchy, it’s miserable.
That we remember running in this bastard way is a trick of the mind. A preventative concoction. Maybe the brain doesn’t want us to swelter and gasp and have our heart thud back and forth a hundred-odd times a minute. (Maybe we’re lazy.). And then there’s the idea of running, which also sucks. What could take less mastery, less finesse, less grunt and masculinity? Damn, son – you might say to your jog-happy kid – learn to throw a ball, kick a ball, belt a cross-court baseline winner. Running? One leg then the other? Talentless. Charmless. Chump-ish. Vanilla.
There’s that thing about men and sports: you do it to be demonstrably good at something. Preferably, you need to have the chance to kick someone’s ass. It’s maybe the whole point. For that game, that race, that goal – whatever – you’re superior. Here’s crux of running: there’s no competition. There’s no payoff. There’s no win or lose. Nobody will be impressed that you can run 20 kilometres non-stop. (It won't get you laid.). The run is entirely between you and yourself. This, of course, is where the beauty begins.
I’ve run while worried about work. While worried about girls. Worried about what’s happened, what’s going to happen, what I’d like to happen and whether or not I can make it happen.
Running makes you force the question. Without anything to distract, you stare your anxieties, conundrums and options dead in the eye. It’s confrontational. Moreover, it’s confrontational in a society that regularly leaves us too distracted to confront ourselves.
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t finished a run and been a little clearer-minded, a little grittier or more serene or whatever it was the situation most called for. It works. I’ve run seriously for ten years. Apart from a few half-marathons, I’ve always run alone. There are two especially good times to take a run.
First, when you’re elated.You find adrenaline and joy lengthening your gait, propelling you forward like a life-drunk locomotive. For some reason, running happy allows your body to temporarily ignore its aerobic capacity. For a few miles, you’ll breeze past foot traffic, giddily try to keep pace with cyclists, and take furious pride in each gasp of air. For a few miles, you’re the most euphoric dickhead in the world.
The other especially good time to take a run is when you’re miserable. Yes, it’s counterintuitive. But it’s one of life’s happy accidents, like the creation of penicillin or that time you forgot you left 50 quid in your winter jacket. Running miserable bears a heap of resemblance to running happy. But it leans heavier on pride. In this case, the run is cathartic: the torture of the body to distract from the pain of the mind. Sometimes you’ll run away from a problem. More often, you’ll run through it. Sometimes you mightn’t know if it’s sweat or rain or tear rolling down your face. You’ll always arrive home slightly better.
Running can gift you all of these things. Probably more.
I haven’t found a better way to clear my mind, to kickstart an idea, to break through a sticking point.
"Like Nietzsche, I tend to distrust thoughts that have not come to me when in physical motion," the poet Charles Tomlinson told The Paris Review.
Haruki Murakami, the brilliant Japanese novelist who wrote Norwegian Wood, has also run an ultramarathon – 62 goddamn miles. He treats his running religiously.
“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day,” he wrote. “These are practical, physical lessons.”
For Murakami, focus and endurance are paramount to creating anything of worth.
“Focus and endurance are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles.”
What he’s getting at, of course, is that, to be a better runner is to be a better thinker.
For all the praising of the shower – and, come on, we praise the hell out of the shower – I’ve had almost every single one of my Big Ideas on a long, slow run.
Entire stories have trickled out of my mind, a gently unravelling thread of crisp, satisfying sentences. It’s so consistently effective, it feels like cheating.
There’s a trance point. When everything that was once smudged across your mind comes into sharp focus. Really, it’s just like – stay with me – meditation.
The key is repetition.
Repeating the same action over and over – a chant, a breath, or, yes, a jog – allows the mind to relax. You, literally, become mesmerised.
And when your mind can relax, excellent things happen. Some liken it to a body of water: if you’re constantly moving around it, dirt gets kicked up and the water becomes cloudy. But, be still, let the water settle, and everything can be seen clearly.
It's the same reason your mind wanders when you try to go to sleep – because it's finally been given a chance to breathe. Maybe you've been frustrated that your most brilliant ideas and crucial ephiphanies only visit before sleeping – go running, and they'll happen on your schedule. It's a very real weapon.
So, let’s talk practicalities. First things first: you need gear that a) works and b) won’t get in the way. You need to zone the hell out, remember? This means those decade-old too-small football shorts that chafe like nasty can’t be in your running wardrobe. Too distracting, too fiddly, too infuriating.
For the most part, your kit is unimportant. Comfy shorts, solid socks, a tee that breathes. Done.
If you are determined, though, to invest some cash into your new pursuit – so as to guilt yourself into committing to it, because that technique has never not worked – free running shoes are a worthy investment. Naturally, we need to talk accessories, too. There can’t be any.
You can’t fall into a trance if you’re fiddling with your new, overpowered in-ear headphones or jostling with your iPhone for that perfect song. Unfortunately, it’s gotta be you and the asphalt. No buts. No maybes. No variation.
I can’t promise that running will be any different than you remember it. It might still be aching shins and itching and prolonged, monotonous torture. But if you stick it out it will, eventually, happen.
In a few weeks, or a few months, you’ll find yourself running a tree-lined street on a cold, fresh morning. You’ll be on the home stretch. You’ll be sweat-drenched and clear-minded – perfectly at ease. And you’ll decide that you don’t need to go home yet.
By Adam Baidawi / 28 August 2013