The Running Muse

       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

flame toes 2.3

By The Running Muse, Jul 4 2016 08:48PM

Amen to that! The above lines introduced a 1999 New York Times article entitled 'To invigorate literary mind, start moving literary feet'. Its multi-award-winning American author, Joyce Carol Oates, has only just retired as a professor at Princeton, but the 78-year-old still runs 40 minutes every day and maintains her prolific literary output, which includes novels, poetry, essays and plays across a range of subjects and genres. Once when stuck in traffic in a limo on the way to a radio interview, she simply got out and ran four blocks to the studio!

She can't remember not running, just as she can't remember not writing, and she has had plenty to say about the links between running and creativity. Indeed she 'writes' all her stories as she runs, in what she calls a cinematic process: she 'watches' and edits a 'film' of each one as she jogs along the country roads, often imagining ideas waiting for her at the top of each hill or over the horizon.

Oates only actually begins writing the words when she has finished each 'movie' - 'the sentences of a work are a meditation on the ending.....the first sentence can't be written until the final sentence is written' is her rather Escher-like take on it.

Her short story, 'Running', only has four sentences, three of which are very short, so you'd imagine that she would have completed its composition in one run - until you see that one of those sentences lasts for six pages. It narrates a particular running experience, the rhythms of which are echoed in the structure of the writing, in its very breathings and cadences.

More than that, though, it's a stream-of-consciousness meditation of the kind that most runners would recognise from being out on their own, when random thoughts about one's life or the wider world can erupt and expand and form themselves into coherent ideas, thoughts that maybe wouldn't have announced themselves if one had stayed sat at home contemplating the same issues.

Perhaps this happens in response to the environment, or to the adrenaline, or maybe as a result of the extended, isolated time spent on an activity that requires little attention in itself, thus allowing the mind to wander through the back caverns of one's concerns, where ideas are jumping up and down in the dark saying 'Pick me! Pick me!'

The story here chronicles the thoughts of a woman as she runs with her partner in silence along a lakeside forest trail where it is too narrow to run side by side. When her man stops to sort out his shoelaces, she runs ahead, eventually coming to a fork in the road, where she decides on impulse to veer inland through a meadow.

Whether her partner was going to take that same fork in the path was not now a pressing concern for her, for her thoughts had turned to the relationship she has with him, to her sense of self, to her primitive sense of being alone in a wild environment. Perhaps this is what running diaries should be, not just a listing of the weather conditions and the minutes per mile, but a catalogue of reflections.

After a while, she hears voices ahead and sees a group of bare-chested young men by the side of the path. When they spot her approaching, their raucous laughter instantly quietens as their 'rude assessing gazes' focus attention on her.

One of them steps on to the path, and her heart pounds as she weighs up whether to turn back or not.....

Joyce herself isn't a chatty runner: 'When I run with my husband', she once said, 'we are apart and we never talk. I don't understand people who want to talk when they run. My running is meditation.'

She recalls being told as a child that she runs like a deer, and she felt a 'special solitude' running through orchards and fields and lanes and bluffs. When she couldn't sleep on moonlit nights, she would sneak out to run up and down the driveway, embracing 'a feeling of some strange romance, smelling the fresh air - it was almost unspeakably exciting and beautiful'.

Later in life, as both her writing and her running routines developed, she would notice how 'the mind flees with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.' If she couldn't run in the afternoon, her writing would remain 'snarled in endless revisions', while the locations she did run through would often find themselves worked into her novels.

For Joyce Carol Oates, it seems, a bracing run through the wilderness is a literary stretch and warm-up, a summoning of ideas ready for shaping, almost a spiritual exercise in which the runner 'seems to experience in feet, lungs and quickened heartbeat an extension of the imagining self', as she put it.

My own insights into the human condition whilst out running are usually rather more prosaic, punctuated as they are with 'how many more hills to go?' pantings every ten minutes - had I been blessed by the literary Muses, maybe I could have drafted even these inchoate wheezes and whinges into some kind of sub-Beckettian drama. Fortunately, the world can thrill instead to the exquisite prose of Joyce Carol Oates, literary runner.

You can read 'Running' in Garth Battista's anthology, 'The Runner's Literary Companion'. It originally appeared in 1992 in the Ontario Review (Ecco Press).

While the story is set in the Adirondack mountains, near where Oates lives in New York state, the image of the runner here is actually in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state.

By The Running Muse, Jul 31 2015 01:48PM

When running in the rain, I often find myself contemplating the fact that a water molecule falling on to my head may have been flowing down a waterfall in the Andes or evaporating off a Patagonian glacier not long before, and centuries before that may have been in Julius Caesar's bladder or on the sweaty brow of Pheidippides as he ran from Marathon to Athens (both of which are less unlikely than you might think, given the number, size and recycling patterns of such particles).

We runners mostly report how much we enjoy the cooling, stimulating effect of light rain. We even pour water over our heads at water stations, so one thing we are not worried about is sheltering from the rain.

On the other hand, there are some runners, but not all, who claim to have a life outside running, a life in which they may be dressed up on their way to a party or to work, only to get caught sans parapluie in a downpour. The obvious way to reach shelter quickly would be to run, not walk, but would it also be the driest way?

Take these two girls walking in the rain in their stiletto heels, for instance. They will take longer to reach shelter than the girl who has taken hers off in order to be able to run more efficiently - but would the walkers actually be any wetter as a result of lingering longer in the rain?

Most people's behaviour reflects the intuition that running towards shelter is the better strategy for keeping dry. It's just common sense, isn't it? If you are out there for longer, the rain is pouring down on you for longer, so you will get wetter......won't you?

It ain't necessarily so. Leaving aside for the moment the question of what wetness actually means, it turns out that the physics of speeding through rain is rather more complicated that it might at first seem. Our intuitive conviction that we would stay drier if we run has been analysed by scientists using both mathematical principles and rain machine experiments.

So what conclusion do they all come to? Surprisingly, they don't all agree. In part, this reflects their varying assumptions about the initial conditions, but their answer is mostly 'it depends'.....but on what?

Well, as we shall see, speed is indeed a factor for all of them, but for some it also depends on your body shape, on the speed and direction of the wind relative to your direction of movement, and on rain droplet size. And in some circumstances, running too fast can make you wetter, they say.

Oh, and it matters whether you are bald or not. And whether you have an umbrella.

The real world dynamics and non-linear variables are so complex here that, for simplicity's sake and for easier illustration of the fundamental problem, physicists mostly assume that the rain and wind remain constant during any particular trip from a rainy A to shelter at B, but a first step in any analysis requires a clear statement of the phenomenon being investigated, so let's strip it down to the essentials.

Let's assume that we have a regular cuboid body (i.e., a stretched cube shape, like a 3D oblong) moving through falling droplets of water as it moves from A to B. For now, we will directly link the quality known as 'wetness' with the number of droplets that make impact on that body's surface. The goal is to find out how changing the body's speed between A and B affects the number of droplet impacts, and hence the wetness.

The simplest situation is vertical rain falling on a stationary body. The number of drops falling on to that body will then obviously depend on how long it falls for (although there will be more on a wider person, of course).

Once the body starts moving, there is still the same amount of rain falling vertically on to it as when it was still, but it is now moving into a 'box' and bumping into additional droplets in front of it, so it will get even wetter once it starts moving through the vertical rain (see below).

But what happens if you speed the body up? This would not affect the amount of constant vertical rain falling per second on top of it, but, since it would reach shelter at B quicker, there will be fewer seconds under the rain, and hence fewer vertical droplet impacts, and hence less wetness. The vertical contribution to the wetness of the body is thus reduced by increased speed, which has reduced the time spent under the deluge. This is in accord with our common sense notion - run to keep dry.

However, a faster forwards movement will surely bump into more droplets per second in the 'box' in front of it (albeit for a shorter number of seconds) until it reaches shelter at B, so what does this mean for the frontal, horizontal contribution to wetness?

Assuming that the rain droplets are evenly distributed and falling vertically at a constant rate, at each instant of time there will be the same number of droplets in the 'box' you are running through from A to B - rain enters and leaves the 'box' at the same rate. As the video clip below explains, it then becomes analogous to a snowplough going through a given amount of snow - however fast the plough goes, it will always impact on the same amount of snow at each instant of time.

The size of the box is fixed, and the number of droplets impacting on you is both fixed and equal at each stage of your progress, so adding up those impacts from each moment will must give you the same number whether you go fast or slowly. The impacts per second and the total number of seconds will be different at different speeds, but the total number of impacts will not be.

Put simpler, if you run fast, you will go through more droplets per second, but for fewer seconds, whereas if you walk slowly, you will hit fewer droplets per second, but for longer. So, your speed makes no difference to the horizontal contribution to wetness.

Overall then, from these two contributions, it would seem that it's worth running in vertical rain, i.e., when there's no wind.

This is brilliantly but rather breathlessly explained in this short clip from MinutePhysics:

However, any analysis of a real world situation must depend on the accuracy of the model that you are using to represent that situation - you play around with the model according to certain rules, and then map any discoveries back on to the real world, where conclusions can be drawn.

In this case, there is a need for practical purposes to simplify the model, the variables and the assumptions about initial conditions, and we know from chaos theory how sensitive the outcomes can be to initial conditions (the 'butterfly effect'), how tiny changes or errors can be amplified.

For instance, a bigger size of raindrop means a faster rate of descent, assuming they all have similar densities, and this will affect the impact rate, but scientists must assume an average size, again for practical reasons.

Similarly, the cuboid shape does not accurately reflect the irregular shape of the human body - actually, most analysts use a parallelipiped, which leans more like a runner - and the speed and direction of a gusting wind are anything but constant, so we have so far really only been looking bluntly here at a kind of average interaction between precipitation and moving humans.

For those of a mathematical bent, here is an illustration of the difference between the complicated, more accurate situation and the simplified, more practical version. The first equation describes the rate at which you get wet, but it includes surface area, which is almost impossibly difficult to calculate in practice in an irregular shape. (W is wetness, V is velocity, dt is unit time, dA is unit surface area, P refers to the person, R to the rain, and ρ is rain density, i.e., the amount of water per unit volume).

And here's the equation after simplifying the situation, where W is total wetness over distance D to the shelter, a is the top surface area and A is now the front surface area:

Despite the approximate values we use for those real world factors which vary from moment to moment and refuse to remain as constant or regular as we'd like them to be, the calculus in the top equation is a powerful mathematical tool in the analysis of what is happening in each instant of time. It can then get the overall picture by integrating its results over the total time taken (see more in 'This is "motion towards", isn't it, boy?').

Other equations confirm that the frontal impact of vertical rain is independent of one's speed through it, while the vertical component of the rain falling on top of you depends on it. So, overall, the theory would appear to show that it's prudent to run if you want to keep dry.

But here's the rub: we are generally clothed when out in the rain, and so fabric absorbency and its retention of water comes into play. After all, if our clothes are sodden, we say we are wet through.

Intriguingly, an experiment carried out by the US TV show 'Mythbusters' (see below) claims that the science is wrong: your clothes, and by extension you, will be drier overall if you WALK in the rain, although it has also been criticised for not taking into account many other pertinent factors (including the way runners' thighs are more horizontal than those of walkers.....and the amount of hair on the head, which can act as a sponge retaining water until it becomes so saturated that its load is released to flow down on to the rest of you).

Back with the theoreticians, their calculations show that if there is a reasonable tailwind, it is better to run at the same speed as the wind, and no faster. You will then outrun the droplets behind you and yet be slow enough not to collide with many droplets falling away from you in front. (In the top equation, the bracket would be zero, so the increase in wetness due to the tailwind would also be zero, although the vertical rain will still soak you, of course.)

A headwind, however, requires that you run as fast as you can. Using the snowplough analogy above, it is as if the snow is moving towards you, with more coming into the 'box' from the far end than can leave (as the exit is blocked by the snowplough) - you would have to move more snow over the same distance, and more snow per second, but the faster you do it, the less snow you will have to move.

Similarly, back in the rain, the droplets per second coming into the 'box' from the far end are not the same as those leaving it, as the exit for the rain in the 'box' is blocked by you, so you will encounter more of them per second, and so the fewer seconds you take to cover the distance, the fewer total number of impacts you'll have, and the less wet you'll become.

As for wetness, scientists at Loughborough University have found that, although we do not have specific skin receptors for wetness, the way we sense temperature, pressure and texture relates a particular combination of them to our previous experience of water, sweat, etc..

It is thus more of a perception than a true sensation, and hairier people are more, not less, sensitive in perceiving wetness precisely because it is not sensed through the skin, and also because hairs can transmit information, especially pressure.

Runners, of course, have fewer items of clothing to get wet (and often less hair). The clothing is designed to be light even when wet, and it promotes easier evaporation. In any case, you can only get so wet.

So, to conclude: if the rain is more or less falling straight down or is borne in a headwind, running and not walking towards shelter will keep you drier. If the wind is blowing the rain at you from behind, try and run or walk at that same speed (and good luck with assessing what that is!).

As for rain and the runner, well, we embrace the elements. After all, rain is the most dramatic aspect of the continuous exchange of water between the earth's atmosphere, its ground and its plants. The next time it refreshes my run, it may even contain some of the very particles that I had sweated out years before during my first hot and hilly marathon. Or they may have been in my blood or in my brain. Or even in my carbo gel.

I welcome them back.

B/w photograph of the UK's Cumbrian Lake District by John Gravett/Cavendish Press

By The Running Muse, Jul 3 2015 07:52PM

There is a legendary athletics BBC commentary on an Olympic 800 metres race featuring eventual gold medallist Alberto Juantorena: '......and the big Cuban opens his legs and shows his class'.

I'm afraid to say that this inadvertent double entendre was the first thing that flashed through my ignoble mind when I saw this 1928 charcoal and paper collage by the one of the great 20th century artists, perhaps the greatest, Pablo Picasso.

Because that's not a sock.

This image of an alarmingy priapic runner is one of a great many in Picasso's work that draw on the ancient Greek story of the minotaur, the half man, half bull creature waiting in his labyrinth to devour human sacrifices. Being Spanish, Picasso might have been expected to have references to bulls and bullfighting in his work, but what did the minotaur represent for him?

Picasso himself gives us a clue: 'If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined with a line, it might represent a minotaur', he said. As a free-thinking artist, he felt trapped in his own private labyrinth by the social mores of his time, and he expressed his irrational urgings through the hybrid beast's inbuilt alter ego.

Now a minotaur is an example of a chimera, a mythical creature with the body parts and behavioural characteristics of different animals (familiar examples range from Pegasus and the Sphinx to the nameless figures of pathos in the films 'Alien: Resurrection' and 'Beauty and the Beast'). In the late medieval art of Hieronymous Bosch, chimeras were mostly visual puns that referred to biblical verses or metaphors, often representing the satanic deceptions that can lead us to Hell.

Picasso, however, seems to have created a personal aesthetic in which he acknowledges his more lascivious or monstrous impulses as manifestations of his subconscious, which for many artists and intellectuals had been validated as a source of authentic outbursts from the psyche by the recent theories of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Picasso's minotaurs were an expression of these uncompromising, bestial, chthonic rumblings.

Freud had suggested that the mind was a zone of conflict in which the morality of the 'super-ego' attempts to suppress or manage the basic instincts and desires of the 'id', and that this struggle is mediated by the Self, the 'ego' (and ego is something which Picasso appears to have had in abundance). A lack of appropriate management skills on the part of the Self can lead to psychoemotional disturbances.

Picasso's Surrealist artist friends in particular placed great emphasis on these unconscious eruptions, however forbidden, sexual or violent they were, however full of rage and subsequent guilt.

His own identification with the minotaur was a fantasy in which he seemed to 'devour' women who submitted to him as human sacrifices on the altar of his art (he was prolifically unfaithful to his wives and lovers). The narrative resonance he found in the minotaur's confinement in a labyrinth, especially once he had become famous, led him to view his art as a kind of Ariadne's thread* that could navigate him out of his existential predicament.

The blue design of the running minotaur's genitalia is a witty riposte to this confinement. Besides being an overt flaunting of his libidinous nature, it is a pun on the original 'cordon bleu' (see below), the blue sash ribbon of Saint-Esprit which was the French ancien regime's highest order of chivalry, a symbol of stifling social stagnation (Picasso lived in France for most of his life). Picasso's use of it in this bawdy context is a kind of sophisticated 'Up yours!' graffito, delivered with relish and panache.

But why running? Is this minotaur, half bull and half Picasso, defined only by his head, legs and cordon bleu dick, finally escaping? Is he on a sexual rampage? Or is he desperately fleeing his bestial 'bull-mind', as one critic called it, thus mitigating the chaos it had caused in his life? All three is my guess, given that his style often incorporated multiple viewpoints within a single work.

The rather comical swinging penis of the male runner has of course been represented in art before, particularly on early Greek vases. Long before Lycra shorts restrained unruly members, male athletes ran naked around both the stadium and the vases depicting their feats, where certain dimensions were exaggerated, while others were rather downplayed, to put it coyly.

Picasso's version exhibits a running style of a very inefficient kind, by the look of it, and we are unlikely to see naked 10k's any time soon, but if we ever do, I predict a chorus of 'Swing Low' in the post-race showers.

My own running life exhibits some chimeric qualities - half mud-skipper, half elephant - and so I've been inspired by Pablo to work on a collage expressing my primitive proclivities. My inner beast is called a mudpach, and it has a very small trunk.

'Le Minotaure (The Minotaur)', 1928, Pablo Picasso, black chalk and pasted paper on canvas, 142 cm x 232 cm, The National Museum of Modern Art Pompidou Centre, Paris.

It was a collage made as a blueprint for a wool and silk tapestry that was eventually woven to the same dimensions in the Gobelin workshop in 1935. Now known as the Cuttoli Tapestry after its commissioner and owner, it is in currently at the Musée Picasso in Antibes.

The Gobelin workshop made tapestries for the French royal families for centuries and continues as a business and visitor attraction in Paris.

'Louis, Dauphin of France' by Hubert Drouais, c.1745, oil on canvas, 68cm x 57cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Louis was the son of Louis XV, but never became king.

'Drinking Minotaur and Reclining Woman' by Pablo Picasso, 1933 lithograph.

'Dora and the Minotaur' by Pablo Picasso, 1936, charcoal and black ink, 74cm x 40cm, Musée Picasso, Paris. Dora Maar was the painter's mistress and muse at the time.

* In the Greek myth, when Theseus goes to Crete and enters the labyrinth, he leaves a trail of thread given to him by King Minos' daughter, Ariadne, who had become enamoured of him. Having slain the minotaur, he retraces his steps to find his way out of the maze.

The ship in which he returned from this venture was preserved for centuries by the Athenians he ruled, each part being replaced as it rotted. Since the whole ship was eventually replaced, could it still be considered Theseus' ship? This is the 'Ship of Theseus Paradox' that is often invoked by philosophers discussing identity (perhaps not least because we ourselves are continually replacing most of the cells in our body).

The minotaur's stepbrother, by the way, was an athlete from Crete who had won all the prizes at the Panathenaic Games. It was his consequent murder by humiliated Athenians that led King Minos to demand that the cream of Athens' youth be fed to his stepson (the minotaur).

By The Running Muse, Jun 25 2015 08:55PM

'The camera's eye does not lie,

but it cannot tell the life within,

the life of a runner.'

These words form part of the commentary for a 1962 short film (which you can see below) by the National Film Board of Canada. 'Runner' is about a young track star, Bruce Kidd, and is unusually poetic for a documentary, you might think, until you spot that the script commissioned for the narration, which is mostly in verse, has actually been written by the celebrated English poet, W.H. Auden.

The film has a groovy jazz score not unlike the film soundtrack to 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', released in the same year, but the narration, which is not by Auden, seems rather stilted today. Some reviewers enjoyed its laconic feel, though, and the jazz mood is certainly enhanced by the runner in the cool trilby hat at club training!

Auden wrote in many different styles on an enormous range of subjects, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who, while still at school, could act the parts of both Katherine, the witty, feisty object of desire in 'The Taming of the Shrew', and Caliban, the subhuman son-of-a-witch in 'The Tempest', surely a unique combination of Shakespearean roles.

He would go on to write three plays with Christopher Isherwood (below right, with Auden), one of which contains the original version of his famous 'Stop all the clocks', which became more widely known after its inclusion in the 1994 film, 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'.

That Protean quality extended to his critical caprice. He claimed never to have experienced any kind of physical sensation or sentiment when reading poetry, yet he lambasted the poet and critic A.E. Housman for his scholarly reticence ('deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust, kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer....'), despite Housman stating in his only lecture that the sine qua non of poetry is emotional engagement.

It is thus ironic that, in a recent anthology* that asked 100 prominent male figures which poems made them cry, Auden was the most popular author, with five men nominating works by him. One of those men was actor Simon Callow, who nominated 'Lullaby', not 'Funeral Blues' (the true title of 'Stop all the clocks'), even though the latter had become what he calls 'my personal epitaph' because it was used in the eulogy at his character's funeral in the film that brought Auden's lines to a new worldwide audience.

We will be returning to Housman in a later post, but for now I'll just intrigue you by saying that the author of 'To an Athlete Dying Young' actually tried to commit running!

Auden's verse script for 'Runner' made its way into his Collected Poems. As Roger Robinson has noted, the last nine lines of the poem were to be recycled when Auden collaborated with famed cellist Pablo Casals in composing a United Nations hymn in 1971.

Auden spoke about how generous Casals had been towards his occasional suggestions that the composer had placed musical emphasis on the wrong syllable, perhaps because of the metrical demands of the poem's rhythm, but maybe simply because English was not Casal's first language.

In grafting the final verse from 'Runner' on to this anthem, Auden turns the vitality and aspirational qualities of a runner into a United Nations' vision of global harmony by addressing the fulfilling of potential (what James Joyce liked to call 'entelechy'):

'......making the flowing of Time a growing,

till what it could be

at last it is,

where Fate is Freedom, Grace and Surprise.'

Auden worked with many other modern classical composers, including Benjamin Britten (below right, with Auden), Hans Werner Henze and Igor Stravinsky, for whom he wrote the opera libretto for The Rake's Progress. He also wrote lyrics for cabaret songs in Berlin and made propaganda broadcasts for the Republicans in Spain during the civil war there.

His documentary work with the General Post Office film unit included a poem for its famous 1936 'Night Mail' short, now considered a classic of its genre. Written to Britten's music and spoken to the rhythmic knocking of the train's wheels passing over the rail joints at varying speeds, the lines of verse were composed by Auden using a stopwatch in order to synchronise with the film.

In fact, Auden's output seems to be full of timepieces and references to time passing, in 'As I Walked Out One Evening', for instance, where

'...all the clocks in the city began to whirr and chime:

"O let not Time deceive you, you cannot conquer Time."

I am reminded here of the Chariots of Fire scene in which the runners attempt to complete a run around a courtyard while the clock is still striking twelve. By the end of this poem too, the chiming has ceased, but 'the deep river ran on' through the city.

In one sense, the camera does indeed conquer time, but it is not only the camera that 'does not lie' in 'Runner': 'The cold stopwatch tells the truth', says the narrator, who goes on to portray running 'round an endless track' as an example of creaturely movement which

'delights the eye by its symmetry

as it changes places,

blessing the unchangeable absolute rest

of the space all share.'

The poem's opening lines about the camera not being able to capture the inner life of a runner led me to hope that this would now be illuminated instead by a few piercing poetic insights, but they are nowhere to be found in the subsequent verse (at least not here - fortunately there are plenty of writers and poets, often runners themselves, who have understoood and articulated it better, many of whom will be featuring here soon.)

Bruce Kidd, by the way, had a running gait that was anything but symmetrical, although the eccentric arm-swing you can see in this film somehow propelled him to a gold medal in the Six Miles event at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.

He is still enjoying a glittering academic career and is the author of many books about the politics of sport, which somewhat belies the lines in the poem about excellence: 'to one is assigned a ready wit, to another swiftness of eye or foot.' While most of us have neither, Kidd plainly had both.

One of Auden's lines in this film has given me special comfort: 'Fate forbids mortals to be at their best always'. So now I can scrub all my usual post-race excuses and just point to my three Greek friends, the Fates (me being a Muse n' all) - the spinner, the measurer and the cutter of the thread of life, of the course of events and of our allotted Time**.

It is they who stop my stopwatch, the race clock, even my body clock......indeed, they stop all the clocks, and the camera. It's all their fault, and neither my race photographs nor my chip time can be blamed on me.

Unless they're good.

* Poems that make Grown Men Cry' (2014), ed. Anthony and Ben Holden, Simon and Schuster

** The three Fates of Greek mythology were Clotho, the spinner of the thread (hence the word 'cloth'), Lachesis the measurer, and Atropos the cutter. It is ironic that the modern drug atropine is often used in cardiac resuscitation to extend life - the drug derives from atropa belladonna, the poisonous deadly nightshade plant, and the Greek 'atropos' means 'not to be turned away', i.e., this is where things stop. As atropine courses through a patient in cardiac arrest, it is a pharmacological reminder to the heart to pick up the pace and remember the old Nike running mantra: 'There is no finish line'.

The Middle English word for fate, by the way, was 'wyrd', hence 'weird', after the three supernatural fates of German mythology, the 'weird sisters' who controlled destiny (as in Shakespeare's drama, 'Macbeth', for instance).

By The Running Muse, Jun 8 2015 10:13PM

I once had a Christmas cracker joke that asked 'Who was the fastest runner ever?' There were gratifying groans as I read out the answer: 'Adam, because he was first in the human race.' I briefly tried to imagine this navel-less man running alone through the Garden of Eden, but also it set me wondering whether there were any references at all to running in the Bible.

I could only remember that in Gethsemane the apostles did run when perhaps they shouldn't have done, and that little Isaac, when God said to Abraham 'Kill me a son'*, didn't run when perhaps he should have done.

Surprisingly, an online biblical concordance search finds exactly 100 allusions to running in its particular canon, although much of this running is done by tears, blood and sores, collectively known as running 'issues', as well as by rivers, chariots, cups running over and wine running out.

So did those feet in ancient times run upon any mountains green? Well, it looks as though Jesus was too cool to run, although one can imagine him running from stall to stall as he upended the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (below, in Giordano's painting). His fans, however, were forever running up to him, and even Mary Magdalene 'ran with fear and great joy' to tell his disciples about his empty tomb.

But it is St. Paul who seems to enjoy the running and racing metaphors the most. In one of his letters, for instance, he likens the road to salvation to a race to the finishing line, a kind of spiritual Tough Mudder where the obstacles are sins rather than quagmires. It is worth quoting 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 in full:

'You know well enough that when men run in a race, the race is for all, but the prize for one. Run then for victory. Every athlete must keep all his appetites under control, and he does it to win a crown that fades, whereas ours is imperishable. So I do not run the course like a man in doubt of his goal.......I buffet my own body and make it my slave.'

Paul, whose home town of Tarsus had an athletics stadium, would have been aware of the famous Isthmian Games, which were still being held at Corinth at that time, so he may have tailored his metaphors for his audience.

Motivational sports posters, especially in the US, tend only to quote the first two sentences here, which is rather missing Paul's point, not to mention it undermining the spirit of running as a source of inner strength and self-discipline irrespective of the achievements of others.

If religion helps to maintain a meaningful world for its adherents by providing some kind of validation and understanding of 'experiences that are highly resistant to attempts to render them meaningful'** - pain, suffering and death, for example - then I would doubt that crossing the finish line before someone else did would contribute significantly to that.

Other Pauline coaching tips include 'Let us run with patience the race that is set before us', as he told the Hebrews, while, in urging his Galatian converts to abandon the practice of circumcision, he wrote 'you have run well, but who has hindered you in obeying the truth?' If that didn't persuade the young boys of Galatia to join the local Christian running club as fast as possible, at least until their church had fallen into line with Paul's 'save the foreskin' campaign, then nothing would.

The Old Testament prophet Daniel, the man who interpreted the original 'writing on the wall' at King Balthasar's feast and who survived the original 'lions' den', quoted God as predicting that the apocalypse would be preceded by a time in which 'many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased' (see Running Quotes for more on this). Given the rise in the number of runners and running publications over the last 50 years, does this mean the end is nigh? Or do you think our Dan simply misheard?

Here is Rembrandt's painting of the holy blog that Daniel was called to interpret. I'm assured by biblical scholars that it has nothing to do with running whatsoever. I just wanted to show English football fans that they can move on now, as it can be clearly seen here that the hand of God bears no resemblance to that of Diego Maradona.

Any biblical racing is mostly confined to deathly pursuits, but a story in 2 Samuel 18 has two of King David's messengers racing each other across the plains to be the first to deliver news of his rebellious son's death to him (one being a more sensitive bearer of bad tidings than the other, apparently).

One delightful snippet included here is the detail that, as the runners approached, a guard on the city wall could recognise each of them at a distance by their running styles. Even non-Christians runners would attest to the truth of at least these biblical words.

Many of you, of course, will actually have been reading the Bible while running a marathon, unless you were winning. A favourite biblical quote for runners' T-shirts is Isaiah 40:31: 'They will run, and not grow weary', but, again, the evidence for the prophet's assertion is scant, which must be a challenge for biblical literalists.

But my favourite metaphorical flourish is from David's Psalm 19, a song which equates the joy of running a race to the ecstasy of a bridegroom emerging from his bedchamber. Whether the bride also experienced such ecstasy is unknown, and unexplored.

Now, I love running as much as the next person, but any credible comparison between a wedding night with your true love and hitting the wall in a marathon would surely need a double-blind study, which I would be happy to volunteer for, but which I have noticed are in short supply within biblical discourse. Mind you, doing those two things consecutively would make for a very challenging biathlon and a very entertaining post-race 'how was it for you?' chat. Difficult to train four times a week for it, though.

We have already explored the running opportunities available in Hell in a previous post, but heaven wouldn't be heaven without at least a 5k Run for Life. God has specifically said that there is 'a time to every person under heaven', and I try to make mine a PB, but if there isn't a race organised within the pearly gates, and I can find no evidence that there is, I shall embrace my inner sinnerman and thus disqualify myself from entry through its hallowed portals as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, I am guided by the old African proverb that encourages action in response to any spiritual or contemplative wanderings: 'When you pray, move your feet'.

'Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple' by Luca Giordano, c.1675, oil on canvas, 198 cm x 261 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

'Belshazzar's Feast' by Rembrandt van Rijn, c.1637, 168 cm x 209 cm, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

'Sinnerman' is the title of a traditional African-American spiritual song about the folly of attempting to hide and evade the wrath of God. A sinner can try to run to the river, run to the rock, run to the sea or even run to the Lord, but it's too late - a sinnerman can only run to the devil. It was made famous by the mesmerising version of Nina Simone.

* St. Bob's version in Highway 61 Revisited, which also happens to end with God's exhortation to either obey him or run: 'God said to Abraham kill me a son, Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on', God said no, Abe said 'What?', God say 'You can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me comin', you better run....'.

Dylan's father name was Abraham, and H61 used to run from his home town all the way down the United States to the home of the blues, Memphis.

It seems Satan also found his way to Highway 61, as along its route is the famous crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his blues skills, thus spawning his song, 'Crossroads Blues', not to mention Cream's 'Crossroads'.

** from 'The Sacred Canopy' (1990) by Peter Berger, Anchor Books

Previous posts:

Any other runners out there who think there is much more to running than physical exertion?


Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.


Comedians have laughed at it, scientists have analysed it, and historians have chronicled its cultural resonance. The Running Muse will be nourishing your runner's soul with stories from all of them.


Even the sweatiest of ancient Greek gyms were also places of intellectual endeavour, so welcome to a new blog for the thinking runner, a miscellany of musings on running in culture that will be navigating the existential wonders of putting one foot in front of the other.


Painting and sculpture 

 Picasso's 'Running on the Beach (The Race)'

 'Once, the fastest runner was a woman....'

 'It's like a jungle sometimes....'


 Run Lola Run

 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Philosophy and Language

 'This is "motion towards", isn't it, boy?....'

 Running in Language (Part 1)

 Running in Language (Part 2)

 The Philosophers' 10k


 Dictating the Pace

 Fast Times on the Ocean of Storms

 Five Unlikely Runners

 Runner, I married him

Music and Theatre

 It Ain't Over 'Til the Fit Lady Sings

 World Premiere of Laura Sheeran's 'Run'

 'Rift' by Natalie McGrath

 Jokers in the Pack


 Waugh Games

 Running through Hell

 Running Food


Current posts (this page):

 Joyce Carol Oates' short story, 'Running'

 It's raining - do you run or walk?

 Picasso's running minotaur

 W.H. Auden's 'Runner'

 O sinnerman, where you gonna run to?


Running quotes (13)

Recommended books (13)

'First day of Hurricane Sandy. Five miles easy .......I can't hold on to my thoughts in this wind.'

        - Thomas Gardner, Poverty Creek Journal

Running Quote of the Month

See more on this and previous quotes (13)