The Running Muse

       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

flame toes 2.3

Five unlikely runners

By The Running Muse, Apr 17 2015 07:23AM

Runners these days come in all shapes and sizes, living a range of lifestyles and roles, but I think most people were still surprised to see tubby transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard running all those consecutive marathons, or to read that bad boy uber-rapper Eminem (below) enjoyed running over 16 miles a day (2 x '8 Mile', I like to think).

I myself confess to a childish thrill on learning that avant-garde novelist James Joyce won hurdling trophies, that his fellow Irishman, Abraham ('Bram') Stoker, author of 'Dracula', was an Athlete of the Year in Dublin, or that an overweight man with mental health issues won every Olympic event one year at the ancient games (until I discovered that he was also the most powerful man in the world at the time, the notoriously capricious Roman emperor, Nero).

But there are some recent historical and artistic figures I just couldn't visualise running at all, even when told that they did. As mentioned a few posts ago, Adolf Hitler is one of those, even though it was his job at one time (as a despatch runner). Below are five others, three of whom had reputations as hard drinkers, while the other two have been referred to as either terrorist leaders or freedom fighters, depending of course on who you ask and your own point of view.

All are men, for some reason. Discuss.


In 1985 Israeli F-15's bombed the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Tunis, killing 73 people, but their target, the portly PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, escaped death because he'd left the compound to go out jogging that morning.

He lived to see one of his personal security guards, Majid abu Maraheel, who himself had been shot in the arm by Israeli border guards in 1991 while out on a training run, compete in the 10,000 metres at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta as part of the first Palestinian team to compete in the Olympics. He came last in his heat in 34 mins 40.5 seconds, but received a rapturous standing ovation for the 74 seconds he was alone out on the track on his final lap.

In this 2004 photograph, Arafat is lighting a flame outside his Ramallah office as a symbol of his commitment to a ceasefire truce during the Athens Olympics of that year, echoing the ancient Greeks' cessation of hostilities to enable athletes to travel and participate in the games, which in those days were just one part of a large religious festival.


When the 39-year-old Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, a legendary drinker and smoker, died in New York in 1953, he had a newspaper cutting in his wallet which included this photograph of his triumph, aged 13, in the 1928 Swansea Schools one-mile race.

The publication of his first collection of poems was itself the result of a newspaper contest. His '18 Poems' included the arrestingly titled 'When, Like a Running Grave', a tortuous musing on the way 'time tracks you a cinder death'. (The word 'cinder' here, besides conjuring up an image of funerary ashes, also recalls the cinder running tracks of his time).

His centenary in 2014 saw the creation in Swansea of the Dylan Thomas Mile in his honour. They of course should have called it the Llareggub Mile after the name of the fictional Welsh village where his most famous work, Under Milk Wood, is set. (Llareggub is a name best understood backwards.)


Mao Tse-tung, the revolutionary communist founder of the People's Republic of China, was a great advocate of running, and he particularly recommended his own regimen of exercising in the nude twice a day, according to his appropriately named biographers, Pantsov and Levine (mercifully, no photograph exists of this, so the fully clothed action pic below will have to do).

'Long distance running is particularly good training for perseverance', he wrote in his 1917 'A Study of Physical Education', a statement of the obvious, perhaps, but one he thought needed saying. One presumes that he practised what he preached, but when he later became a communist, he little knew how that maxim was to be tested to the limit.

'A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step' is another quote often attributed to him, but this is actually from the Tao Te Ching, a classical Chinese wisdom text, and Mao actually said 'a thousand li' (as written in the Tao), not miles - one 'li' was a traditional Chinese distance now set as 500 metres, but as late as the 1940's, it had apparently varied depending on the effort required, so that a trip up a mountain was fewer li than the journey down!

His exhortations to persevere would come to the fore as he led the 1934 Long March, an 8,000-mile survival trek by 100,000 communists over treacherous rivers and mountainous terrain, all the while under constant attack by Chiang Kai Shek's nationalist forces (only 30,000 survived it).

His band's survival condemned millions more to die during Mao's own subsequent 'reign of terror', in which he would use the language of running to denounce whole classes of people as political enemies, calling them imperialist or capitalist running dogs, for instance, and regaling even moderates with that Confucius saying about the man who runs in the middle of the road getting run over by chariots going both ways ('stay safe - be an extremist' seems to be Mao's unorthodox take on the ancient philosopher's wisdom).

4. Norman Mailer

In 'The Fight', Norman Mailer's riveting account of Muhammed Ali's legendary 1975 'Rumble in the Jungle' world heavyweight boxing title fight with George Foreman in Zaire, the hard-drinking writer relates how, at 51, he went out on a 3 a.m. 5k training run with Ali a few days before the bout.

'That running takes more out of me than anything I ever felt in the ring', Ali himself had said, and, sure enough, after a couple of miles, Mailer couldn't keep up and found himself alone in a forest. Emerging on to a deserted road in pitch dark, he suddenly heard a nearby lion that roared 'like thunder, and it opened an unfolding wave of wrath across the sky and through the fields'.

He couldn't see a thing except for the lights of Ali's compound in the distance. Expecting the lion to leap on him at any moment, his life flashed before him, and he was already imagining both the headlines and his obituary. Pumped full of adrenaline, however, he chose flight over fight, picked up the pace and eventually arrived back safely, at which point it was Ali's turn to roar when he heard Norm's story, pointing out to him that he had just run past the local zoo.


'I train every night on stage', said Joe Strummer, lead singer of punk rock legends, the Clash, after completing one of his three city marathons in the 1980's. He had been his school cross-country champion, and it seems he relied solely on that base fitness and all that relentless thrashing around at gigs to get around the 26.2 miles.

He certainly wasn't a fan of putting in the training miles, judging by the account he gave to an American interviewer of his build-up to race day: 'Drink 10 pints the night before the race and don't run a single step at least four weeks before the race. It works for me.' A variety of cigarettes and distinctly non-performance-enhancing drugs also featured.

He entered his first London marathon on a whim at the last minute, running resplendent in a Clash 'Take the 5th' US tour T-shirt with its skull-and-crossbones motif depicting Uncle Sam. His girfriend, Gaby Salter, failed to complete the race, but both finished the Paris Marathon the next year.

He heard London calling again for his final run in 1983, when he was part of a Sun newspaper team running in aid of Leukaemia Research. Whether his time would have been faster or slower than his 4hrs 13mins by sticking to the Runner's World 16-week marathon training plan, only the running muses, well, some of the other ones would know.

Add a comment
* Required

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)