The Running Muse

       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

flame toes 2.3

By The Running Muse, May 23 2015 04:11PM

There are many instances of comedians becoming runners, but rather fewer of runners becoming comedians. In the UK, for instance, Eddie Izzard and John Bishop have run many a marathon, but we're unlikely to see the likes of Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah doing stand-up.

But do you recognise this young American athlete in his school track team photo, a man who would go on to become one of the greatest stand-up comedians, a global star celebrated for the breathless pace, energy and originality of his onstage work? By the time of this 1969 pic, he had already run both the half mile and the 800 metres in less than 2 minutes, and his 4 x 400 metres relay team held the record there for decades. When he died last year, Runner's World paid tribute to his little-known running exploits.

Yep, it's Robin Williams, of course, pictured here at Redwood High School in California, where his class voted him 'the least likely to succeed'. He subsequently moved to New York to attend the Juilliard and joined the West Side YMCA running team, aged 23. In his first race he came 20th out of 250 in the hilly Central Park 10k in a time of 34.21 mins, and he was a regular participant in the club's weekly 16-mile training runs.

Once he achieved fame, he had little time for running, only returning to it after a couple of decades of cocaine addiction in which he had become the proverbial sad clown hiding depression behind the painted smile. He credited exercise, particularly cycling and cross-country running, with saving his life at that time, and he was a pioneer in the support of athletes with disabilities.

Here he is at 50 finishing a tough cross-country 4-miler at the Lonach Highland Games in Scotland:

In his stand-up act, he would occasionally make references to running - joking, for instance, about barefooted runner Abebe Bikile having to carry his sponsored shoes while storming to victory in the 1964 Olympic marathon. The clip below sees him comparing the 'runner's high' to the effects of cocaine:

In contrast to those quick-fire bullets of humour, English running comedy has mostly been far more sedate and visual. Here is Simon Pegg, for instance, star of the 2007 film, 'Run, Fatboy, Run', learning how to use starting blocks on the BBC's comedy sketch show, Big Train:

The recent British film The Imitation Game has another example of the understated running joke. It shows Alan Turing, himself an Olympic standard marathon runner, painfully trying to tell this one to his codebreaking team because he has been persuaded that their efforts would make better progress if he were to become friendlier, working with them rather than apart from them:

'Two hunters come across an enormous bear rampaging towards them, at the sight of which one of them hurriedly puts on a pair of running shoes.

"What on earth are you doing?", says the other, "We'll never outrun that bear!"

"I know", replied the first, "but all I have to do is outrun you....." '

The scriptwriter presumably chose this joke to reflect not only Turing's preoccupation with solo running and his unregenerative lack of team spirit, but also his logical mind, not to mention the more serious race he had entered, the race to crack each day's new code and build a faster-running machine to keep ahead of the 'bear', i.e., the Germans' Enigma variations.

Staying with the UK's gentle comedy gold, here's Monty Python's updating of the Olympic event schedule, including a couple of visits to the 'marathon for incontinents' and the '100 metre dash for people with no sense of direction':

There has actually been a long tradition of running jokes dating back at least to Nicarchus' 1st century epigram about a particularly bad runner who came seventh out of six. The oldest existing joke book, the 4th century Philogelos ('laughter lover') from Greece, also has fun at the expense of athletes.

One rather Pythonesque scenario in it has two astonished Abderites looking up at a famed athlete who has been crucified by the roadside, upon which one exclaims to the other 'By the gods, he may not be running much now, but, wow, can he fly!' (Abderites, the inhabitants of Abdera in Thrace, were supposedly gullible and uneducated, an ancient instance of the portrayal of a particular section of the population as archetypal fools).

This kind of non-PC humour has virtually disappeared from public comedy performance in the West, but it is still alive and kicking around the internet, where the ascription of stupidity to stereotypes continues to generate laughter of the nervous, naughty-but-funny type.

For instance, a quick online trawl finds telling of the skinny blonde running backwards to gain weight, but it loses something as a joke in an era when skinny blondes win Olympic medals and run academic institutions, and the rest of the joke would still have been funny enough on its own. Maybe, like the Wise Men of Gotham*, history's supposed fools have indeed persisted in their 'folly' long enough to be deemed wise, as William Blake almost said.

Anyway, today's Apollo (the London comedy venue, not the god) would not exactly be rolling in the aisles at those old Abderite gags in the Philogelos collection, the jokes4us of its day, although many have been proposed as the origins of modern jokes, including Monty Python's 'dead parrot' sketch.

Other butts of ancient humour in it include Marcus, a hoplite runner (i.e., running in full armour, which was an event in the Games at Olympia) who lost a 200 yards 200 yards! The stadium was closed before he had finished, as he was so slow that he was thought to be one of the statues, and when it was re-opened the next year, he was only just finishing.

Another 'funny' one simply describes a certain Eutychides as 'a slow racer, except when going to supper', while this more satirical one fires a salvo at corrupt soothsayers:

'Menecles was an athlete who went to see the prophet Olympus, wanting to know whether he was going to win at the Games. After inspecting his fee (a sacrifice), the seer remarked: "You will win - unless anyone overtakes you, sir." '

Most of today's running jokes rely on wordplay: the runner who ran for three hours but only moved two feet, the forgetful runner who jogs his memory, the podiatrist whose sign reads 'Time wounds all heels'.

Mmm.....I'm not sure there's been much improvement in 2000 years of written running comedy, but there's always the visual kind. Running somehow seems funny when speeded up, as in the old silent films (or even in Benny Hill).

So I'll finish by showing you some visual running gags from deadpan jester Buster Keaton, seen here in 'College' (1927). A comedian once said that comedy at its best could produce great art, citing Keaton's work as an example.....that comedian was Robin Williams, who was one of us, a runner.

'What made the Greeks Laugh?' by Mary Beard, Times Literary Supplement, 18th February 2009

* The inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham all pretended to be imbeciles when King John's messengers arrived demanding that they built a road through the area for the king to travel along to his hunting lodge. They hoped that engaging in absurd activities, such as drowning eels and building roofless bird enclosures, would be enough to sabotage the plans. It worked, but at a cost to their reputation, and they became known as the 'fools of Gotham'.

Only when it was later realised how clever they'd been were they referred to as the 'Wise Men of Gotham'. Six hundred years later, Gotham stuck as a nickname for New York (up until it became the 'Big Apple') after Washington Irving invoked the Gotham story when describing the politics and culture of the 'ingenious idiots' of New York, and it subsequently gave its name to Gotham City, Batman's home city based on New York.

By The Running Muse, May 16 2015 11:27AM

' "I am sorry to have made you run so fast, my dear", he said, with a grateful sense of favours to come.'

The speaker here, Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd', had mistakenly assumed that Bathsheba's running after him across the fields, face flushed, implied an acceptance of his marriage proposal, and so he immediately starts a conversation about their married life together. Her running in this context was a signal to him that she was up for it.

We have already seen in previous posts a few stories from Greek myth and German folklore that link running prowess with matrimony, where the prize was marriage to the loser or to a princess, for instance. Other tales involving some kind of running trial have marriage as the consequence rather than the prize, such as the 1957 western, 'Run of the Arrow' (see 'running quotes'), while the most popular ports of call for Spartan husbands prospecting for a wife were the rare all-female races of Greek antiquity (and this in a city-state which practised 'husband-doubling').

The human race goes on, of course, and it is not only in the animal kingdom that running has played a role as a kind of mating display to impress potential partners. Indeed, nuptials were a prominent and explicit feature of our history's oldest organised competitive was divorce.

Let me first set the scene for the story of those games, which were first held 4,000 years ago, by recalling one of the more extraordinary feats of performing under pressure in a race - the story of Macha in Irish legend.

At a local tournament of games and races, Macha's husband, the brilliantly named Crunnchu, had boasted to the king, who had just won a chariot race, that his wife could run faster than the king's horses. To save him from being executed, she is forced to run against them whilst nine months pregnant. She not only wins, but also manages to give birth to twins at the finish line before the horses arrive in her wake!

The scene of the race was named Emain Macha, 'the twins of Macha' (today's city of Armagh), capital of the Ulaidh tribe who gave their name to Ulster, and home to the most celebrated of Irish mythological heroes, Cuchullain, himself no slouch as a runner: at the age of six, he could hit a hurling ball, throw his hurling stick and spear after it, then run and pick up the first two before catching the spear in mid-flight.

In Marie Heaney's version of the tale in 'Over Nine Waves', Macha's appeal for help from the crowd at the start of the race falls on deaf ears. As a result, she places a nine-year curse on them: in their hour of greatest need, they will become weak and defenceless from labour pains, the only men in 'history' to experience the pangs of childbirth.

When Ulster subsequently comes under attack from the army of Queen Maeve of Connacht, its soldiers' incapacity drives the heroic, single-handed deeds of Cuchullain, the only warrior immune to the curse, as he cuts a swathe through Ulster's enemies in epic adventures such as the 'Tain bo Cuailnge', the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Now, Cuchullain's father was Lugh, who gave his name to the Gaelic festival that celebrated the beginning of the harvest in the last fortnight of July, Lughnasa. It was at this festival that he held funeral games for his foster-mother, Queen Tailtiu, thus inaugurating the Tailteann Games in Ireland, which predate even the ancient Olympic Games by at least a millennium and were held in their original form until well after the Norman invasion.

As well as athletics contests, including hurling, there were competitions and prizes for mental and artistic ability in tests of strategy, storytelling, singing, weaving, poetry and the making of jewellery.

The games were also the occasion for 'handfastings', arranged marriages after which the couple had a year and a day to decide whether they wanted to divorce on 'the hills of separation'. To do so, each of them would simply march up one of the twin earthen mounds there and turn their backs on each other across the Vale of Marriage, at which point the marriage was 'broken', without social consequences. No legal bills, no paperwork, no nothing. Just straight back down to the races, maybe, in search of another mate.

In medieval times, the games/handfasting combination continued intermittently as a fair at the original site at Teltown, County Meath, itself named after Tailtiu. They were then resurrected without the matchmaking after Irish independence, as the government and the Gaelic Athletic Association sought to create a new Irish sporting identity, eschewing British 'garrison games' such as football, rugby and cricket.

This modern version, open to all of Irish ancestry, was first held at Croke Park, Dublin in 1924. The extensive range of events included chess and music, but by 1936, the politics of the island's partition had scuppered the games, and the name only survives today in the Irish Schools Tailteann Interprovincial athletics festival (see below for an unusual and successful dip for the line in the Boys 800m in 2012).

The poem 'Ode to the Tailteann Games' won a bronze medal for Ireland at the 1924 Olympics in Paris in the Mixed Literature 'event' of the arts competition (yes, there were modern Olympic Arts Competitions run by the International Olympic Committee until 1948, but that's another story, a fascinating one that will feature here soon).

The writer was Oliver St. John Gogarty, the senator, surgeon, poet and athlete on whom James Joyce based the character of Buck Mulligan in 'Ulysses'. He had just won a gold medal at the Tailteann Games themselves for his poetry collection, An Offering of Swans - W.B. Yeats was on the prize committee - and Gogarty had also competed in the archery there.

He is seen here in Orpen's 1911 portrait, now at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, but he is perhaps more widely known today for the famous music pub named after him in Temple Bar, Dublin.

As for matchmaking festivals, they continue elsewhere today, notably in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, during which they still have horse races, although the human athletics on display is limited to pub crawls.

Meanwhile, a certain amount of informal handfasting still goes on in running clubs and even at the modern Olympic Games, and it's a common sight these days to see proposals and weddings before, during and after city marathons. The current Citroën TV advert even has two strangers running in opposite directions and bumping into each other at a corner, with their future three children springing instantly from their collision.

Sadly, there are no modern equivalents of the 'hills of separation', unless you count leaving your partner sliding to the bottom of muddy inclines in an endurance race. Whether marriage itself is an endurance race, a hurdle race, a marathon or a sprint, I'm not sure the world is ready for Olympic Separation Trials or a Divorce 10k with a certificate in the goody bags.

The vicissitudes of marriage were handled so much more sensitively in those civilised race meets of 4,000 years ago, don't you think?

Over Nine Waves: a book of Irish legends (1994) by Marie Heaney, Faber and Faber

Top image is 'The Storm (La Tempête)' by Pierre Auguste Cot, 1880, oil on canvas, 234cm x 157cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

By The Running Muse, May 9 2015 06:57AM

Why do you run?

Many runners answer that question with functional reasons such as keeping fit, meeting people, losing weight, helping a charity or earning a living, while others cite the self-esteem they feel in achieving something difficult, or the thrill of competition, whether against others or against themselves.

Some, however, find it difficult to say exactly why running enhances their lives: they 'just enjoy it', often reporting that it is only while jogging that they have the time and mental space to reflect on anything at all, let alone life, the universe and the number 42k.

Conversely, competitive sprinters speak of emptying their mind as they meditate at the start of the 100 metres, confidently entrusting control of their body to the automatic responses and skills developed in training.

Some biologists and psychologists have attributed running's feelgood factor to our evolutionary heritage, which has shaped our anatomical, physiological and psychoemotional responses to the kind of life-threatening predicaments our early ancestors would have found themselves in. Efficient running would have been one of the survival tools that the body could summon up at a moment's notice, whether for fight, flight or food. 'First, be a good animal', as Spencer wrote of success in life.

This, they say, accounts for the 'runner's high': it's a mere hormonal urging, a chemical imperative that floods the primitive brain even today, millennia after such secretions were essential for everyday individual survival, including for hunting. The pleasurable feelings reward the behaviour and add motivation, just as they do with sex or food.

To non-runners especially, running today without an explicitly practical reason seems, on the face of it, to be a pointless, boring and unnecessarily stressful activity, a one-dimensional, lonely purgatory.

They can only conclude that we must be either drug addicts hooked on the rush of adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, or slaves driven to run in anticipation of the euphoric opioid hit of endorphins, the 'endogenous morphine' chemicals released by exercise.

Now The Running Muse purports to chronicle the ways artists have expressed the meaning and pleasure of the running experience - is that experience to be reduced to a drug chart measuring the blood levels of certain hormones? Or is there something more complex going on in choosing to run for no particular reason, or at least for reasons that we are unaware of?

Luckily for us, professional explorers of the apparently pointless already exist: philosophers. They investigate the hidden assumptions underlying our confident assertions, shifting the sands under our seemingly rigorous logic.

Not only do they exist, but some of them also run. What do they say about their own motives? What can the traditionally dry words of philosophy possibly have to say about actual....well, action? 'Jogito ergo sum', perhaps?

American arch-cynic Ambrose Bierce defined philosophy as 'a route with many roads leading from nowhere to nothing', while its defenders point to the role it plays in recognising concepts we didn't know we had, thus converting them into percepts whose foundations can be examined.

Mark Rowlands is a philosopher who has spent most of his life running (alongside his pet wolf!). In his fascinating 'Running with the Pack', he distinguishes between 'those who run in order to chase something else' and 'those who run simply to run', between the instrumental value of running and its intrinsic value, even between running for pleasure and running for the joy of it. Those who 'just enjoy' running get tuned in to a different state by the rhythm of the run, delighting in its inherent qualities rather than its useful ones.

What would those be, then?

If, as most scientists assert, the universe is unfolding without a particular goal for itself or for us, then running for the sake of it has as much or as little intrinsic meaning as anything else we choose to ascribe significance, value or extrinsic meaning to. It's a big 'if', though, and anarcho-punk philosophers Chumbawumba were troubled enough by the uncertain significance of treadmills to write their song 'The Incompatibility of Sport and Cosmic Consciousness':

'....and I live in the gym,

but I can't come to terms

with my existence as part of the universe.'

The intrinsic value of running is further explored by philosopher-runners in 'Running and Philosophy: a marathon for the mind', a witty and light-hearted collection of essays written by academics in accessible language. The chapter titles alone were intriguing enough to sell it to me, including 'Existential running', 'The soul of a runner' and, yes, 'Can we experience significance on a treadmill?'

Once again, limitations of space and intellect prevent me from full discussion of the issues raised here, but the writers variously ascribe their enjoyment of running to its aesthetics, freedom and virtue, not to mention to the integration of body and soul and a better understanding of the world, no less.

While one of the authors aligns his running self with Nietsche's strong advocacy of seeking out and enduring internal conflicts, and with cherishing opportunities for self-transformation through 'rich exertion', another identifies in running the quasi-religious notion that suffering brings redemption of some kind.

Mmm, OK, I'll try to remember that next time I'm gasping for breath half way up a mountain with blisters, nausea, a stretched bladder and ten miles to worries, I'm being redeemed! In the words of the pioneering running mentor, George Sheehan, in his 'Running and Being': 'running is not a religion, it's a a monastery'. A bit like a religion, then.

The existentialist runners here embrace the idea that we can discover our true, free selves by making choices that pay no heed to the social forces restricting our behaviour. We can cease drifting as part of the tranquillised herd and reduce anxiety by striking an attitude of authentic playfulness, thereby actualising our true potential, something that for these authors is expressed through their running.

The prize for the chapter with the longest words goes to 'The phenomenology of becoming a runner', phenomenology being the study of the ways things appear to be to us in the world. According to one of this school's champions, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is not what we think, but what we do. The 'embodied mind' understands the world through the body, which is 'a nexus of living meanings', and to be a runner is to be your body in a particular way, and hence we can experience and understand the world in that particular way. In which case I have the insight of a dumpling.

All this name-dropping of great philosophers in books about running - from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, via Descartes, Hume, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, and Dennett - reminded me not only of Monty Python's classic sketch, 'The Philosophers' Football Match' (in which Nietsche was booked early in the match for arguing with the referee that he had no free will), but also of our own perennial Mind Games held here on Mt. Olympus. We can now go over and eavesdrop on the conversation as the competitors mill around at the start line of the Philosophers' 10k:

Sartre: Hi there, Bertie.....why are you running here?

Russell: Why do you ask? And what do you mean by 'why'?

Sartre: Well, the same as you do, of course.

Russell: How do you know that?

Kant: Ah, 'know' that's a tricky one.

St. Thomas Aquinas: Why are we here anyway?

God: I don't know why I am here. I just am.

Russell: No you're not, you're an a priori assumption.

God: Prove it!

Kierkegaard: Do you mean here existing, Tom, or here at the 10k?

St. Thomas Aquinas: The second implies the first......der!?

Aristotle: I'm here running to be virtuous in the company of friends, and therefore happy.

Nietsche: I'm here running to suffer and endure pain to transform my self, preferably in existential agony.

God: That's the spirit! Now remember everyone, just follow me.

Nietsche: You don't look well.

God: The race is not always to the swift.

Nietsche: I'm here to win.

Zeno: You can't, there's no overtaking.

Kant: Can't? Cant!....that's absolute, categorical cant.

Wittgenstein: Oh, shush, everyone! If you can't talk sense, shut up, for God's sake. He's ineffable.

Neil Young: Gotta get away from this day to day running around, everybody knows this is nowhere....

You can receive further updates from this race as soon as time allows, whether time is an illusory construct or not (me being a muse 'n all). The last I heard, God (who was also the race starter) had taken an early lead, but was under pressure from some of the younger runners. Zeno, acting as pacemaker, had dropped out in the first metre.

In other news from the games, Schrödinger finished both first and sixteenth in the Physicists' 10k, and the team prize in the Musicians' 10k was won by the Spencer Davis Group.

So, are philosophers wise and clever, then, or just clever, Grasshopper? The practice of philosophy, which some consider to be an oxymoron, entails a subjective introspection which is necessarily free, at least in part, of objective evidence, and it has thus been viewed with suspicion when it comes to any discussion of action in the world ('I'll show you the life of the mind', says a rifle-wielding John Goodman, with a view to blowing out the brains of an intellectual in the Coen brothers film, 'Barton Fink').

Is there an intrinsic value to be found in rhythmically putting one foot in front of the other for extended periods? Well, as President Bill Clinton once said to a US grand jury in a rather more lascivious context, "It depends what the meaning of 'is' is".

'Running and Philosophy: a marathon for the mind' (2007), ed. Michael J. Austen, Blackwell

'Running with the Pack: thoughts from the road on meaning and mortality' (2013) by Mark Rowlands, Granta

'Running and Being' (1978) by Dr. George Sheehan, reprinted by Rodale Books

'101 Songs about Sport' (1988) by Sportchestra (who were mostly members of Chumbawumba)

By The Running Muse, May 1 2015 05:42PM

And now, a race report: 'We ran from the top of the Heights to the park, without stopping - Catherine completely beaten in the race because she was barefoot. You'll have to look for her shoes in the bog tomorrow.'

No, this is not from the Sodbury Slog or a Tough Mudder - the two runners here are Cathy and Heathcliff, for whom 'running around the moors all day was one of their chief amusements' in Emily Brontë's 'Wuthering Heights'. Her novel was written during the Romantic period, when many artists turned to nature and to the human emotional landscape in reaction to the soulless mechanics of the Industrial Revolution and the rationalisations of 19th century science.

Since then, moors have been associated in the imagination with solitude and freedom, their wild, often bleak weather an image for the passion that can lurk stifled within an everyday urban melancholy. Before this, walking the moors was merely a matter of getting from A to B, but now it became a choice for many with leisure time to commune with 'God's creation' or escape the overcrowded towns. For many poets especially, any remote wilderness was a workplace, a sublime source of inspiration.

Today, of course, the high moors are not only a haven for walkers, but a playground for runners going from A to B, whether in races or in training:

Doesn't look much like a moor, does it, but this is Exmoor, the opening setting for one of the few works of theatre to feature onstage running - 'Rift', a 2012 play by Natalie McGrath set both in Exmoor and in Kenya's Rift Valley.

The drama explores the connections and fault-lines between two runners thousands of miles apart: the connections are made through running and tragedy, the fault-lines through culture and personal history. Both runners are turning the same earth with their feet, while the differing landscapes, the one verdant and misty, the other stark and rumbling, inspire a poetic voice in each character.

The first half of the play sees Alice pick up a pair of trainers that belonged to a recently deceased boyfriend and go for her first ever run, while Nuru trains barefooted in pursuit of his Olympic dream. Their monologues become dialogue in the second part, set some years earlier, when Alice's work as a geologist has taken her to the Rift valley.

Alice had always resented her lover going out jogging so often. When he is run over by a car while doing so, she feels convinced he'd still be alive if she'd been out there running alongside him. Nuru, too, has had his fair share of loss and deprivation in tribal conflicts, but seismic shifts can be creative as well as destructive, and they are each running along paths that may or may not lead to a healing of their inner rifts. Eventually those paths cross.......

Natalie McGrath writes in the programme that she wanted to set up a counterpoint in the play between "a sense of motion and the meaning of what it means to be still", a theme that has engaged poets, scientists and philosophers since Zeno and Aristotle, not to mention sports psychologists today. The onstage running uses stylised, energetic, on-the-spot movements: they are both still and moving, like the head of a cheetah.

Alex Marker's Exmoor parkland set morphs into the bare trees and red rocks of the Rift Valley through lighting changes that see the sun burning away the mist, while the percussive rhythms of the runners' feet and their breathing is suggested by a score that connects a jazzy clarinet to African drums.

In an 2008 Observer magazine article about the traumatic experiences of Kenya's elite runners during the ethnic violence that year, Jean-Christophe Collin hailed the Rift valley as the birthplace of running: "It was along this immense gouge in the rock that men first stood upright and began to walk. And to run."

McGrath alludes to this broader context - as he runs, Nuru feels the valley's tremors, earth pangs that echo his own and recall the tectonic upheavals that had separated the homelands of these characters many millions of years before. This is running as connection or separation, as an escape from trauma or a striving towards healing, all the while looking forward but thinking back.

Some of the themes in this play are also addressed in 'Running the Rift', Naomi Benaron's harrowing but uplifting 2013 novel about Jean Patrick Nkuba, an Olympic hopeful in war-torn Rwanda who had been told as a boy that 'someday you will need to run as much as you need to breathe'.

And in 'Town of Runners', Jerry Rothwell's beautifully shot 2012 running documentary, most of the teenagers living a subsistence life around the small Ethiopian town of Bekoji get up before dawn - to run and train!.....

Can't see that happening today on Exmoor...........mind you, one teenager, John Ridd, had to run for his life all night there, albeit in a novel, R.D. Blackmore's 'Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor', where Ridd describes how 'the nimbleness given thereon to my heels was in front of meditation'.

Nuru and Jean Patrick have had many real life counterparts running the Rift while dreaming of Olympic gold, some of whom fell victim to the tribal conflicts, but here's Brit athlete Mo Farah running in 2010 in the Great Rift Valley, not too far from where he was born:

"I can be still for you", Nuru says to Alice. In his poems and drama,

T. S. Eliot wrote repeatedly of a 'still point', not only of the turning world or the wheel of life, but in time itself. Runners, too, speak of their time on the road as a space for reflection, and this play gives a sense of that inner pause moving along.......along a road less run, perhaps, or along an ancient way, moving and rumbling.

'Rift' was staged in 2012 at the Taunton Brewhouse as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the arts festival that runs in parallel with the Olympic Games and is the successor to the arts competitions of the modern Olympics, last held at the 1948 Games.

Natalie McGrath is a playwright based in England's West Country.

By The Running Muse, Apr 24 2015 03:37PM

You would be hard pushed to find any literary genre which has no references at all to running. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Bible through to Shakespearean drama, children's tales and the full range of poetry and novels, there is plenty of fleeing and racing and chasing to punctuate the stories as they unfold.

As metaphor, running can bring a sense of intense emotional movement or an urgent striving in the lives of the characters, a psychological energy that embraces a need for freedom and escape, maybe, or for direction and self-control.

'With both legs on, I go faster than a bird can fly', says a one-legged character, for instance, in Philip Pullman's translation of 'Six who Made their Way in the World' (aka 'The Six Servants'), one of the Children's and Household Tales collected in the early nineteenth century by the Brothers Grimm.

This proto-paralympian, whose other leg has to be strapped on, has been recruited to run in a race against a princess for marriage or death, during which he grabs a bit of a kip half way around.

Already we can recognise elements from other tales here - from Ovid's Atalanta story, for instance, or from Aesop's fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. This particular story also involves the assembly of a team with specialist skills in pursuit of a common goal, a theme which finds later echoes in the world of cinema, such as in Akiro Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (as well as its western remake, John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven) and the Ocean's 11 movies.

In addition, while one-legged runners had once been organised as freakshow entertainment in 'cripple races', the one-legged characters of literature have often been portrayed as strong and obsessive in their quests. Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate anti-hero in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, for instance, could run with or without his crutch 'with the speed and security of a trained gymnast' (see him taking that curve below!). Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby Dick also springs to mind.

Falling between those two stools, perhaps, is a 1964 'Beyond the Fringe' sketch in which a one-legged Dudley Moore is determined to audition for the role of Tarzan - 'a role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement', as Peter Cook tells him.......'your right leg is perfect, I've got nothing against your right leg - unfortunately, neither have you'. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the comedy, Dud is on a challenging quest of sorts, albeit articulated in a way that may grate on modern ears.

These are just some of the motifs in this one short fairytale that crop up time and time again in all kinds of sagas and legends from different eras, regions, media and cultures. There may appear to be as many different kinds of stories around the world as there are imaginations to create them, but there are those who claim to have identified just a handful of fundamental plots underlying all of them.

Cultural transmission through migration and trade can only partially account for the way so many tales have evolved independently over millennia in widely separated lands, and explanations for this are likely to be found amongst traits or experiences that have common elements for us all.

Candidates include our relationship with natural phenomena, or perhaps the structure of the brain and the psyche that emerges from it, or even the capabilities and limitations of our physical bodies - which include running, of course, a very common narrative theme as the goodies and baddies pursue each other or evade archetypal dangers. Another one is food.

Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested that even this small set of basic narratives derives from one universal 'monomyth', but the classification of folktales has moved in the opposite direction. The Arne-Thompson 'tale type index' recognises over two thousand categories (with titles including 'The Grateful Dead' and The White Snake', rock fans!), number 2025 of which is - yep, you've guessed it - running food.

Now regular readers will be aware that The Running Muse would not be taking up your time with anything as useful as nutritional advice for your PB - the 'running food' of our title simply refers to food that runs, more specifically to food that runs away. Oh, and talks.

Probably the most widely read running quote ever comes from the sugary mouth of a fugitive biscuit: "Run, run as fast as you can! You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man!"

This charming boast from the children's story, The Gingerbread Man, also known as The Gingerbread Runner or the Gingerbread Boy, was originally an oral tale from the US, first published in 1875. It will be familiar to older readers from the Ladybird book and to younger ones in the animated film, 'Shrek', in which an evil prince chants the above refrain as he pulls off our hero's legs during interrogation.

In the printed versions, the half-baked ginge - half man, half biscuit - escapes from the oven, but is pursued across the countryside by various people and animals. Perhaps unwisely, he repeatedly taunts their running ability as he stretches away from them, but, like any cocky runner getting a deserved comeuppance, he eventually meets his match. As the rhythm of the story builds up to a climax, it is from the jaws of the cunning fox that we hear his pathetic cries: 'I'm quarter gone....I'm half gone....I'm three quarters gone....I'm all gone!'

It's not often that anyone commentates on their own death quite so resignedly - 'Help!' would have perhaps been a more effective survival strategy - but there is an explicit lesson for children to absorb here, a moral case that is presented to them in a more familiar way than, say, in the isolated 'pride comes before a fall' from the biblical Proverbs, or in more complex narratives where arrogance (hubris) meets with retribution (nemesis), such as in the Greek myths.

Themes of food, hunger and survival are staple ingredients of fairy tales. They offer 'contradictory metaphors of life and civilisation as well as barbarity and extinction', as mythographer Marina Warner puts it, adding that 'control of food - procuring it, preparing it, cooking it, eating it - lies at the heart of determining who eats and who gets eaten in the material of fairytale', the Grimms' 'Hansel and Gretel' being an egregious example.

Runaway food seems to tap into that anxiety. The academic name for such folktales is 'The Fleeing Pancake', a genre which includes the adventures of an elusive Hungarian cheese that eats people, the thrilling escape of a whole vegetarian dinner, and a modern version of The Gingerbread Man by Eric Kimmel that has a tortilla outrunning predators in a rattlesnake-infested Texan desert.....until it meets a wily coyote.

Back in the real world of 10k's, I myself tell the story of my fruitless pursuit of an impressively speedy banana in a race. Now I wonder which of those seven basic narrative plots my highly embellished account would be filed under: 'overcoming the monster', 'voyage and return', 'rebirth', 'comedy', 'tragedy', 'the quest' or 'rags to riches'.

And which one of those, dear reader, do you think best describes the story of your own running life? Most of them, perhaps?

Well, whichever, our tale of the runaway biscuit will certainly strike a chord for those of you afflicted with that bane of many a runner bouncing their bowels along a marathon route, the 'runner's trots', a kind of diarrhoea often known as........'the gingerbread man'!

Yep, it really is - I'll leave you to work out why, but let's just say I've witnessed many a long distance runner suddenly increase the tempo to 5k pace while veering off in the direction of roadside bushes.

'In my end is my beginning', as the poet said.

The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories (2004) by Christopher Booker

Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (2013) by Philip Pullman

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?


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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

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