The Running Muse

       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

flame toes 2.3

By The Running Muse, Nov 29 2014 01:28PM

'I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don't intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercise', said the man whose pulse rate more than doubled when taking one small step - Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong. He may have been the first to walk on the moon, but he clearly had no intention of being the first to run there.

That honour would fall to one of the two astronauts exploring the moon's surface during the next mission, Apollo 12's Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, both of whom found running to be a more efficient way to 'walk' in one-sixth gravity. Neither remembers which one ran first, however, and hardly any video footage of their lunar excursions exists, because Mr. Bean had apparently pointed the colour TV camera at the sun and damaged its sensor.

Since they were running extraterrestrially across one of the biggest craters in the solar system, an actual image would've made all those stunning Rave Run pictures in Runner's World look rather.....well, pedestrian. Fortunately, fascinating footage does exist of lunar running from the last time humans wandered there, as we'll see.

Bean also managed to leave several rolls of photographic film behind on the moon surface, which may be why he took to representing this and other missions in paint on his return. Below is his 'Fast Times on the Ocean of Storms', a self-portrait in acrylic and Moon dust. Yep, real Moon dust. Note that both feet are off the ground.

Walking is essentially controlled falling. As the body moves forwards and its centre of gravity vaults over the stiff front leg, the back ankle pushes off towards the front and the fall is arrested. Crucially, this involves a certain amount of bobbing up and down - in energy terms, potential energy converts to kinetic energy and back again, with energy being added by the muscles at push-off.

Running involves timing this so that the back leg leaves the ground before the forwards one has landed, i.e., both feet are off the ground at some point. This criterion is used to distinguish walking from running in competitive sport as well as in the dictionary. As the speed of walking increases, it becomes more economical to run in terms of the energy required, and thus in terms of oxygen consumption, the 'locomotive breath', so to speak.

Things feel a bit different when gravity is reduced and there is no atmosphere, though. To illustrate this, we'll take a topical case where the force of gravity is several hundred thousand times weaker than on earth. Here's how one commentator on today's astonishing Rosetta landing on Comet 67P explained what walking on its surface would be like: 'Step (carefully). Hurl through space. Flail. Slowly arc towards comet. Land. Bounce. Skid. (Repeat).'

Bean's lunar running experience also felt unfamiliar, albeit to a lesser degree: 'I was light on my feet, much as I expected. When I pushed off with one foot, there was a long pause before I landed on the other foot, like running in slow motion. I could feel my muscles completely relax as I glided along to the next stop. I seemed to float just above the surface.......I felt I must look like a gazelle, leaping long distances with each bound. I looked over at my partner........he was space-borne for a long time, but, to my surprise, he wasn't rising very high or leaping very far at all. Then I realised that in the moon's light gravity we did not have the traction to push hard backwards with our boots. I wasn't leaping like a gazelle - it only felt that way.'

The frictional forces that give traction are proportional to weight and would thus be reduced, especially on a dusty surface. Although our weight is less on the moon, our mass, inertia and momentum are the same as on earth - add the 'long pause' waiting for the leg to land, which takes six times as long, as well as the cumbersome, pressurised spacesuits which have water sloshing around their inner layers for cooling, and you can imagine how the actions we are used to taking on earth could lead to problems maintaining stability, stopping, turning, going downhill, etc..

Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were not only running on the moon, but were actually comparing two different running styles - loping (as in the above clip) and bunny-hopping (see below). 'Loping's the only way to go', says Schmitt, the cameraman.

Now I'm no fan of the treadmill, but in this next fascinating clip, astronaut Karen Nyberg shows us how she runs in zero gravity on the International Space Station, where the astronauts have to exercise daily because of the effects that the absence of gravity has on muscle mass and bone density. The treadmill has to be set on a vibration isolation system, otherwise unwanted loads are imparted to the whole space station.

I'm reminded of one of Mr. Christie's tortuous applied maths questions at school, which asked us to consider the forces acting on someone standing on a board on a ball of ice in a lift suspended by a spring in a moving capsule in earth orbit, and then calculate the overall resultant force - 'if any', as he put it.

That isn't quite as fanciful as it sounds: research experiments published in 2007 in Acta Astronautica investigated the optimum gait for moonwalking in one-sixth gravity by suspending spacesuit-clad walkers from a spring. Their results showed that bending your knee was indeed harder in a pressurised suit, but because its springiness tended to straighten it again, much of the energy put in to each step was recovered.

This finding led to a counterintuitive conclusion that confirmed the empirical reports of the Apollo astronauts: if your oxygen supply is low while strolling around in a spacesuit, you should run back to your base, not walk, because the extra springiness of running means a higher percentage of the energy used per unit distance is recovered.

Anyway, here's Karen of the vertical hair: note her strange running form, leaning back. In weightless conditions, she does not need to manage her centre of gravity into the usual earth position - her form is determined by the harness that keeps her perpendicular to the treadmill.

A dozen men have walked on the moon, and some even went backwards, using a kind of reverse shuffle, but most of them were running at some point. Within a few years, Police were singing 'feet, they hardly touch the ground, walking on the moon', and Michael Jackson was moonwalking backwards himself, rather more elegantly than Neil Armstrong was in first stepping on to the moon.

But here's a thought for those of you who may be taking part in the MoonWalk night marathons now happening annually in London and Edinburgh: you'd be doing well if you can move faster than those 12 men, relative to the earth - they were travelling at one kilometre per second.

Those first lunar footprints are still there, preserved by the stillness. Back on earth, a quarter of a million miles away and four million years before, some of the first footprints of our bipedal ancestors were made in volcanic ash, and they too are preserved on a Tanzanian sandbar at Laetoli. Next week we will be looking at the first human runners, but for now I'll leave you to meditate on these pictures......

By The Running Muse, Nov 14 2014 01:02PM

'I have often observed in women of her type a tendency to regard all athletics as inferior forms of foxhunting'.

The woman in question is Lady Circumference, who has come to the annual sports day of a minor public school to present the prizes in Evelyn Waugh's hilarious first novel, Decline and Fall (1928). The speaker, who is the school's headmaster, had been no less scornful about the sport himself: 'I can think of no entertainment that fills me with greater detestation than a display of competitive athletics, none - except possibly folk-dancing.'

He was probably voicing Waugh's own cynicism, which was by no means limited to athletics, although the young Evelyn had apparently made every effort in the compulsory school cross-country runs across the Downs at Lancing. At a time when a world war was raging, Waugh, seen above in Henry Lamb's portrait, had founded the school's Corpse Club 'for those who were weary of life', and at university was a member of an avant-garde circle of aesthetes called the Hypocrites. The intellectual antics of both institutions would infuse the black humour and satirical wit of his early writing, much of which would present challenges to today's arbiters of the politically correct, to put it mildly.

In Decline and Fall, four chapters are devoted to the chaotic planning and running of the Sports Day athletics events, as well as to the aftermath. Running had already put paid to the career of the story's protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, a teacher at the school who had been sent down from university for running trouserless across the college quadrangle, having been debagged by the Bollinger Club's posh rowdies. He nevertheless thought running was good for the boys, 'useful in the case of a war or anything', a utilitarian philosophy of sport more in keeping with Spartan ideals than with public schools' oft-proclaimed allegiance to those of Olympia or Corinth.

In the heats, compulsory for all, one of the masters, Mr. Prendergast, had sent the conscripted runners off through the rain towards a clump of trees, only to find that none emerged: 'I expect they've gone to change. I don't blame them, I'm sure. It's terribly cold. Still, it was discouraging launching heat after heat and none coming back. Like sending troops into battle, you know', said an unfazed Prendergast as he drew up a list of 'results' anyway.
In the heats, compulsory for all, one of the masters, Mr. Prendergast, had sent the conscripted runners off through the rain towards a clump of trees, only to find that none emerged: 'I expect they've gone to change. I don't blame them, I'm sure. It's terribly cold. Still, it was discouraging launching heat after heat and none coming back. Like sending troops into battle, you know', said an unfazed Prendergast as he drew up a list of 'results' anyway.

The Countess of Circumference, who always addresses her son by his equally trigonometric surname, Tangent, wonders why he's in the quarter-mile race at all, as 'the boy can't run an inch'. True to form, he is injured by the starter firing his loaded service revolver into the ground via Tangent's foot (' "Am I going to die?", said Tangent, his mouth full of cake'); the consequent decline of both Tangent and his foot is chronicled intermittently for the rest of the novel.

There follows a comical account of the races, after which the winner of the three-miles is accused of having lain low behind some beeches for one of the six laps. The subsequent settling of the issue requires administrative realpolitik in the face of parental uproar: the cheat is declared the winner of 'the five furlongs race' (i.e., his five laps), while the second finisher wins the three miles event. Alert readers will note that five furlongs is not five sixths of three miles, but, in Waugh's defence, such confident stupidity is entirely in keeping with his portrayals of almost everyone involved at the school.

Waugh brings what one critic called his 'exquisite sense of the ludicrous' to the upper class world of bright young things floundering within decaying institutions, and this is mercilessly reflected in the shambolic events at the school athletics meeting in Decline and Fall. By all accounts, including his own, Waugh was a bit of a grumpy old snob, but 'the beauty of his malice', in V.S. Pritchett's phrase, was aimed at socialites and socialists alike. Any of today's bright or grungy young things writing about the way sport reflects society would do well to look beneath his seductively elegant prose and fastidious irony to the underlying social assumptions and prejudices, condensed here into a few runs around the trees.

A few decades later, on the cusp of a less deferent world, the sports day of a very different institution would explode on to the literary world in Alan Sillitoe's short story of rebellion, 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', later made into a film in which a borstal prison school runs against a public school in a cross-country race. The Running Muse will bring you the results.......

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, Chapman and Hall (1928), Penguin (1937 - present).

Evelyn Waugh by Henry Lamb, 1929, oil on canvas, Lord Moyne collection.

Evelyn Waugh by Feliks Topolski (above), 1961, oil on canvas, University of Texas.

By The Running Muse, Nov 10 2014 09:18AM

Our exploration of the etymology of common running terms continues, beginning with an explanation of those teasers in part one:

MARATHON - from the Greek word for 'fennel', derived from others meaning 'grow thin', a supposed property of these bulbous herb vegetables.

Marathon is a coastal plain to the east of Athens and its fennel fields were the site of the famous battle against a Persian invasion attempt in 490 B.C.. From here the legendary courier, Pheidippides, ran the 25-odd miles over the hills to the capital to announce the Athenian victory, after which the city's women would weave fennel-stalks in symbolic commemoration.

Nearly 2,400 years later, at a time when Classics was considered to be an essential part of education (and coincidentally when fennel, as an ingredient of absinthe, happened to become trendy in bohemian culture), the organisers of the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 were inspired by the tale to hold a 'marathon race' covering the same route.

GYMNASIUM - from the Greek 'gymnos', naked, and 'gymnazein', to exercise, literally 'to train naked'. When Homer Simpson passed a sign saying 'Gym' while out jogging, his attempt at pronouncing this strange word - 'Geim? What's a geim?' - at least got the original hard 'g' right.

Greek athletic competitions were held in the nude, both for aesthetic reasons and as a tribute to the gods (and in some cases to confirm the gender of the athlete). As the Greeks recognised the relationship between athletics, health and education, gymnasia also became places of intellectual pursuit: Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum were both gymnasia, while Galen and Hippocrates would emphasise the medical importance of gymnastic exercise.

The academic sense of 'gymnasium' as a secondary high school persists in Germany and other European countries, while nudity in gyms doesn't. (Discuss.)

NIKE - the American sports company changed its name in 1971 from Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike, the winged Greek goddess personifying strength, speed and victory. Her figure inspired the designs of the famous emblems of both Rolls Royce cars and Honda motorcycles, as well as the original football World Cup, the Jules Rimet trophy.

'Nike' is the Greek word for victory and the root of the name Nicholas; it was uttered by Pheidippides in his dying breath after his epic run from Marathon.

ASICS - the name of the Japanese sportswear firm is an acronym for Anima Sana In Corpore Sano, Latin for 'a healthy soul in a healthy body', derived from a phrase of the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal.

JOGGING - from the Old English 'sceacan', to move the body or a part of it rapidly back and forth, Middle English 'shoggen', to move with a jerk. The modern words 'shake', 'shock' and 'shag' also appear to have derived from these, but the modern sense of jogging seems to have come from its17th century use to describe the jolting gait of horses being exercised.

FOOT - Old English 'fot', plural 'fet'. The foot unit of length is an example of the way early units of measurement were often based on parts of the human body and named after them, in this case from the supposed average foot length of Anglo-Saxon men.

As an indication of the stress patterns or syllable length in poetry, the metrical foot was taken from music, probably from keeping time by tapping the foot (not to be confused with the Napoleonic metric foot, defined as a third of a metre). The Roman poet Horace berates mediocre poets whose 'verse runs on tender feet', while his Greek contemporary, Meleager, claims to have taught his muse 'to run on barbed feet'.

The phrase 'My foot!' expressing a contemptuous contradiction was a twentieth century euphemism for the previously common 'My arse!', although ten minutes in the company of either The Royle Family or my family would seem to indicate that the latter has made a comeback.

'Footing the bill' comes from the Victorian practice of tallying costs and writing the total at the bottom, or 'foot', of an invoice.

ATHLETE - Greek 'athlos', contest; 'athlon', prize. The Old English term was 'plegmann', play-man (glad that didn't stick - 'And the World Plegperson of the Year Award goes to.....').

RACE - Old English 'raes', a running, a rush.

PACE - from the Latin 'passus', stride, from the past participle of 'pandere', to stretch. The meaning of 'rate of motion' first appeared in the 13th century, while 'pacemaker' was first used in late Victorian times to mean a rider or boat that set the pace for those in training.

RUN - (see previous blog article)

In other languages:

RUN is the indigenous name of a tiny Indonesian spice island, 3km x1km, which played an extraordinary part in English history. During the reign of James I, it became the first English overseas colony, precipitating many battles with the Dutch over the valuable spices to be exclusively found there, especially the nutmeg and mace.

Now part of the Banda Islands in modern Indonesia, it was ceded to the Dutch at the Treaty of Breda after the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the mid-1600's. In return, the Dutch handed over the island of Manhattan, including New Amsterdam, which had been occupied by the Duke of York (the future James II), hence the city's new name, New York.

So, Run for New York - a fair trade? Ask the indigenous peoples: Manhattan had been bought from them for $24, while Run was simply....well, overrun.

Having run the Marathon marathon, I'd quite fancy a Run run......

RAN, the Japanese for 'chaos' or 'rebellion', is the title of a 1985 Akiro Kurosawa film based on Shakespeare's King Lear and Japanese legends.

RAN is also the Old Norse name, meaning 'sea' or 'robber', of (you've guessed it) a sea-robber in the Icelandic Eddas of Scandinavian myth, a goddess who was a literal fisher of men.

RÚN is the Irish Gaelic for 'secret'.

COURSE - (see previous blog article)

STADIUM - from 'stadion', the ancient Greek unit of distance measurement used for footraces. The running track at Olympia was one stadion long at just under 200 metres.

In the King James Bible, 'stadion' was translated from the original Greek of the gospels as 'furlong', a similar English distance which is still used in horse racing - it had originally been the approximate 'furrow length' that oxen could plough in a field without resting. Luke 24.13 describes how, after the Resurrection, two of the apostles "went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem threescore furlongs".

In English, 'stadium' came to mean 'running track' in the 1600's, and had acquired its modern meaning by the early 1800's.

CHAMPION - in the context of combat, the Latin for 'field' is 'campus', and this fed into the Romance languages - hence the French 'champion' for a combatant, as well as the plurals favoured by chanting football fans in the Italian 'campiones' and Spanish 'campeones'.

The archaic feminine, 'championess', is found in English writing such as Edmund Spenser's epic poem, 'The Faery Queene', Samuel Richardson's 1748 novel, 'Clarissa', and Charles Kingsley's distinctly non-PC adventure story, 'Westward Ho!' (which has a Devon town named after it, exclamation mark and all!).

WALK - Old English 'wealcan', to roll, toss, move round. A walker was someone who 'fulls' cloth, i.e., treads on it to clean and thicken it (in Latin, 'fullare'), hence the common names Walker and Fuller. Running over a trace or scent to spoil it thus became the Middle English 'foilen', to foil.

SPRINT - from the Scandinavian root, 'sprenten', to spring, dart or leap.

BOLT - from the Old English 'bolt', a short, stout arrow.

AGONY - from 'agon', Greek for 'assembly for a contest'.

HIPPODROME - from the Greek 'hippo' ('horse') and 'dromos' ('course'), as used in chariot races; the name was used in modern times for places where circuses were held, and later for theatre. 'Dromeas' means 'runner'.

OLYMPIAD - the period of four years between successive ancient games held in honour of Zeus at Olympia. The word derives from the genitive of 'Olympia', 'Olympiados', and was used by the ancient Greeks to date historical events.

The name of Zeus, father of the gods, has the same root as the Latin 'deus' and the Greek 'theos', meaning 'god'; his Roman name is Jupiter, from 'deus pater', literally 'god-father'.

There have been many writers who have strung some of these running words together to great effect, but perhaps none more elegantly than the man described by George Orwell as 'almost as good a novelist as it is possible to be.......while holding untenable opinions.' Running Muse will be looking at what he made of a particularly eventful athletics meeting next week.

By The Running Muse, Nov 7 2014 03:02PM

Did you know that 26.2 mile races are named after a vegetable? Or that a gym was a gathering place for nudes and scholars? Ever wondered why Nike and ASICS are so called? Or that jogging was done horizontally in the old days?

The rich and often surprising linguistic roots of everyday running words can be traced in the record of their usage, including their metaphorical adoption in everyday speech and the arts. The semantic diversity of running terms used in non-running contexts, for instance, can shed light on the way we form ideas, and philosophers have not been slow to investigate this 'shaping' of our concepts.

Take the word 'run', for instance (seen above in Monica Bonvicini's 2012 sculpture in London's Olympic Park): it is defined as moving faster than a walk while never having both or all feet on the ground at the same time. It is easy to forget how often this word is used in our language in circumstances which have nothing to do with either feet or the ground.

Indeed, they often involve no physical motion at all: we speak of running out of options as time runs out and the bills run up; we run risks and organisations, we run into trouble and out of money. We feel run down, running a fever or a temperature, maybe with runny noses or running sores. Candidates and rivers and tights all run, we have running jokes and totals......and our imagination can run wild, run away with itself and run the whole gamut of emotions!

Many of these examples have, at best, an abstract sense of motion - we can feel we are 'running around in circles' while standing still, for instance. The consequent opportunities for punning have not been lost on comedians: 'Brave men run in our family', quipped Bob Hope in 'The Paleface', while my maths teacher, Mr. Christie, used to tell us to pay attention to the blackboard 'while I run through it again'.

In politics, the linguistic convention that British candidates 'stand' for parliamentary seats while Americans 'run' for Congress has been wryly noted as a reflection of the spirit of each nation, the one insular, static and heavy with inertia, the other pioneering, dynamic and full of momentum. (Discuss.)

Our current running words were brought to these shores by invaders, settlers and classical Greek scholars: after the Latin of the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons' Old English had eclipsed almost all of the indigenous Britons' Celtic language, Norman French dominated for three centuries until a new, confident Middle English emerged. As pronunciation changed and the language lost its inflected nature, i.e., dropped many of its word endings, it evolved into Modern English.

Over the centuries, the figurative use of 'run' has extended the general meaning of physical motion into so many other arenas of endeavour and abstract thought that the word has acquired a new richness as part of a more nuanced everyday language. .

The origins of the word 'run' are to be found in two Old English verbs: 'rinnan'/'yrnan' meant 'to run, flow' (intransitive, past tense 'ran', past participle 'runnen'), while 'earnan' was the transitive 'to ride to, to reach by running, etc.'. Both are assumed to have evolved separately from a common Proto-Indo-European word coined thousands of years before, and both have a more general sense of movement than the athletic definition. This has evidently fed into many of the modern metaphors mentioned above.

Beyond that there is no real consensus on how the very first primitive speakers selected and shaped sounds that became agreed by all their peers to refer to that object or this action, although a possible scenario has been imagined: in his script for the 1981 action film Quest for Fire, set 80,000 years ago, Anthony Burgess suggested that a word for 'run' would have been one of the earliest and most essential collaborative signals for the Neanderthals as they tried to survive by hunting animals and outwitting our own Cro-Magnon ancestors - actually, he used two words, 'djan vitrash', meaning 'go quickly'.

The Latin for 'to run' ('currere', past participle 'cursus') gave us our modern English words 'course' and 'current', while 'courier' and 'corridor' came to us via the Romance languages (i.e., ones derived from Latin, such as Italian and French), as did the Spanish 'corrida', a bullfight, originally 'corrida de toros', running of the bulls.

The Exeter Book (c.975 AD) has an Anglo-Saxon riddle that exploits the more general meaning of 'yrnan' in the original Old English:

'I am swifter than he, at times stronger; he is more enduring. Sometimes I rest; he must run on.

I dwell in him forever, as long as I live; if we two are parted, I am doomed to death.'* (answer below)

In time, 'yrnan' had become 'ronnen', past participle, 'y-ronne', and we can see the Anglo-Saxon and Latin influences side by side in the first few lines of Chaucer's 14th century Middle English storyfest, The Canterbury Tales (seen above in a manuscript that Chaucer himself may have supervised).

As the pilgrims gather in spring, the sun appears to lie half way across the constellation of Aries:

'...............................and the yonge sonne

hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne'

Up until late medieval times, the same word was often spelt differently within the same text, although 'ronne' was always pronounced as 'run'. As the need for a standard written language became clear, mostly driven by the requirements of law and trade and disseminated by the new printing, 'run' became the Modern English spelling.

It took a while, though. Shakespeare's First Folio still has two different spellings of the word in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', for instance. When Demetrius tells his stalker, Helena, 'Ile run from thee', she replies three lines later 'Runne when you will, the story shall be chang'd'. Even in 1860, George Eliot writes of the rural gentry who belonged 'to a generation with whom spelling was a matter of private judgement' in her novel 'The Mill on the Floss'.

By the time of Rudyard Kipling's 1895 paean to stoicism, 'If-', the standardisation of spelling was complete:

'If you can fill the unforgiving minute

with sixty seconds' worth of distance run....'

Three-letter words of one syllable tend to be stable over time, although today's SMS texting language is making inroads into this. Go to four letters and it may be a different story, though, as in the famous catchphrase of comic book hero Alf Tupper, 'The Tough of the Track':

Most runners know that so much about running is in the head. In struggling up hills or long distances, they are running through a psychoemotional challenge every bit as immediate as the physical one. Their brain is screaming 'stop' along with the rest of their body, and this needs to be overridden if progress is to be made. Any thinking during or about running, however, can only use the concepts we each have at our disposal, as expressed in a limited language that has evolved over millennia to form communicable ideas, not least to ourselves.

For many linguistics researchers, cognitive scientists and even mathematicians, evolution of the use of particular words gives insight into the way we conceptualise the world around us. Language enables us to represent to others that which we perceive with our senses and the concepts we form, including abstract ideas, but this begs the question whether the linguistic tools at our disposal determine and constrain the way we think, or vice versa.

In his bestselling attempt to articulate 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running', Haruki Murakami writes that, for him, running is not merely exercise, but a metaphor, in his case for fulfilling his human potential by 'awakening to an awareness of the fluidity of action itself'.

However, it may be that metaphor has had a more fundamental role in the formation of concepts. The 'embodied cognition' thesis posits that all aspects of our mind are rooted in biology, in our flesh. As a frinstance, the cognitive scientist and linguist, George Lakoff, has proposed that our understanding of the simpler, more familiar interactions of our body with its environment, such as our awareness of space or enclosure, has contributed to an understanding of more complex concepts, such as emotions or mathematics, through the use of metaphors, a kind of mapping of one domain of experience on to another.

Linguistic evidence, combined with experimental and clinical investigations into the neural correlates of mental behaviour, has led to theories about the nature of consciousness itself.

So, 'run' may be just a syllable, little more than a grunt, really, but it has developed from a more general meaning of fast flow, as in a river or reaching somewhere quickly, into scores of nuanced metaphors that enrich the English language.

American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a line about 'the undeveloped freight of a delivered syllable', the half-grasped meaning, but it could be equally applied to the multiple meanings of 'run'. Remember this the next time you are running up hills or bills while feeling run down, or running across a large semantic field.

* The answer to the riddle: a fish in a river.

In part two of this exploration of running language, which will follow hard on the heels of this one (whoosh, there goes another metaphor), you can read about the origins of common running terms.....and find out the explanations for the introductory teasers left hanging here.

By The Running Muse, Oct 29 2014 10:29PM

At first I thought it was a surreal comedy sketch, up there with Monty Python's '100 Metres Dash for People with No Sense of Direction' and 'The Philosophers' Football Match', but 'It Ain't Over 'til the Fit Lady Sings' is actually a real running event which is already on my bucket list.

Located in Bozeman, Montana, USA, this is an annual 'intermountain opera run' where runners are serenaded at the water stations by professional opera singers, many of whom have been brought in for the Intermountain Opera season. This set me thinking about their choice of playlist and whether running had ever featured in any operatic work.

Now you may think that onstage running while delivering spoken dialogue in a play would be challenging enough (and, yes, there are a few such plays), but imagine trying to synchronise the controlled breathing you need for singing with the controlled gasping you need for your oxygen debt. Some of us have even found it a struggle to join in 'Oggi, oggi, oggi!', which for the uninitiated is not a Verdi aria, but a traditional kind of ensemble shouting that has echoed for half a century through underpasses and tunnels during many a city marathon.

The operatic soprano and marathon runner, Lisette Oropesa, seen below as Nannetta in Verdi's 'Falstaff' at the New York Met in 2013, has a few tips for singing runners in her 2014 book, 'Running, Singing and Being Vegan', in which she describes the significant improvements to her onstage breathing, her mental toughness and her confidence since she took up running. She always warms up for a performance with a four mile afternoon run: 'I run before I sing', she says with Cartesian succinctness.

However, any running to be found in opera is generally done by lovers fleeing their pursuers or hiding in wardrobes. The occasional revolutionary malcontent is chased by the forces of Laura Norder, and breathless messengers bring news of offstage intrigue, but, for the most part, operatic heroes, heroines and couriers are not to be found huffing and puffing around an onstage 10k in Seville or Mtsensk. The furthest they run is into the stage wings, usually silently. There may be plenty of operatic talk about running or exercise, but not much actual running (a situation many runners will be familiar with). However, believe it or not, there are at least two opera libretti that require onstage athletes........

One is Italian composer Luca Belcastro's rather tortuously titled (and eccentrically capitalised) 2004 opera, ' again!'*, based on the true characters and events surrounding the 1896 revival in Athens of the ancient Olympic games. After a first act portraying the genesis of the games, the opera launches into the track and field events themselves (including the 100 metres, pictured below at the actual games) before finishing in the final act with the marathon.

Much of the libretto consists of poetic texts, memoirs, newspaper cuttings and extracts from official documents, some of which are sung and some recited, while mime and dance is used for a few of the events.

The characters themselves span three millennia: amongst others, they include Homer, Virgil, De Coubertin, various muses, the athletes and a fans' chorus, not to mention the stadium announcer. All sing or speak in their own language (for the all-English version, a 'strong accent' is advised in the stage directions), and there is back-projection of a series of photographs from the real events.

Although the opera won an award at the 2001 International Composition Competition in Athens, it is not clear whether it has ever been performed as a drama in its entirety, so we do not know how the staging and breathing issues were to be resolved (the libretto requires at least two of the athletes to be tenors).

Classical allusions pepper the story: Pindar's odes to victors at Olympia begin each act, while the games from the Iliad and the Aeneid bring historical context, validation and prestige to the work. The Muses of history, tragedy and poetry comment on the action, as do historians and a narrator.

The athletic action sees the USA garnering most of the medals, to the vocal chagrin of the spectators, but their disappointment is soon mitigated by the first Greek triumph of the games in the final event, the marathon. The opera ends with one of the marathon stragglers, wearing white gloves in honour of the Greek king, running into a silent and empty stadium, long after everyone has left. It was at these 1896 games that the marathon as a race was invented and named by De Coubertin at the behest of a French philologist - a baritone character in the opera - who had been inspired by Browning's poem, 'Pheidippides', about a legendary Greek messenger at the battle of Marathon.

Luca Belcastro (below), who bears a passing resemblance to a composer whose own 'running' song was banned in some quarters**, has also written music for texts from such diverse authors as Shakespeare, Lorca, Neruda and St. Augustine.

For now, I'll keep you guessing about the only other opera that I am aware of that features onstage athletes, but what about that operatic playlist for the singers at those water stations back in Bozeman? What arias or duets would spur you on, molto allegro, as you cross the famous Bozeman trail in the footsteps of Red Cloud (who won his own famous victory here in his war against the U.S. Cavalry)?

Well, one candidate would seem to be 'Grimes is at his exercise', an insistently repeated refrain in Benjamin Britten's magnificent 'Peter Grimes', but this is 'exercise' at its darkest. Rumours of cruelty, sex abuse and murder are spreading through a small fishing village, and the gossips of The Borough seem to be jumping to conclusions about the outsider Grimes and his boy apprentices - hardly the most uplifting theme to propel runners on their way around a 10-miler.

And surely there must be potential for an appropriate aria or two from Handel's pastoral opera about the woman who was the 'greatest runner' on earth? Unfortunately, his 'Atalanta' completely ignores the eponymous heroine's legendary racing exploits, concentrating instead on the love story surrounding her chase of the gigantic Calydonian boar, the only mammal doing any actual running here. Atalanta's arioso, 'Care selve' ('Beloved woods'), however, is a favourite at concert recitals and wouldn't sound out of place at the more rural water stations.

Although 'The Flying Dutchmum' was a famous runner's sobriquet inspired by Wagner's opera of almost the same name, it isn't referring to any athletic endeavour on the part of his lonesome sailor. It was a moniker given by the international press to the extraordinary Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Netherlands mother who won the gold medal in every women's running event at the 1948 London Olympics (she was also the world record-holder in the long jump and high jump at the time, and was named Female Athlete of the Century by the IAAF in 1999).

Considered too old at 30, the athlete's participation as a mother had been criticised, giving the operatic link an ironic twist: a legendary mum returns to controversy in Holland with all that gold, only to be named after an opera in which a legendary Dutchman laments 'What good are jewels to me? I have neither wife nor child....'

The other nickname she acquired, The Amazing Fanny, is less widely used these days.

So, I'm stumped. The Running Muse would be delighted to hear your own suggestions for all those opera singers gathered around the energy drinks next year. Of course, the most enjoyable way to find out which tunes grace the Bozeman water stations would be to run in the race, whether allegro con brio or rallentando.

Meanwhile, it just so happens that you can watch runners singing in the most unlikely of circumstances in next week's blog........altogether now - 'Feet they hardly touch the ground.......'

* '1896 - PHEIDIPPIDES....corri ancora!'

** 'Run for your Life' was written by John Lennon in 1965 but banned by some radio stations in 1992 for its alleged 'promotion of violence against women'.

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)