a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner
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.
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.
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, to 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 go......no 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 place.......like 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'....now 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)