When Vybarr Cregan-Reid set out to discover why running meant so much to so many, he began a journey which would take him out to tread London’s cobbled streets, climbing to sites that have seen a millennium of hangings, and down the crumbling alleyways of Ruskin’s Venice.
Running is a new interest of mine, something I fell into by accident. In 2017 I thought it would be fun to enter a local village playgroup’s fundraising 5k – only to load-up the entry form the day before and fail to fill it in. I berated myself over it but did nothing about it, until the 2018 event rolled around. I was generally in a happier place and wandered along to my local parkrun to see if I could actually run the distance. I couldn’t, not quite, but a combination of running and walking saw me around the riverside course.
I started chatting to a couple of people in the cafe afterwards, and swore blind that I didn’t care about speed, timings – which they (and I) almost believed. A week later I was back, a minute or so faster, and with a new fascination in my life. A couple of weeks after that I was a member of the local running club, voluntarily sprinting up hills.
Apart from being physically good for me, I feel better about myself, have made some great new friends and feel more energetic and positive about life in general. Plus, it made it incredibly easy for those who bought be Christmas presents – this book is one of them.
This books is about why people run, about the pleasure of being outdoors and amidst nature, about running as an escape.
Cregan-Reid discusses the discordant nature of urban life: evolution has not prepared us for the disconnect concrete gives us. It is easier to assess the potential threat of a beech tree than a car. The more cognitive processing we have to endure, the less relaxed we are.
This is a concept I’ve certainly experienced during the couple of years I lived in Cambridge, and shortly after I left I read Michael McCarthy’s excellent The Moth Snowstorm which covers the same concept:
…as humans we [are] hard-wired to expect certain things from a landscape, such as a harmony, certain symmetries, an expected relationship between objects … but what we could not do was cope in the same way with the relentless stream of signals emanating from the city; we become numbed to the plethora of noises, lights, smells all around us. Because we were exposed to them constantly, it simply took too much mental energy to process everything that might be a threat.
He discusses the idea of an in-built desire to run: that we are actually ‘designed’ to do it; aspects of our biology and makeup are perfect for running and that the joy some find in it is hardwired into us by evolution.
There’s an argument that all runners are running away from something. Not quite hiding, but not quite facing it straight on. Many runners have a story about why they started, what running helped them deal with:
There is a French word that perfumiers use, one for which there is no English equivalent: sillage. It describes the ghostly vapour trail of scent left behind by the wearer. All runners leave an emotional sillage behind them, a trail thickly pollinated by whatever it is they are running away from or towards. Like fingerprints, the runner’s sillage belongs only to them. But unlike the microscopic whorls, loops and arches of their fingerprints, their sillage evolves, slowly and slightly from day to day, and changing altogether over the decades. Whatever it was I was shaking off in my runs has left me.
My running has become something much deeper than a habit or exercise routine. Now it is part of who I am.
Just as we can’t manufacture happiness, neither can we create creativity, but what I’ve learned – and this is probably more important than anything else – is that it is within our power to create the environment, the circumstances, the soil in which creativity has an opportunity to flourish.
Footnotes is part-scientific investigation, part-running memoir, part-literary review and part-celebration of nature and all things green, and an enjoyable and thoughtful read – but probably only if you enjoy thinking about running.