Monday, 4 February 2013

This is not a running blog

Updated version of 'Why I run' – originally posted on 20th January 2011:
Running can be painful but not as
painful as running blogs

I’m not sure about running blogs. Running is what makes life worth living, that’s true, but people writing about their running, well, it seems to me the potential for being dull heavily outweighs the scope for being original, insightful and/or entertaining. 
What’s enjoying about running is running: the act itself. Like sex, it’s rhythmic, invigorating, animal and difficult to describe beyond the basic mechanics: one foot in front of the other, repeat. The enjoyment is the doing: absorbed in the moment, body in motion, mind quieted, undistracted. When I am running, I am running.
Writing about running for other runners of similar standard is fine – we indulge each other as a means to ever deeper self-absorption – but for a general audience? No, no way. The last thing I'd want to do is add to the web-swell of boring blather about split times, barefoot shoes (eh?), journeys and goals. I’d fail to capture the appeal; I’d be anal and puritanical about training routines; I’d pointlessly deride slower runners; I’d be that most loathsome thing, a running-bore.
But there is one question that people, including and especially non-runners, want answered: why? Why do we go outside for prolonged periods every day, come cold and rain, come leg aches and bleeding nipples, to get our fix? It is baffling, we must accept, and it warrants an explanation.
So, this is not a running blog; this is a one-off attempt to explain why.
Hitherto I’d not felt called on to explain it. It was just something I’d fallen into the habit of doing every day, like walking the dog, only faster and without a dog. Explaining why – accounting for being apparently as burden-tethered as a dog owner while not in possession of a dog – wouldn’t be easy. But then I read a book assessing why men read men’s magazines. No, not porn, but laddy-lifestyle mags such as Men’s Health, GQ, FHM, etc.
It was a sociological study by a trio of academics, exploring why men enjoy reading articles about how to ‘get ripped’, ‘craft a washboard stomach’, ‘dress to knock her dead’ and ‘steer clear of gold-diggers’, that kind of thing. I will make extensive reference, for reasons that will become clear, to the chapter entitled “Consumption and the sociology of the body”.
That’s quite enough preamble; without further ado, this is why I run:
1. Because my job is too easy
I run because my job doesn’t tire me out or make me feel manly and important. I do not earn money by digging holes in the ground, like my father did. His job kept his body lean and muscular (and tired); it was a job for life; it fulfilled a useful function with obvious benefits to society; it earned him money to feed his family. My job involves sitting at a desk all day (burning very little energy), fiddling around with words no one needs to read, earning money to fritter away on my own amusement. I run because it makes me feel as though I am doing real work, helping me feel fit and alive, and giving me a project on which to expend surplus energy.
“Capitalism is no longer dependent upon the condemnation of sexual and physical pleasure and the maintenance of strictly disciplined forms of manual labour. Instead, the body in consumer culture is both disciplined and hedonistic. In such a culture, the body becomes a vehicle for pleasure, youth, health and fitness; that is, it is increasingly viewed as a passport to the good life… Life itself is a project within modernity.”
2. To feel superior
Running makes me feel as though I have an advantage over others. I have no power over others in my job or in my relationships (unlike my father, who was indisputably head of our family). Running is an arena in which I can strive to dominate others, to try and be exceptional; keeping fit makes me feel less fallible, less likely to need emotional or medical help.
“[Running] prepares men for the atomised world of late capitalism, providing them with crucial ammunition in helping them gain a competitive advantage… The hyper-competitive social relations of late-capitalism manifest themselves in male relations at work, in friendships and in relationships. The need for intimate human relations that men have found so difficult to recognise within themselves are displaced through myths of self-sufficiency and independence.”
3. To forestall my body’s decline
I'm 30 now, so my body is about to begin its slow yet inexorable decline towards old age and death. My job is not tough or tiring enough to distract me from this awful truth. But, all the time I am getting fitter and faster, I have firm proof that my body is an anomaly, defying science – not only evading deterioration but improving. Working hard at running provides definite, measurable evidence – in the form of improving PBs – that my body is flourishing; I’m not just outrunning the Grim Reaper but lapping him, making him look stupid.
“Just as men face an increasingly uncertain future in the workplace, so their bodies become places of intense anxiety and scrutiny in terms of their inevitable decline. In order for this decline to be halted or at least temporarily arrested, the body becomes something that needs to be invested in and worked upon… The body becomes a new site for social discipline.”
4. It gives me an identity
How do you define yourself? Which single word best sums you up? The first adjective in my Twitter biog used to be “Runner” (until writing this made me self-conscious about it) – I defined myself by my hobby, first and foremost. In the past, most people defined themselves by their profession, but less so these days. Nowadays, it is not sensible to get too attached to one’s job (consider all those people employed in the public sector to whom the government has said: “You’re not required anymore, and probably never were”.) Our jobs are uncertain, unsafe and of questionable utilitarian worth.
“In the new world of flexible employment, the rules are made up as we go along, the ability to adapt and change is the most prized of possessions and the act of departure valued above that of reaching the destination.”
Indeed, some of my fondest memories involve handing in resignation letters and leaving jobs.
“… the idea that our skills may well become redundant in the future means that the workplace can only offer the most insecure of identities. The body, then, becomes a domain to be ‘worked on’ and regulated. The body requires finely itemised forms of labour in order that it might produce measurable effects. This process of physical transformation grants the masculine subject a sense of security and continuity denied him within the workplace… Uncertainty converts the body into a new project of identity.”
5. To be a machine
The fallibility of my body is unbearable. Consider my eyes – one minute, they’re fine, seeing everything normally; the next, they’re destroying themselves and I’m going blind because of some silly little genetic quirk. Being trapped inside a human body is ridiculously perilous. It is far better to be a machine. Runners look upon their flawed carcasses as embodied apparatus – hard, robust and responsive to fine-tuning.
“Men’s relationships with their bodies is often represented as being purely instrumental… The application of instrumental logics… [and] tips and advice keep the body ‘running along smoothly’. The most often used metaphor in relation to the body and sources of food and energy is that of ‘refuelling’… [Men] seek to convert the body into something that can be controlled by scientific forms of rationality protecting the self from having to develop a more vulnerable relation with the body’s own needs.”
6. To flee from death
As discussed above, my body is about to begin its decline towards death. I am unable to accept my own death, for it is too terrible a prospect. While I’m running and getting fitter, I feel very alive; so it follows that running is the opposite of death and, as such, keeps death at bay. I know that immortality is a questionable corollary to “feeling very alive”, but the illusion makes existence more tolerable and helps me forget the terrible truth. Besides, no one has anything better to offer. Religion isn’t taken seriously anymore, and “a problem shared is a problem halved” doesn’t seem to apply to death – believe me, I’ve tried; it’s my favourite topic of conversation down the pub.
“The culture of bodily fitness and exercise is bound up with a fear of death and mortality… In the face of death we often go silent, because we lack a common language in which to frame the experience… Death is something to be hidden away and privatised within modernity. Fear of death becomes… as Castoriadis argues, ‘that everything, even meaning, will dissolve’… Death is that which cannot be mastered and controlled, despite all our efforts to mould and shape the body. These concerns can be forgotten about, or at least this is the expectation, through daily regimes that invite us to keep an ever-watchful eye on our health.”
Source: Making Sense of Men’s Magazines, by Peter Jackson, Nick Stevenson & Kate Brooks, published by Polity Press, 2001.

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