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Why do we run?

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Tim Franks | 08:18 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

I'll do anything to delay the moment I cross the threshold. In fact, I often spend less time running than I do maundering about the house in my shorts and T-shirt, finding obscure pieces of DIY to occupy me before I run out of excuses and reach for the door-knob.

This got me thinking: was Joan Rivers right?

The expensively reconstructed septuagenarian comedian famously threw down a high-wicking gauntlet, confident in the knowledge no-one could pick it up. "The first time I see a jogger smiling," she said, "I'll consider it."

For a short while, I attempted to take on the challenge.

Halfway through my routine run, I'd break into what I imagine was a grin - as if, at that moment, Joan might appear, laden with bags, out of the local 99p store.

But she was never there to receive my look of pleasure. The only obvious effect was that mothers would cross the road and I would get a stitch.

So imagine my relief when a new book called "Why We Run" landed on the Sports News desks. I was further intrigued by a laudatory quote on the back cover that came not from Brendan Foster or Paula Radcliffe but Pulitzer Prize nominee and Humanities Professor Joyce Carol Oates.

A proper runner: Robin Harvie at a checkpoint along the 245-km route of the Spartathlon

A proper runner: Robin Harvie at a checkpoint along the 245-km route of the Spartathlon

It's a wonderfully written book, a poke in the eye to those who believe athletes cannot find the words to take you into their esoteric, high-performance world - in Robin Harvie's case, that of ultra-marathons.

But I feared his "we" of the title excluded me. He celebrates pain: "I took to wearing black bin-liners under long-sleeved tops and on the hottest day of the English summer ran 20 miles up the river, wearing four layers, a woolly hat and sunglasses."

Later, he attains a spiritual merging of body and landscape, forgetting that he was running at all, "drifting on the air like a sycamore seed".

He also appears to disparage what for most of us is the ne plus ultra: "the marathon," he writes, "is really a spectator sport, and a false measure against which to measure our true capacity." For those of us with all of Emil Zapotek's air-clawing running style and none of his talent, that sounds a tad sniffy.

This is no false bravado, though. On Sunday, Harvie is running the London marathon - twice. He's starting at Big Ben at 0400 BST on race day and running to Greenwich. Then he'll join the other 30,000 and run back. (He's raising money for Mind, should you wish to contribute.)

But in person, Harvie is more generous to those of us who have - if only once - heaved our way around the marathon course. "It always gets to me," he says, "how, in the last mile, friends clap you on the back and tell you that you look great. They've no idea how painful it is."

But why place pain on a pedestal?

"I can understand that life is tough," says the 34 year-old with a day job as a publisher and a young family. "There are mortgages, kids, we get up early. But if you wake up and think - I want to do something for myself, I want to find out who I am, what I can withstand. Well, then pain is inevitably going to feature in that discovery."

An improper runner: Tim Franks running alongside Gazan long-distance athlete Nader el-Masri

An improper runner: Tim Franks running alongside Gazan long-distance athlete Nader el-Masri

That is true. Pain and iron self-discipline are, at least, unavoidable by-products of training for and then running a marathon. And, like Harvie, I was drawn to the idea of pushing myself after I'd become lost on a Saturday afternoon jog.

In his case, he ended up running 35 miles. In my case, it was a rather weedier 30-minute attempted loop in a forest in Belgium eight years ago, which turned into a then-shocking 80 minutes.

I had other incentives to run the London marathon. The schoolboy desire to take part in a major, televised sporting event. And the impetus to slay demons hatched at school, as the boy whom one particular red-faced PE master would bark and snort at. (I held what I'm sure was a school record, as the only boy to be lapped in the 1500 metres.)

But now? Would that I could claim to experience the "merging of consciousness and landscape" which Harvie writes about.

But I guess my riposte to Joan Rivers is that I run, not because a smile splits my face but because I can't afford plastic surgery, or even gym membership and I don't have an east African physique. I run because I want to stave off senescence. I run because I have to.


  • Comment number 1.

    Pretty self-indulgent stuff.

  • Comment number 2.

    I smile when I run, its one of the few things that makes me happy, and I'm doing long distances (always training for a marathon or 2!). All photos of me running show me with a large grin on my face, even when coming down a "mountian" after a fell race, coming third last it's there. Don't get me wrong, I still experience the pain and sometime the grin does turn to a grimance!

  • Comment number 3.

    I often smile when I run - usually out of an endorphin-assisted high, when the run is longer than an hour and in solitude. The smile is a blissed-out one (or at least I imagine it is) and comes about when my head is clear and I am carried along by the rhythm of my feet. If that sounds too zen for you, then try running (not fast) along a deserted lane or a country canal towpath for anything more than half an hour and you'll see what I mean.

    I don't remember smiling in the London Marathon, except when I overtook a massive cornish pasty on mile 25.

  • Comment number 4.

    1. At 13:17pm 11th Apr 2011, packersftw wrote:
    Pretty self-indulgent stuff.

    Self indulgent perhaps, but I think that is in the nature of running... Compare it with team sports and I can recall a time in my my youth when I'd quite happily play 90 minutes plus extra time and then some more of team sports... but whenever sent out on a cross country would rapidly slow down to an amble as soon as I could, and then hide out until it was time to run back, brave faced, the remaining 200 yards.
    Nobody starts running because they enjoy it... I run nowadays because I'm fat, and I can safely say that I have yet to learn how to smile while I do it. Nevertheless, I really think that after a while some people come to enjoy it. And whether that's some sort of masochistic thing, or simple pride in carrying out a challenge, it is always something we do just for ourselves. Am I right?

  • Comment number 5.

    You're not wrong!!


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