It was 9 July 2016, a bright summer's morning. I had driven into Exeter with my thirteen-year-old son Oliver for a 5km race. Neither of us was in the mood: I was feeling a painful twinge in my hip which worried me; he was just moody. Nevertheless we lined up alongside about two hundred other runners and set off - in my case, much too fast. Soon I slowed a little and settled into what felt like a moderate pace. However, at the quarter way mark I glanced at my watch and saw I had completed the first 1.25 km five seconds faster than I had ever done before. Heartened, I put on a bit of speed and kept it up, and went on to achieve a lifetime target. I was exultant but exhausted, so my joy took the form of deep contentment rather than outright euphoria. But where was Oliver? Way back. More than two minutes outside his best. When he finished he was despondent and uncommunicative, and did not ask me about my run. He got changed and, with a hug and a sad 'see you later', he headed off into town to do whatever thirteen-year-old boys get up to when their dads aren't around. I drove home and went back to work. But about two hours later, when the results had come through, there was a telephone call. It was Oliver - the first time he had ever rung me voluntarily. 'Congratulations, Dad,' he said. He had checked my result as well as his own, and knew instantly what that time would mean to me. He was so eager to talk he just had to ring straightaway - he couldn't even wait a couple of hours until he came home on the bus.
As I put down the phone, I reflected on how lucky I was - not because I had able to run so fast but because I had such a son.
It struck me then how running teaches us lessons in life, or reminds us of things we should never take for granted. For instance, you can't experience a moment like the one I have just described and not be aware that people who run together share a bond. They may have much in common anyway but running together imparts a whole set of insights, values and understandings that goes beyond their normal level of kinship or friendship. That realisation made me write a list of all the other things that I had learnt from running. When I read it back to myself, this line was among them:
For a brief moment I toyed with the idea of beginning a book with those very words. Almost immediately, however, my literary inner policeman stopped me. For a start, isn't it pompous! Running is essentially a humble pursuit: a reduction of physical performance to its simplest form. It is the very antithesis of such portentous and grandiose phrases. If I were to begin a book like that, people would undoubtedly shake their heads and reply: 'no, Ian, we just run in our own separate ways for our own reasons, don't try to tell us why'. Besides, who would want to read a book by me about running? I'm a historian and novelist by profession, not an athlete; what do I know? Even at my best I'm a mediocre runner. If you were to take a random sample of the male population and put them in a race alongside me, I'd be lucky to be in the top twenty percent, and some of them will be a lot faster. Nevertheless, that line did not go away. It lingered in my mind, especially the 'you run for meaning' bit. It might not be true for everyone but it certainly was, and is, true for me.
Five months have now passed since that phone call and that list. Gradually I've come to realise that how good or bad a runner I am is not the point. If you want to write a book about running, it's what you have to say that matters, not how fast you run. If my best performances on the page were all to flow from awful performances on the track, well, so what? Let the good runners demonstrate their extraordinary skills in winning races, that is their forte; mine is writing. Now I come to think of it, the very first time I had to call on my writing skills outside school lessons, I also was also completely unqualified to pontificate on the subject in question. It was when I was at boarding school, aged fourteen: I learned that I could avoid the welter of punishments dished out to juniors by writing erotic fiction for the prefects. At that age I certainly had not even attempted a tenth of the sexual shenanigans I wrote about, and many of my peers had much more experience with girls than I did; but I had both imagination and writing ability, and that was what counted. With that lesson in mind, there now seems very little reason not to write about things like running. After all, if you can write about people doing physical things with their kit off, you should certainly be able to describe them doing things with their shorts on.
This, then, is the first reason for writing about running. There is just so much to be learned about humanity from sharing this very simple, collective endeavour. Running - especially running with other people - makes me feel like I'm entering a great cathedral for the first time. I am an open-mouthed spectator, looking up, simply amazed at what there is to behold. I see acts of great kindness and consideration, even among strangers. I see courage and sadness, resignation and defiance in every race. Most of all, I can see the difference between thinking of yourself as an individual - someone who is divided off from the crowd - and as a human being, a person who is connected in some way to everyone else. When you find yourself seeing such things, of course you want to share them. After all, if you stumbled into a great cathedral for the first time, would you not want to tell people about it?
My second reason for writing about running is to do with age. I turned forty-nine last September, so now I'm approaching the half-century bell. I don't know how many laps of life's circuit I have left but this much is obvious: fifty marks the beginning of a decade that carries with it the responsibility to prepare for diminishing physical ability and eventual death. It would be irresponsible to stare blankly at the prospect of being sixty or seventy years of age and not have given some thoughts to ageing and dying. And let's face it, how lucky we are, living in the twenty-first century, when we can think of old age in this way, or, rather, put off thinking about it until the age of fifty. In 1900, life expectancy at birth was about the age I am now. At the same time, it would be morbid in the extreme to prepare for my twilight years and not celebrate still being alive. As Nikos Kazantzakis urges his readers, 'leave death nothing but a burnt-out castle'. Why leave your wine cellar stocked with your finest vintages? Why leave any books unwritten, any songs unsung, any sweetness untasted? As long as you don't selfishly or wantonly consume more than your fair share of what the world has to offer, why not fill yourself to the brim with desire and satisfaction to the very end? Leave no race unrun! The man or woman who comes last in a race is at least beating those who do not take part. He or she is at least beating death.
These two factors - the lessons one learns from everyday things and the framework of my own mortality - are like two great unseen forces pressing on me, urging me to write about running. I suppose they were always there in the background, I just hadn't been as keenly aware of them before 9 July. But since then, what has been uppermost in my mind about that day is not the race itself, it is Oliver's phone call. There were two results of that run: one was the achievement of a lifetime ambition. The other was far more important.
The above passages are the draft beginning of an introduction to a book on the meaning of running. In 2017 I plan to run fifty organised races - forty-five 5k and five half marathons - and write a short piece based on each one. The completion of the book, however, is somewhat dependent on my staying healthy, so I won't promise anything. But you can check progress by following the links below.