Why I run

Roger Bannister breaks four minutes for the mile, 1954

3 mins 56… 3 mins 57… “Wait – why am I doing this?” “For queen and country, you blasted fool!”

The best description of why someone runs is probably this extract from the best ever book about running – Roger Bannister’s autobiography, ‘First Four Minutes’:

“When I started serious running eight years ago I was seeking an outlet for something I did not understand which could not be expressed in any other way. The incentive to my running was part of a strange conflict – similar I suppose to the conflicts which exist in all of us. This was coupled with the desire to prove my ability to do something well. I set out to do it alone.”

(The rest of this book is just as thoughtful, poetic and human.)

I started running eight years ago too. (That is to say, I’ve been running for eight years too. But not non-stop for eight years… Oh, you know what I mean.) Now, I have not broken the four-minute mile, nor written a memoir in beautiful prose, nor have I been knighted. (Still time enough for me to achieve all three, of course.) But anyone who feels drawn to creativity will surely recognise in themselves something like Bannister’s mix of frustration, confusion and need. In fact, I can’t imagine any artist who could not read that extract without thinking ‘That’s me!’ (Or if you’re a West Coast gangsta rapper, “Fo’ shizzle, Sir Rodge!”)

Beyond expressing his personal motivation for running, Bannister here gives a marvellous description of the human condition. Who has never had some little whirlpool of feelings spinning inside their chest, impelling them to action? It could be love; it may be fear of unemployment or the pressure of mortgage repayments. Ireland is currently experiencing a running boom, with races popping up all over the country and no problem filling them; an indicator of depressing economic times, says conventional wisdom.

But running isn’t inspired by doom and gloom, and that isn’t what Bannister is trying to suggest. The most fundamental and popular form of running, small children chasing each other in school playgrounds, is 100% fun. Bannister’s book begins with his earliest memories of running along a beach, using words like ‘sheer joy’, ‘excitement’ (twice in one paragraph) and ‘beauty’ (three times).

‘The loneliness of the long distance runner’ has become a meaningless cliché, as if plodding out ten miles on a damp Sunday morning is the sporting equivalent of sitting in a dark corner to weep. Loads of people run, many of them with other people, and if they weren’t enjoying it they wouldn’t be doing it. But the alone-ness of running, the time by yourself if you so choose it – that can be something productive. Running along the Seine while training for the 2007 Paris Marathon, I was hard at work mentally – planning the business English classes I was giving in those days, drafting album reviews and blog posts. If you’re someone who regularly needs time apart to think constructively, running is the sport for you.

The ‘desire to prove my ability to do something well’ drives a lot of people, and not always for the better. We all know someone who beats themselves up for seemingly no reason. But Bannister isn’t trying desperately to feel good about himself after years wallowing on the couch; he wants to show the world that he is perfectly capable of hard work and good results, and taking pride in it all. As someone else would later put it, ‘yes we can’.

Before I read Bannister’s book I had never thought much about why I run. Since I read it, I haven’t had to think much about it either – everything seems to be summed up there for me. Self-expression, if I were pushed to dwell on it, but fundamentally because I love it.

If you’re in Dublin on 19 January, the next in the series of Banter public conversations is about Ireland’s current running boom, with a panel including Irish Times athletics correspondent Ian O’Riordan and Irish Times music writer Jim Carroll. Get more details, and a podcast after the event, at http://thisisbanter.com

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