Apologies to Haruki Murakami , whose bestseller What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is my comfort read of choice, for swiping his title format. In this book Murakami talks about combining writing with running, his ‘deficiencies’ as a physical specimen and his disappointments, as well as his extraordinary triumphs. It isn’t all plain sailing, he writes, (as well we all know).
‘When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not, a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface…’
‘I’d like to postpone, for as long as I possibly can, the point where my vitality is defeated and surpassed by the toxin. That’s my aim as a novelist…Which is exactly why even though people say, “He’s no artist,” I keep on running.
I have many books about running. Unlike Murakami, I have not yet written one, but many ideas whirl around my head, usually when I’m out running. And, like him, I keep on running.
The books about running I love the best are old school.
I dip into Running, The Women’s Handbook regularly. This solemn little tome, published in 1985 and sparsely adorned with groovy hand drawings, saw me through bouts of self doubt and long-running loneliness when I first bought a pair of budget trainers and crept out to run while the family slept.
The writers, Liz Sloan and Ann Kramer, address all the beginner’s (particularly the beginner woman’s) worries about breathlessness, achiness and fear of becoming a laughing stock. Even though the book was 20 years old when I first picked it up, I preferred its tone to glossier, ‘latest research’ based ones. I suppose, because it dated from my era (I was a young woman in the 1980s) it was bathed in a rosy nostalgia. I find myself wondering about the case-studies within its pages, The 47-year-old who attempted her first 10 mile race…is she dead or alive? She may still be running. I hope so.
On the subject of running off this mortal coil, I read an obituary in The Guardian about Sylvester Stein, whose sensible book is another of my comfort reads. It’s called The Running Guide to Keeping Fit, with the comforting cover line Running after 35. Stein should know all about the veteran years. He kept on running competitively way past the age of 80, and only stopped, he said, because there were too few people to race against. Stein’s writing style is chatty. It’s full of conversations between people with names like Charlie and Mavis. He’s also really good on case histories about women I can relate to, like the ‘Flying Scot’ Jenny Wood Allen of Dundee, who started running aged 71, and the absolutely stunning 1985 London Marathon time of a chap called Hugh Currie, aged 62 (2 hours and 48 minutes). Reading about people like this further strengthens my resolve to improve past 50, even unto 60. Yea! And beyond!
These books are a solid presence in my life. I refer to them constantly and they reassure me in a way that running magazines just can’t. As a one-time contributor to Women’s Running magazine I still a copy sent to me every month (I presume at some point I’ll fall off their radar). The constant banging on about weight loss, flattering kit (at eye-popping prices) and fashionable food fetishes (chia seeds, baobab, kale with everything) makes me even more wistful about the cheerfully uncomplicated advice delivered by Sylvester:
‘My advice is to eat what tastes good to you, and ignore the diet plans and commercial recipes offered to distance runners..
…you cannot eat your way to a …personal best. That can only come from training.’
I particularly love the make-do attitude to sportswear I read about in the pages of my old timers. These elites of yesteryear weren’t tricked out in heavily branded technical kit; rather, they selected a suitable outfit for the race in hand from limited resources available to them.
One person who is particularly strong on vintage running kit nostalgia is Kathrine Switzer, whose book Marathon Woman is a relatively newcomer to my venerable running book collection (it was published in 2009). The best bits are her frank and earthy reminiscences about the minutiae of being one of the only women in a male-dominated sporting world. She writes about the bulky grey tracksuit she wore when she was famously elbowed out of the 1967 all-male Boston Marathon. The sweatpants that absorbed all the icy rain that fell during the race and became so heavy Switzer had to jettison them and risk further approbation, are immortalised in the now legendary grainy image of the attempted ejection, reprinted oft in pieces about women’s struggle to be taken seriously as distance runners (women were banned from running anything further than 10K until the 1960s) captured for posterity.
Switzer’s running kit failures are hilarious. On one, particularly hot Boston marathon, she dove into some handy restrooms and adjusted her outfit, which had started out as:
‘…leotard and tights, covered with a sort of Grecian white wrap…’
Can you imagine? Once she’d attacked the tights with a kitchen knife, and thrown away the leotard, she was adorned in skimpy wrap and fraying shorts, her hair flowing free from its ribboned bun
‘…the exact image for women I was trying to avoid.’
They make me laugh, these old running books, and I suppose it is only natural that their old-fashioned ways would appeal to a reader who goes by the name of Marathon Gran, but there’s one thing they have in common with all the other books that have been published in their wake – they all describe running as ‘empowering’ and capable of working wonders on one’s self esteem.
As Liz and Ann so confidently avow in their Handbook, running
‘alters your life, gives you health and confidence, and ultimately changes the very way you think about yourself…’
Why wouldn’t I keep on reading a book that reminds me so confidently why I can, and should, and always will, keep on running?