Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human

Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human

by Vybarr Cregan-Reid


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Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

Running is not just a sport. It reconnects us to our bodies and the places in which we live, breaking down our increasingly structured and demanding lives. It allows us to feel the world beneath our feet, lifts the spirit, lets our minds out to play, and helps us to slip away from the demands of the modern world.

When Vybarr Cregan-Reid set out to discover why running means so much to so many, he began a journey which would take him out to tread London’s cobbled streets, the boulevards of Paris, and down the crumbling alleyways of Ruskin’s Venice. Footnotes transports you to the deserted shorelines of Seattle, the giant redwood forests of California, and to the world’s most advanced running laboratories and research centers. Using debates in literature, philosophy, neuroscience, and biology, this book explores that simple human desire to run.

Liberating and inspiring, Footnotes reminds us why feeling the earth beneath our feet is a necessary and healing part of our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250127242
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/03/2017
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 636,151
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

VYBARR CREGAN-REID is a Reader in English and Environmental Humanities at the University of Kent. He has written on and been interviewed about running in major publications all over the world. He has also written numerous articles and essays for academic journals and a book on Victorian culture, Discovering Gilgamesh. He lives in the UK.

Read an Excerpt




My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.

– D.H. Lawrence, letter to Ernest Collings, January 1913

Those who wish to forget painful thoughts, do well to absent themselves for a while from the ties and objects that recall them.

– William Hazlitt, 'On Going a Journey', 1822

Barefooted she proposed to perform her pilgrimage; and her clean shoes and change of snow-white thread stockings were to be reserved for special occasions of ceremony. She was not aware, that the English habits of comfort attach an idea of abject misery to the idea of a barefooted traveller

– Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian, 1818


If our bodies know best, why are they easily injured when we do something so seemingly natural as running? On the one hand, running seems very easy, but that is only because our bodies are so very good at it. The most powerful supercomputer on the planet cannot administer the sheer number of computations it takes to run, untethered, on two legs. Wherever our running intelligence is, running is not all conscious to us and is so complicated that only the T-1000 Terminators of our imagination are able to do it. Because our running knowledge is buried so deeply within muscle fibres, cells and our DNA, we have to accept that we cannot fully articulate its complexities. That doesn't mean our bodies don't know how to do it. We may feel our way towards understanding the alchemy of running by learning how to use our senses, getting them firing, and seeing what they are capable of, and accepting that our bodies know more about running than we ever will.

Our running intelligence is unquestionably there, but it is not so easy to lay hands on, because in many of us a proportion of it has been forgotten. It's like reading a whole oeuvre of Austens or Atwoods and keeping them on your bookshelf. The details of each book may have faded in your memory. The plots don't quite make sense as you remember them. Some of the character names have gone. But in those books there will be snippets of dialogue or dramatic moments that require no effort to recall, because for whatever reason they stayed with you, adhered to some bit of knowledge you already had, or clung like burrs because the books knew some emotion of yours that you had never shared or even named. Likewise with running, once you have garnered a little experience, you won't need to remember how to push forward from toe-off, or how to counter-rotate, because these things will have stayed with you and become part of your vocabulary of daily movement. Just as with running, all the forgotten details of those books are in your library; you just have to work a little to recover them.

There are some pretty basic things about running that may have fallen from your habits of daily movement somewhere along the way between childhood and adulthood. It's not just that these are things that you will have forgotten; you may even have forgotten how to know them. So there are obvious things like: When you run are your gluteal muscles firing? Are your soleus muscles so atrophied that they can no longer function effectively during plantar-flexed landing (with the foot tilted slightly downwards)? Because you have been mostly sat down since the age of five, there's a good chance that you also have an anterior pelvic tilt. You can look in a mirror and see some of these things – like poor posture, or that convex arch in your lower back, or the hunch in your shoulders. You can feel your soleus muscles – for some people they will be so insubstantial that they don't even know they are there. You can even feel your gluteals as you run, and see if they are firing, or just bobbing around like everything else seems to. Many of us have to train our bodies back, and it's hard and it takes time. And I don't mean a fortnight of heel-raises done while attacking the washing up, I mean time.

There is good news; you are already able to do most of what is required for you to run. The bad news is that everything else you will have to learn and remember. So, these first chapters are about our bodies, everything from mechanical muscle function to what D.H. Lawrence called the 'blood consciousness', his term for innate, embodied knowledge, a concept that has its roots as much in ancient Daoism as it does in modern philosophy.

Before I go on to explain some of the incredible things I discovered about running during the writing of this book, I'm going to tell you a little about how I got here.


Most people's acquaintance with running begins at school, where some flourish at it, but most of us are taught through the brutality of cross-country runs and asthmatic sprints to steer clear of such a horrid, painful and pointless activity. And here in education, as with running and so many other aspects of my life, I proved to be a late starter, dawdling for decades after the starting pistol had been fired.

In 2003 I tied up a loose end that I had been tripping over for years. I had left school with little except pocketfuls of sticky sweet-wrappers and resentment. At the age of 16 I saw my final exams as little more than a relief from the boredom of class attendance. I hated being at school, and did my best not to attend at all in my final years. I think an E in Maths was my best result. Mostly, I got a U – the same grade I'd have got if I'd failed to show. Biology I finished early, and sat in silence while others around me seemed to be writing with such intensity that they scratched splinters of wood from their desks. In the final moments I noticed that someone next to me was writing on the back flap of their exam paper. I had stopped on the final right-hand page because that's where all the previous papers I'd sat had finished. Having idled there doing nothing for half an hour, I turned the page in horror as I saw an unlabelled diagram of the female reproductive organs. 'Pens down, please.' Thirty years later and I can still remember the injustice of being denied probably the only opportunity I had to bag some easy marks, and all for the want of three simple letters: PTO. They awarded me one letter for my efforts: U.

In English (a subject with which I am now better acquainted) I fared equally poorly. What that boy wrote about Far from the Madding Crowd and To Kill a Mockingbird, two novels which to this day I have still not read, I can only guess. U.

I segued into a number of not-so-good jobs, the low points being an attack by a drunk wielding a cheeseburger, having to gouge vomit out of an overflowing urinal, and being threatened with being put through a window for not filling out a coach ticket in a timely enough manner. A pattern began to emerge where I seemed to be staying less and less time at each job; with each new role I reached the boredom threshold sooner. By my mid-twenties, and after about ten jobs, I had had enough. I wanted to go to university.

I cracked my knuckles on some Open University courses, and I was ready to play.

I signed up to read English and began with a great deal of trepidation, but soon discovered that in the time since school something had changed in me and I was able to apply myself. Seven years later, with a BA and an MA behind me, I completed my studies when I finished my doctorate in 2003.

It was sometime during the seemingly endless days of writing my PhD thesis that I took up running. I lived in a hamlet in Sussex where I could open the back gate, cross a road, and from there could be on rural footpaths with stupendous views for miles. My then partner would go out to work in the morning and my days would vary between sitting at my desk and looking out of windows for hours, and watching reams of really loud, stupid films (there were no neighbours to disturb). Guilt would eventually wrench in my gut and I would settle into work properly sometime in the afternoon. It sounds blissful now – I had no formal job because I was on a scholarship, but it was boring, too, having no work friends and living deep in the country with no one to talk to from morning till night.

I started slow with my PhD, but I still managed to do it quite quickly. By the end of it I worked in such a sustained manner that I began to see stars, like when Jerry bashes Tom on the head with an unfeasibly weighty mallet. The way I could dim the flicker of the stars was to wash them in those long-distance views towards the South Downs.

Feeling a little time-poor in my writing-up year, I began to run so I could cover more distance in less time. I remember periodically suffering with shin splints (where the anterior tibialis tears away from the bone). I now know that this is a common complaint among beginners; I probably bought some new trainers to remedy the condition.

From the very beginning of my running career I knew in my heart that there was something lurking in the long grass other than 'exercise'. From the moment I started, I knew it was giving me more than I asked from it.

It was also around this time that I started to see physios every once in a while for minor ailments. This usually entailed me stopping running until whatever was troubling me went away. Then, a few weeks or months later, forgetting all, I would start up again and be able to keep going for eight, ten or twelve weeks before I would get injured and the cycle would begin again. This sequence went on for a few years: through a move to Brighton and a new job (a step-up to a research fellowship – and with the likelihood of fewer burger attacks).

All I knew about running biomechanics at this point was that there were different kinds of feet and that some needed more support than others. I bought new trainers in the hope that I could outsource my running mechanics to them.

The shop I went to at the time was a cavern of running garb, gels, water bottles and watches. The windows were small, the type apple-cheeked urchins look through in Dickens novels, and there was never any room to move around inside. It was basically Ollivander's (the wand shop from Harry Potter) but for runners, and the staff could be equally eccentric. On one occasion a tall, skinny dude with a crazed expression and huge hair came to help me.

'I quite like these shoes,' I told him.

'No! The shoes must be right for you!'

He then got me to take off a shoe and a sock.

'Now jump up and down on that leg. Let's see what you've got.'

Not at all sure of what I might have, I looked round for hidden cameras. People idled around me, fingering running vests, choosing socks. What I was being asked to do seemed like business as usual to them. So I bobbed up and down for a bit trying not to catch anyone's eye. Time slowed. Inspiration struck him and he ran off to grab a pair that probably had a phoenix's tail feather in the sole, and I was given the shoes that had chosen me, like a magic wand that had chosen its owner. I say 'given', I mean they cost me £85.

It's easy to be judgemental, but the truth is, if I had hopped instead on my other foot I would have left Diagon Alley with a completely different set of trainers, because Ollivander's first error (among many) was to assume that all runners have symmetrical feet. They don't.

I got by in them: the divination method for choosing shoes must have had something going for it. At the very least, I knew they were well suited to hopping up and down on at least 50 per cent of my legs.

Over the next couple of years, I became more committed to my running because I found I needed it even more than I had in the past. So many things seemed to be going well for me. We lived in a nice house. After a decade and a half together we got hitched with a Civil Partnership. I segued from the nice research fellowship into a good job at a good university, yet I found myself running further and further every day in an attempt to shed an ever growing weight of anxiety that seemed all the more unbearable because I couldn't make any sense of it. More than anything, the pressure that I felt building in my heart seemed to come from a sense of unbearable stasis, a feeling that concrete was being poured all around me and my body was about to be disposed of.

My response, quite naturally, was to run.

I lace up, spin the key in the lock, fold it neatly into my shorts pocket, and I'm away – following the pathways that will lead me towards the long spinal peaks of the South Downs. As soon as I start moving, and my heart starts beating, I feel a sense of relief that something real is happening at last. No longer fretting about the future, for an hour I will drift, distracted by the present as it glides by.

I climb to the brow of the hill at the end of our road and turn north onto a thickly clogged artery of cars headed for the heart of Brighton. I am moving against the stream of traffic to find air. After a mile up this road, the traffic turns hard east or west and I am suddenly alone. A couple of hundred more metres and I cannot even hear it. A network of pathways leads me towards the peaks from which, because the air is clear, I will be able to see the Isle of Wight to the west and most of Sussex and Surrey to the north.

The South Downs are an escarpment of chalk deposits, folded like dough against mid-Sussex's greensand and Weald clay. They are some 60 million years old and they are slowly shifting apart from their sibling, the North Downs. Both stretch in parallel for hundreds of miles.

Where beech forests dominate the woodland of the North Downs, there are only two forests in the eastern half of the South (in Stanmer and Friston). This lack of cover means that from certain coigns of vantage I will be able to look out upon something like a thousand square miles of the South-east.

In 1773, Gilbert White (of Selbourne) referred to the South Downs as his 'chain of majestic mountains', where he saw 'new beauty every time' he walked them, and the nineteenth-century poet and naturalist W. H. Hudson wrote that 'during the whole fifty-three mile length from Beachy Head to Harting the ground never rises above a height of 850 feet, but we feel on top of the world.'

The much underrated early Romantic poet Charlotte Smith devoted a sonnet to this place – although like many she could not resist the landscape's invitation to explore herself. In 'To the South Downs', she asked,

Ah! Hills beloved – your turf, your flowers remain;
The syntax is rugged as Downs chalk, and the poem sees in this place an inoculation against something that cannot be borne. It ends in the bleak wish for oblivion as a liberation from pain. This desire for the heart to stop 'throbbing' is also found in Thomas Hardy's 1898 lyric to sexual frustration:

I look into my glass,
If only we might stop feeling, both poets say.

And when I touch the first grass of the Downs I feel like I have stepped onto a web; that my movement has set it tingling; that this is tightly spun fabric, all connected; that the past is suddenly tangible; that it is a labyrinth in which I am not lost. My absorption is so complete that I feel I am no longer seeing with my eyes, but with the pores of my skin. The last thing I feel is the desire for it to end.

In mile three, I am still headed away and I arrive at Devil's Dyke. It is the longest and deepest dry valley in the UK. Legend has it that the Devil himself dug the mile-long 300-foot trench to flood the churches on the Weald. He was disturbed in the act by an old woman who tricked a rooster into crowing. Thinking morning was about to break, the Devil fled. The last shovel of earth thrown over his shoulder landed in the sea to become the Isle of Wight 50 miles away.

In the nineteenth century, it became one of Sussex's principal tourist attractions. Tens of thousands were ferried up here on the newly laid railway. The trains are long gone. The only evidence of their having been here are the few scattered balls of concrete mixed with an algebra of rusted iron protruding from the tussocky grass.


Excerpted from "Footnotes"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Vybarr Cregan-Reid.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Prying Sprite of Peckham Rye xi

Part I Sensing

1 Footnotes to a Body of Knowledge: Our Body's Intelligences. The South Downs and Boston 3

2 Senses as Lenses: How to Train Your Senses. The Lake District and Seattle 53

Part II Reasoning

3 What's Running Through Your Mind?: Running, Neuroscience and Environmental Psychology. The Cotswolds, Brighton and Ann Arbor, Michigan 89

4 In Praise of Idleness: How to Run Away from Work. Dorchester, Maiden Castle and Lundy Island 127

Part III Earthing

5 The World at Our Feet: How the Places We Run Change Us, and How We Change Them. Aldeburgh and Santa Cruz, California 161

6 Wilde Times on Treadmills: Running Inside and Out. Greenwich, London; Seasalter, Kent; and North Cornwall 191

Part IV Roaming

7 The Antique Art of Trespassing: How to Run Wild. Norwood and Shooter's Hill; Harrow; Faversham; Walden Pond, Massachusetts; and Paris 227

8 Running the Stones of Venice: Running, Creativity and Freedom. London and Venice 263

Epilogue: Detroit 289

Notes 295

Acknowledgements 333

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