Foot­notes; How to Lose a Marathon

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Foot­notes is a deep-think­ing foray into run­ning and its in­ter­sec­tions with science, lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. Au­thor Vy­barr Gre­gan-Reid teaches within the English depart­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Kent, with re­search spe­cial­iz­ing in nov­el­ists Thomas Hardy and Charles Dick­ens. He’s also a run­ner. The re­sult is a heady, cere­bral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the sim­plest of hu­man ath­letic ac­tiv­i­ties.

On the side, he runs a blog at psy­cho­jog­ra­ with posts like “Why run­ning makes you smarter,” which in­cludes a plethora of sci­en­tific stud­ies that il­lus­trate the point. Like his blog, Foot­notes mashes to­gether sci­en­tific study with the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a run­ner. Why is run­ning in na­ture so much bet­ter than run­ning in cityscape, and why are both so much bet­ter than run­ning on a tread­mill?

The punny ti­tle is a good de­scrip­tion of the book – each chap­ter is a fairly in­de­pen­dent foray into a topic rel­e­vant to run­ning and deep think­ing, be it of the sci­en­tific, lit­er­ary, or philo­soph­i­cal per­sua­sion.

In one, Gre­gan-Reid at­tempts to un­der­stand no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult philoso­pher Mer­lot-Ponty through the lens of run­ning out­doors. In an­other, he ex­plores the tread­mill as not-just-a-fig­u­ra­tive tor­ture de­vice. (Why is tread­mill run­ning so, so ter­ri­ble? Well, con­sid­er­ing its ac­tual ge­n­e­sis as a tor­ture de­vice for pris­on­ers, it was never sup­posed to be fun.)

For Gre­gan-Reid, who prefers run­ning bare­foot to be­ing shod (the longevity of his re­la­tion­ship with one pair of run­ning shoes he de­scribes is, to the av­er­age three-pair-a-year run­ner, terrifying), much of his fas­ci­na­tion takes place at the nexus of na­ture, the mind and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity.

For in­stance, run­ners know, ex­pe­ri­en­tially, and science knows, sci­en­tif­i­cally, that go­ing for a run in na­ture makes us happy. Yet, how hard is it some days to head out? Gre­gan-Reid him­self con­fesses: “I have, count­less times, not wanted to go out run­ning in the rain, but I have never had my per­sonal forecast of a grim, damp, cold and wet run con­firmed by my ex­pe­ri­ence of it.”

Gre­gan-Reid ar­gues that this hu­man hap­pi­ness, though we are con­sis­tently lousy in be­ing able to an­tic­i­pate it, is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent in build­ing em­pa­thy with our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. More em­pa­thy for our en­vi­ron­ment means that we’re more likely to be – in ad­di­tion to smarter, calmer, hap­pier – de­fend­ers of green spa­ces.

Although his ra­tio­nale is high-level stuff, the means is far less so. Go run. Out­side.— Jay Smith In the open­ing scene of The Simp­sons episode “New Kids on the Blecch,” Homer signs up to run the 98th an­nual Spring­field Marathon (as the broad­cast states, run to com­mem­o­rate its founder Jebe­diah Spring­field run­ning six states to avoid his cred­i­tors). Af­ter just 200 m, Homer runs so hard that he hits the wall and in­stantly de­hy­drates, trans­form­ing him into a Grampa Simp­son dop­pel­ganger. Mean­while, Bart awaits the lead­ers in an al­ley­way near the fi­nal straight­away. As they near, Bart dons a mous­tache and pre­tends to be an Ital­ian run­ner, jump­ing into the race Rosie Ruiz-style. He wins, echo­ing the con­tro­ver­sial fin­ish of the 1908 Olympic Marathon. It’s a clas­sic Simp­sons scene, with each char­ac­ter run­ning the race they way you would ex­pect them to: Homer is overzeal­ous, try­ing to prove his mas­culin­ity to Marge; Mr. Burns takes a rick­shaw, pulled by Smithers; the Comic Book Store Guy dresses up as Flash; while Bart cuts ev­ery cor­ner for easy glory.

Simp­sons writer and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Joel Co­hen’s new book about his marathon ex­pe­ri­ence reads like an en­tire sea­son’s worth of notes on the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of Homer’s train­ing. Co­hen’s run­ning story is typ­i­cal and highly re­lat­able. Af­ter grow­ing up an ac­tive yet awk­ward kid in Cal­gary, he lived in Toronto for a while be­fore fol­low­ing his brother out to L .A. All went well. He landed writ­ing cred­its on a few T.V. shows be­fore land­ing a per­ma­nent gig in The Simp­sons’ writ­ing room. But life as a writer had worn on his fit­ness. He de­cided to do some­thing about it, and started run­ning. Then he got the idea that maybe he should give a marathon a shot.

How to Lose a Marathon is the fun­ni­est run­ning book you’re ever go­ing to read. It func­tions as equal parts how-to man­ual (or, rather, don’t-do-it-like-Idid man­ual) and mem­oir. Co­hen ef­fort­lessly shows off his com­edy chops in both the form and con­tent of the book, with self-dep­re­cat­ing chap­ter head­ings and open­ing quotes, as well as bru­tally hon­est rev­e­la­tions about the ups and downs of train­ing for a marathon.

The book’s nar­ra­tive leads us to Co­hen’s first crack at 42.2k, the 2013 New York City Marathon, in a charm­ing and en­joy­able fashion. How to Lose a Marathon is also filled with his­tory and teach­able mo­ments, re­veal­ing Co­hen as a noble stu­dent of the sport. If noth­ing else, Co­hen in­sists through­out this worth­while and re­fresh­ing read that it’s im­por­tant to learn from your mis­takes. Laugh­ter is a key com­po­nent of How to Lose a Marathon, and it should be to run­ning as well.— MD

Foot­notes: How Run­ning Makes Us Hu­man By Vy­barr Gre­gan-Reid St Mar­tin’s Press

How to Lose a Marathon By Joel Co­hen Abrams Pub­lish­ing

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