Footnotes; How to Lose a Marathon
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 psychojography.com 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