A run­ner’s call to get o≠ the tread­mill and into the wild

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - REVIEW BY JOANNA SCUTTS Joanna Scutts is a fel­low at the Cen­ter for Women’s His­tory at the New York His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and the au­thor of the forth­com­ing “The Ex­tra Woman: How Mar­jorie Hil­lis Led a Gen­er­a­tion of Women to Live Alone and Like It.”

Early in the morn­ing, af­ter fin­ish­ing Vy­barr Cre­gan-Reid’s hard-to-cat­e­go­rize “Foot­notes,” I am penned in a cor­ral with more than 5,000 other run­ners in New York’s Cen­tral Park, as the sun heats up, mu­sic pumps and of­fi­cials con­grat­u­late us through loud­speak­ers for sup­port­ing the char­ity of the day. This four-mile race, with its en­try fee, tim­ing chips, bib num­bers, medals and tightly man­aged course, is far re­moved from the soli­tary, un­en­cum­bered, mostly bare­foot run­ning that Cre­gan-Reid cel­e­brates: a plas­tic bot­tle of Ga­torade to his hand­ful of wa­ter gulped from a moun­tain stream. I do my best to re­lax into a restora­tive state of “soft fas­ci­na­tion,” which the au­thor de­scribes as “a sort of me­an­der­ing, free-form mode of thought in­cul­cated most suc­cess­fully by nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments,” ab­sorb­ing the light splin­ter­ing through the leaves and a wave of scent from the flow­er­ing trees over­head. I lis­ten to my breath­ing and the am­bi­ent noise of the park rather than block­ing them out with head­phones. Through­out the run, I’m ab­sorbed by the large ques­tions this book raises about what I’m do­ing here. Is this nat­u­ral? Healthy? Good for me? If so, how, ex­actly — and why?

A lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Kent in south­ern Eng­land, Cre­gan-Reid isn’t an ob­vi­ous guide to the sci­ence of the hu­man body in mo­tion, but he gamely en­gages ex­perts in neu­ro­science, psy­chol­ogy, pa­le­on­tol­ogy and evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy in a quest to con­firm what he al­ready feels to be true: that run­ning out­side con­fers pow­er­ful phys­i­cal and men­tal ben­e­fits. One ex­pert in run­ning biome­chan­ics de­scribes in awed terms the com­plex­ity of the hu­man foot and ad­vo­cates run­ning with­out shoes, while another group of re­searchers is ex­plor­ing the ben­e­fits of im­mers­ing our­selves in green en­vi­ron­ments — the “room tem­per­a­ture of our vis­ual spec­trum” — for ben­e­fits that are easy to feel but hard to mea­sure. Run­ners or not, read­ers have no doubt en­coun­tered the thread of worry that links all th­ese ar­eas of study: that hu­mans are strug­gling with a fun­da­men­tal mal­ad­just­ment to mod­ern life and that sit­ting all day in­doors, hunched over our screens, is mak­ing us sick and mis­er­able. Run­ning of­fers one form of es­cape from moder­nity; in essence it is “ana­logue,” “hunter-gath­erer,” even “Palaeo.”

Cre­gan-Reid is no dis­pas­sion­ate sci­en­tist. His quest for un­der­stand­ing is rooted in his own emo­tional and cre­ative re­la­tion­ship with run­ning. In this, the book in­vites com­par­i­son to nov­el­ist Haruki Mu­rakami’s 2008 book, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning,” the pre­em­i­nent ti­tle in the highly spe­cial­ized sub-genre of me­moirs con­nect­ing phys­i­cal and lit­er­ary en­durance. Mu­rakami is a self-pu­n­ish­ing run­ner, given to feats of blood­y­minded stamina; Cre­gan-Reid by con­trast is amus­ingly hap­less, con­stantly go­ing out in the wrong gear, get­ting lost or caught in the rain, for­get­ting to eat, and never bring­ing wa­ter. An asth­matic who re­lies on med­i­ca­tion, he ad­mits to plenty of pro­cras­ti­na­tion and avoid­ance of ex­er­cise. Writ­ing a book about run­ning turns what was once a respite into home­work and even­tu­ally forces him to re­claim it by “bunk­ing off ” — play­ing hooky from an aca­demic con­fer­ence on Thomas Hardy to take to the streets of Dorch­ester. There’s no dis­ci­plined trade-off here be­tween a daily 10K and a daily thou­sand words — in­stead, run­ning is a mat­ter of me­an­der­ings and tres­passes, over moun­tain paths in the rain and through gaps in fences, past “keep out” signs on the grounds of pri­vate prop­erty. He runs through the streets of Brighton and the chalk hills of the nearby South Downs; along the banks of the Charles River and among Cal­i­for­nia red­woods; in in­evitable Lake Dis­trict rain; and even­tu­ally, in the Lon­don Marathon. He runs at first to out­pace a creep­ing de­pres­sion and then to es­cape a fail­ing re­la­tion­ship, and learns to brush off the stares and com­ments of passers-by as he runs bare­foot over the grass and con­crete of south Lon­don.

The au­thor’s en­thu­si­asm for the un­charted path in­spires fas­ci­nat­ing for­ays into English lit­er­ary his­tory, where Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge, Vir­ginia Woolf, John Ruskin and William Ha­zlitt, among oth­ers, of­fer in­sights into the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the body and the nat­u­ral environment. One run takes Cre­ganReid along the Cor­nish coast near the re­mote vil­lage where Thomas Hardy met his wife and where, af­ter an “over­whelm­ingly un­happy” 40-year mar­riage, he re­turned in his imag­i­na­tion to memo­ri­al­ize her in po­etry. Hardy was a walker, not a run­ner, but his “im­mer­sive” at­ten­tion to the de­tails of the nat­u­ral world nev­er­the­less par­al­lels the “fric­tive im­me­di­acy” of run­ning and the way it forces un­usual at­ten­tion to the de­tails of the earth, air and environment.

The vi­tal in­ter­play of hu­mans and na­ture is not to be con­fused with util­i­tar­ian “ex­er­cise” — es­pe­cially not on a tread­mill. Fo­cus­ing on the bru­tal im­pris­on­ment of Os­car Wilde, Cre­ganReid ex­plores the gym sta­ple’s ori­gins in the pe­nal sys­tem of late Vic­to­rian Eng­land, where it was de­ployed as an in­stru­ment of phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture. What this au­thor talks about when he talks about run­ning is free­dom, not fit­ness — and his ide­al­is­tic vi­sion touches only briefly on the fact that not ev­ery run­ner is as free as a young white man to run with­out fear, ha­rass­ment or threat.

If any­thing here in­spires a gym-bound or seden­tary reader to ven­ture out­side and claim that free­dom all the same, it is less likely to be the book’s sci­ence than its art. The run­ner’s height­ened at­ten­tion is con­veyed in the writer’s in­ten­si­fied prose, es­pe­cially when de­scrib­ing sen­sory phe­nom­ena such as the “min­eral tang” of rain on con­crete — a smell called pet­ri­chor, from the Greek word for stone and for ichor, “the golden fluid that runs in the veins of the gods and the im­mor­tals.” In the tra­di­tion of the English na­ture po­ets he writes about, as well as of con­tem­po­rary “psy­cho­geog­ra­phers” who seek play­ful new ways to ex­plore ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, Cre­gan-Reid ven­tures out most of­ten into un­dra­matic, ev­ery­day land­scapes. Un­der the right sort of sus­tained at­ten­tion, th­ese or­di­nary places can nev­er­the­less burst into rev­e­la­tion — call it a run­ner’s high, Woolf ’s “mo­ment of be­ing” or some other flash of in­sight. What­ever it is, it’s worth chas­ing.


By Vy­barr Cre­gan-Reid St. Martin’s. 334 pp. $26.99

FOOT­NOTES How Run­ning Makes Us Hu­man

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