The alone­ness of the long-dis­tance run­ner

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Riordan

‘B ecause when on a raw and frosty morn­ing I get up at five o’clock and stand shiv­er­ing my belly off on the stone floor... I feel like the first and last man on the world, both at once ... it makes me feel 50 times bet­ter than when I’m cooped up in that dor­mi­tory with 300 oth­ers . . .

“And as soon as I take that first fly­ing leap out onto the frosty grass of an early morn­ing when even the birds haven’t the heart to whis­tle... it’s a treat, be­ing a long-dis­tance run­ner, out in the world by your­self with not a soul to make you bad-tem­pered... some­times I think that I’ve never been so free as dur­ing that cou­ple of hours when I’m trot­ting up the path out of the gates...”

Par­don me if you’ve read this be­fore, but some­thing and ev­ery­thing about that pas­sage comes around again each Jan­uary – even 60 years after Alan Sil­li­toe first wrote it. His 1959 novella The Lone­li­ness of The Long-Dis­tance Run­ner ,a mere 40-page spread within a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, is still among the best ex­am­ples of run­ning lit­er­a­ture, if only fleet­ingly cap­tur­ing the pure essence and pur­pose of why peo­ple run.

It may also be one of the most mis­un­der­stood ti­tles.

His is the story not of “lone­li­ness” but “alone­ness”, which Sil­li­toe suit­ably cel­e­brates, like when first get­ting into the mind of his Borstal boy, Colin Smith.

On pub­li­ca­tion, The New York Times de­clared it “lusty and de­fi­ant”, and those words hold true to­day: the writ­ing is cer­tainly lusty – “as I run and see my smoky breath go­ing out into the air as if I had ten cigars stuck in dif­fer­ent parts of my body” – and the tone still ut­terly de­fi­ant, not just in how a sim­ple dis­tance run can help es­cape the trap­pings of the Es­sex Borstal life in the 1950s, but the trap­pings of so­ci­ety it­self.

It holds true in other ways too, be­cause now more than ever it seems the dis­tance run­ner is go­ing back to that na­ture, em­brac­ing the frosty grass and smoky breath, real­is­ing that for all the cheap thrills at our fin­ger­tips these days, the heart-rate mon­i­tors and tracking apps, all wrapped up in ear phones and com­pres­sion socks, noth­ing beats the alone­ness of the real thing.

Don’t just take my word for it. How many peo­ple do you know have swapped the gym tread­mill for a Saturday morn­ing park run? And not just run­ning; swim­ming, cy­cling or any prop­erly out­door sport­ing pur­suit, even when em­brac­ing the cold of this time of year, if not yet at full blast.

The Econ­o­mist ran a fea­ture last month on why cold-wa­ter swim­ming is surg­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in the rivers, lakes and ponds around Eng­land. It is surg­ing here too, and cen­tral to all this is re­dis­cov­er­ing the im­por­tance and method of proper breath­ing.

How to breathe

No one will last long sub­merged in cold wa­ter if they for­get to re­mem­ber how to prop­erly breathe, re­lease the en­dor­phins and adren­a­line which come with it, the same with the dis­tance run­ner out on those morn­ings when even the birds haven’t the heart to whis­tle.

Still it of­ten takes some re­mind­ing. “If there is one sin­gle phys­i­cal fac­tor on which suc­cess can be said to based, it is breath­ing,” wrote Percy Cerutty, the Aus­tralian dis­tance run­ning coach, in Suc­cess: In Sport and Life – the last of six books he wrote in the 1960s. Cerutty, who trained the great Aus­tralian mil­ers Herb El­liott and John Landy, know what he was talk­ing about.

He grew up in ex­treme poverty and didn’t taste any kind of fruit un­til he was 15. In 1942, at age 47, his health had failed so dra­mat­i­cally that he de­cided to do some­thing dra­matic about it. He rev­o­lu­tionised his diet, eat­ing only raw, nat­u­ral food, and em­barked on a vi­o­lent ex­er­cise regime, all based on proper breath­ing. Five years later, at aged 52, he ran a marathon in ex­actly three hours.

Suc­cess: In Sport and Life has five chap­ters ded­i­cated to the art of proper breath­ing, what Cerutty termed Tidal Breath­ing, “the prac­tice of com­plete res­pi­ra­tion, the full use of both the up­per and lower lobes of the lung”, as op­posed to the more typ­i­cal “zombeism” form as­so­ci­ated with the seden­tary life­style.

This was no break­through, in­flu­enced by the cen­turies-old Ti­betan Bud­dhist tech­nique in Tummo med­i­ta­tion, or the pranayama breath­ing of Kun­dalini in the Hindu tra­di­tion, and these days sim­i­larly prac­tised and preached by Wim Hof, the Dutch ex­treme ath­lete bet­ter known as The Ice­man. He also turns 60 this year, his Wim Hof Method of breath­ing now spread­ing fast among open wa­ter swim­mers, plus a few dis­tance run­ners, and prob­a­bly com­ing to a yoga cen­tre near you.

Hof also knows what he’s talk­ing about, claim­ing 26 world records, in­clud­ing the long­est ice bath (1 hour, 52 min­utes and 42 sec­onds), and climb­ing to 23,600 feet alti­tude at Mount Ever­est, wear­ing noth­ing but shorts and shoes, only fall­ing short of the sum­mit due to a re­cur­ring foot in­jury. He did sum­mit Mount Kil­i­man­jaro, again wear­ing only shorts and shoes.

Men­tal health

In a mod­i­fied form of hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion, the Wim Hof Method aims to su­per-aer­ate or oxy­genate the blood and the body, ide­ally be­fore any ex­er­cise, es­pe­cially in the cold.

Eight years ago Amer­i­can in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Scott Car­ney set out to ex­pose Hof as a char­la­tan, only to com­pletely fall for his method, de­tailed in his book What Doesn’t Kill Us.

Hof also claims his su­per-oxy­genat­ing breath­ing method can sup­press in­flam­ma­tion, boost the im­mune sys­tem – pos­si­bly al­le­vi­ate de­pres­sion. There is no proof of that, only ex­pe­ri­ence, a ques­tion per­haps for the three-per­son panel dis­cus­sion to­day (Sugar Club, 2.0pm), as part of the First Fort­night fes­ti­val, where Dublin foot­baller Shane Carthy is joined by dis­tance run­ner Kevin Dooney and iron­man triath­lete Ger­ard Pren­der­gast, out­lin­ing some of their men­tal health ex­pe­ri­ences spe­cific to sport. It should be breath­tak­ing.

If there is one sin­gle phys­i­cal fac­tor on which suc­cess can be said to based, it is breath­ing,’ wrote Percy Cerutty, the Aus­tralian dis­tance run­ning coach

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