Runners Book Club: Running Free

My first experience of Richard Askwith’s work was a book which I have already discussed here – his biography of Emil Zatopek, Today We Die a Little – but what prompted me to pick up Running Free was an article in the September issue of Runner’s World, written by Askwith, in which he returns to this book, and the philosophies within, in the new context of a Covid-afflicted world. 

The book presents itself as, mostly, a memoir of the author’s own journey from a results-driven, tech-obsessed, gear-junkie runner, to something more minimalist. He runs without a watch, in five-fingered barefoot running shoes, mostly in wet, muddy fields with his dog, and feels all the happier for it. 

So he shares his journey with us, and along the way he muses on mindfulness, rural running, and the potential evils of the running industry, or to call it as he does, ‘Big Running.’

In the RW article Askwith addresses the fact that some of the responses to his book were less than kind, accusing him of hypocrisy (criticising the running industry, and yet contributing another book to the enormous runners bookshelf, and then presumably profiting from it) and snobbery. 

I think this is unfair. In his article Askwith does point out that he wasn’t trying to suggest that his stripped back way of running is better (and this is repeated in the book), just that it is different, and that it might be healthy for the running community to be a little more thoughtful when it comes to how and why we run. 

Sometimes the tone of the book is a little lofty, but this comes from how passionately Askwith feels about the subject. It is a record of running which is different from other running tales.  Askwith is less focused on regaling us with tales of record crushing fastest known time attempts, or grueling races, and more on the beauty of his everyday, countryside run, seen through the eyes of someone deep in the moment:

‘No matter what else is in my head, something will grab my eye: an empty field; an inviting path; a soft green roll of rural landscape glimpsed through trees. And my drifting mind begins to sense the familiar rhythm, the patient reeling in of each slope and turn, the thrill of discovery as each new corner is turned or summit crested; the bright release of the downhill dash…’

Ultimately Askwith is asking us to just be a bit more mindful about our running. 

Why are we doing it? Is it just to keep a bit of weight off? Is it a stress release? Or is it about fun? And if it’s not…could it be? Should it be? 

And then, having asked those questions, he presents some of the strange paradoxes of an industry of running. Running is a low-cost activity, until it isn’t. Going out of your door and going for a run is free, until you decide you want to put a pair of top of the line trainers on your feet.

Then you start looking at GPS watches.

Technical t-shirts.

You join Strava. Another pair of trainers. You start taking supplements, protein shakes, electrolyte gels. You get a massage gun. You sign up for a £40 race, with a medal at the end. There is nothing wrong with any of these indulgences, and there is certainly nothing wrong with spending some disposable income on something you love to do – I certainly do it. However, most of these things strip back some of the adventure from the simple act of running. They make running easier, by putting something between you and the run. It might be a pair of trainers so thick you can’t feel the grass beneath your feet, or it might be a watch which beeps at you to check it every mile, or it might be an app which helps you post every training run all over the internet to be analysed and compared and reduced to a set of numbers on a digital page. 

I do those things, I don’t think I’m going to stop doing those things…completely. I still want to wear my watch, and I still like to talk about my running on the internet. I like to buy and read books about running. I feel like gels do help me on my long runs. And you aren’t going to catch me in a pair of toe-trainers. However, it is good to stop and smell the roses once in a while, and Running Free is a good motivator to do so. 

To allow Askwith to speak for himself:

‘We recreational runners have more approaches available to us than we are encouraged to believe. We all know about (and most of us have tried) the ‘peak performance’ approach: spend, train, feed, calculate and obsess your way to becoming ‘greater than ever before’. That’s the approach that Big Running sells us, day in and day out. It’s not the wrong approach. Nor is it the only one. For many of us, in many circumstances, it’s not always the right one.’

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