Out of Thin Air

A large percentage of the running books that I have read in my life involve a journey to Africa, usually to Kenya. The basic idea is that Kenya produces a terrific amount of world class distance running athletes, and that any athlete worth their salt should go there to soak up the magic, pick up training tips, and understand the philosophies of the East African Runner.

But not every great African runner is Kenyan. Africa is not just East Africa. East Africa is not just Kenya. Kenya, even, is not just the Rift Valley, where most athletes go to train. This is to say, there is no East African Running Philosophy, just as there is not a European Running Philosophy. It is too wide and varied a continent to make generalisations. 

This is what I appreciate about Out of Thin Air by Michael Crawley. The author is an anthropologist, and a top level Scottish athlete, who takes a journey into the world of Ethiopian running and finds that yes, there is a lot which is specifically Ehiopian, not just East African, about the way that the top athletes there train, and live. 

By going on this journey, and by experiencing it first hand through living and training amongst a group of young athletes, he finds that ‘high performance and enjoyment of running are not mutually exclusive. That by becoming more in tune with our bodies, with others, with our environments and by following our intuition, we can still achieve without sacrificing what drew us to the sport in the first place.

The book is not a training manual. It is a story for those with a great love and vested interest in the sport. Haile Gabreselassie, on the cover quote, says of it: ‘Through reading this book you will come to understand that the heart and soul of running are to be found in Ethiopia.’ 

The runners featured in the book aren’t data focused, at all. A lot of the running is done by feel, and that doesn’t necessarily mean running to feel easy, or to feeling as if they are working hard, it means choosing places to run which have a certain air. In technical terms what this equates to is the amount of oxygen, or the lack thereof, in the air of the higher altitude places that the athletes travel to train in. The runners are completely aware of that scientific explanation, understand what it can do for an athletes haemoglobin levels, but carry on nonetheless with a more spiritually tuned understanding of their training grounds. 

Below the air, they also take great care to choose certain terrain to run on. They run on sticky, clay like mud in steep forests, running in zigzags through the trees to work their bodies in ways that running straight, on asphalt, would not do. They train on hard, dirt roads to firm their muscles. They run on the road only once a week. And they always run together. The runners firmly believe in the power of the group, in leading, and being led. When the author goes out for his first run he is absorbed into a line of runners without effort, they cannot fathom why he would want to train alone and do not stop to question who he is and whether or not he should join. 

He is a runner, they are runners, so they go together. 

It makes for an interesting philosophical contrast for me, as I do a huge amount of my training alone. 

In the last year training alone has been more advisable, but I don’t think the relaxing of restrictions will result in my suddenly taking on a permanent group mentality. I find pleasure in running alone. I find it regenerative to be silent, alone, on the long trail above the woods, or perhaps cutting a swath through the trees themselves. In fact, I am often quite likely to choose routes which will be as bereft of people as possible. The thing to remember is that these Ethiopian athletes are training to change their lives. To be quick enough to feature at the top of marathon finish lists is to earn amounts of price money which will change a young Ehtiopian’s live. It could be enough to buy a house, a car, or a farm. A few good wins can change everything for an athlete and their family.

In the book, one athlete only marries his partner after a win, as the prize money secures their near future. Running together adds to that sense of accountability, keeps them honest, and ensures that they are always working towards what they refer to as ‘condition’. This seems to mean more than just fitness and encompasses all the aspects, mental and physical, which make a runner ready to race at or beyond their peak. 

Although, there is no sense of over professionalism in these runners. They love their sport. It is refreshing to read true top level athletes allowing intuition and passion to influence their training. Would a more data focused approach to training really recommend running the most difficult, criss crossing path through a barely runnable mountain forest? Would it recommend waking up at 3am to get a workout in so you can watch your peers run a marathon race in Dubai in the early hours? No, and no. It wouldn’t. But the times these athletes run are astounding, even those who don’t make it to the top would be considered to compete at the international level for Great Britain. 

So although this book is not a training manual, there are lessons to be learned from it. To put it as succinctly as possible: let your feet and heart guide you as much as you allow your brain and watch. Challenge yourself by finding terrain which will make you strong, build your condition and, if you can, take your running off the road. It might not have you running quite as fast as Kenenisa Bekele, but it might just help you find that balance between finding your athletic potential, and retaining your love of the sport. 

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