MA Wild Writing course director James Canton finds literary delights amongst the science and psychology in Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s book about running outside. [A version of this review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 8 July 2016].
Footnotes: How Running makes us Human
352 pp. Ebury Press: London, May 2016. £16-99.
The experience of travelling through a landscape – be it countryside or city – is commonplace enough to us all. What determines our sense of immersion in that environment is a combination of factors ranging from our knowledge of that landscape to the speed with which we traverse that fragment of the earth. From the English Romantics to the French Situationalists, writers have delighted in recording their wanderings through worlds known or unknown, natural or not, wild or tamed.
Much of this delightful book is another of those memoirs — a form of psychogeography at pace: or ‘psychojography’ as the author has it; a heightened faux sub-genre born from the fact running creates a ‘psychobiological frenzy of sensual reflectivity … certainly not found in walking.’ Not surprising, as Cregan-Reid is a senior lecturer in English Literature, Footnotes is always a very literary jaunt – bookish anecdotes and epigraphs liberally scatter the work. Neck and neck on the opening page beside Virginia Woolf strides William Blake and then hot on their heels there’s Keats, and Wordsworth, of course; and Hazlitt and Thomas Hardy are there, too, making the running. And there are welcome appearances from lesser-known nature writers like W. H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies and, even, nineteenth-century Sussex labouring poet Simeon Brough.
Yet Footsteps also sets out to investigate the science and psychology of running. Cregan-Reid prefers his running barefoot and in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Spalding National Running Centre, he learns more of the biomechanics of running and the mantra of minimalist footwear. All that padding and cushioning in running shoes builds a false base for the foot to fall on – the reason why up to 79% of runners get injured each year. He heads off down the road to Harvard University where he meets Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology, whose thesis is that running played a key role in our evolution. Humans have short toes which probably explains our ‘greater locomotive efficiency’ than other apes. While ‘a good runner basically needs a Palaeolithic body’ – super-strong core, gluteals and lower leg muscles, most runners today possess a weak core, overstretched gluteals from sitting down too much and flat feet. Our bodies have gradually become those of a ‘knock-kneed and hunchbacked Anthropocene hominin.’ We were born to run; but today many can hardly even manage to walk.
A crucial aspect to being human which we are missing out on if we don’t venture into the natural world is the sensory intelligence experienced by the mind and body being in motion across a landscape. Of course, the Romantics understood that well enough. Cregan-Reid reminds us of the ‘revolutionary shared literary endeavour ‘ of Lyrical Ballads where Wordsworth was ‘determined to be the lead singer on these power ballads and so relegated Coleridge to the maracas’. He follows Coleridge’s footsteps in 1802 from Greta Hall to the waterfalls of Moss Force in the Lake District – running rather than walking. He tells of the notion of attention-restoration theory: simply put, that we operate better when in natural environments. We’re less stressed and healthier outside – it’s scientifically proven. Coleridge (‘the ADHD Romantic’) was never happier than when tramping for miles across Britain’s wilder parts.
Cregan-Reid meets the Green Exercise Research Team at the University of Essex where Mike Rogerson explains that for both mind and body a slightly ‘lower intensity’ exercise is actually most beneficial. Rather than running flat out, a fast walk or a decent-paced trot is best – so long as it’s in a natural environment. By contrast, there is the experience of running indoors: treadmilling – the modern ‘junk-food of exercise’. Its nineteenth-century invention and implementation was specifically to punish the bodies of criminals, including that of Oscar Wilde who was forced to work the treadmill for up to six hours a day.
Footnotes is most entertaining when on literary trails. On the cliffs of North Cornwall, Cregan-Reid traces the steps of a young Tom Hardy, retelling Hardy’s meeting with Emma Gifford at St Juliot where she welcomes him in a ‘staid brown dress’ to the rectory he is there to visit regarding work on a church restoration. The wildness and sublimity of those cliffs is made plain as Cregan-Reid then runs that landscape relishing its intensity: ‘like the stones crumbling and tumbling off the cliff path, life falls away in moments like these and the possibilities seem endless.’
Such enthusiastic personal narrative coupled with the rich literary episodes which scatter the book make Footsteps always an enjoyable read. Keep running — whether shod or not. That is the vital message here. The health gains of regular exercise are well documented; yet most of us do nothing like enough, nor do we exercise in green spaces where we get most psychological benefit.
James Canton is course director of the MA in Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment at the University of Essex. His book Ancient Wonderings: Travels in Prehistoric Britain is forthcoming with HarperCollins.