Featured in Like the Wind #14.
If you’re as passionate about running as we are you probably love to read about it too. Guess what? Here at Like the Wind, we get inspired by reading about running. Of course we do; we’re fortunate to receive so many of our readers’ running stories for every issue. While going to a training session with your club might enhance your performance and running technique, the stimulus to try some trail running or run in another country may well come from having read about it in a piece of running literature.
When we received Paul Keer’s story about the books that sparked his running interest, it inspired us to think about our favourite reads too. Keer is a writer, editor, journalist and a runner. Visit his website to find out more.
Keer’s Top 3 Running Reads
1. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959)
When I was at school, cross-country running was a staple of the PE programme. For most of us, it involved running as far cross-country as the nearby café, where you could have a cup of tea and a Rothmans, and then get back and out of your kit before a master could see how suspiciously clean it was.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe first alerted me to the fact that there was more to distance running than just physical pain. This famous short story is voiced by a teenage boy at borstal – an educational situation with which I claimed inappropriate empathy. And he finds in running a daily escape from its confines. “It’s a treat being a long-distance runner,” he says, “out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do.”
Sillitoe’s story made me realise you didn’t have to be fast, didn’t even (spoiler alert) have to win, in order to enjoy the pleasures of running. “Because the long-distance run of an early morning makes me think that every run like this is a life – a little life, I know – but a life as full of misery and happiness and things happening as you can ever get really around yourself.”
I may not have had the worries about petty crime and impending army call-up that afflicted Smith. But I had my own issues, with girls and exams and brands of shirts. And I realised that running – “Trot-trot-trot, slap-slap-slap” – could provide an escape from my own youthful angst. It’s because of this story that I have always run first thing in the morning. “And as soon as I take that first flying leap out into the frosty grass of an early morning when even birds haven’t the heart to whistle, I get to thinking, and that’s what I like.”
“And I couldn’t see anybody and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realising that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.”
2. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2009)
When you’re a writer in your fifties who runs, what you really need to inspire you to keep going is a book by a writer in their fifties who runs. Haruki Murakami, better-known for his more avant-garde fiction, is exactly that – and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is described as “equal parts travelogue, training log and reminiscence”. It’s an extraordinary autobiography, which glides effortlessly between his life and his running. “One thing I noticed,” he writes, “was that writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing.”
And the writing itself combines the two. “Thus the seasons come and go, and the years pass by,” he writes, for example. “I’ll age one more year, and probably nish another novel. One by one, I’ll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long-distance runner.”
But there’s also a good deal about getting older, and slower; and that’s what inspires someone like me, as they are reluctantly accepting classification as a “veteran” runner. “Even if my time in races doesn’t improve, there’s not much I can do about it,” writes Murakami. “I’ve gotten older, and time has taken its toll. It’s nobody’s fault. Those are the rules of the game. Just as a river flows to the sea, growing older and slowing down are part of the natural scenery, and I’ve got to accept it.”
There’s a good deal about what I would describe as the Zen of running, a state which all three of my books inspired me to pursue, but which this book transforms into poetry. “I just run,” writes Murakami. “I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void…All I do is keep on running in my own cosy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing.”
3. The Complete Book of Running by James E. Fixx (1981)
Whoever heard of a book that dealt with both transcendental meditation and blisters?” That combination of philosophy and practicality made Jim Fixx’s book a bestseller, which kickstarted what people then described as “jogging”. Yet the thing most people know about Jim Fixx is that the author of dropped dead of a heart attack. While running.
It was clearly a book of its time, its illustrations worryingly similar to those of another best-seller of the period, The Joy of Sex and the information in The Complete Book of Running is now commonplace in newsstand running magazines. But as they didn’t exist at the time, the book was revolutionary. Indeed, the foreword describes it as “subversive”. It covered all the physical aspects of running, such as what to wear, training schedules, warm-ups, injuries and so on. But it then went further, and claimed that “something in running has a uniquely salutary effect on the mind”.
It was this that really appealed to someone suffering all the stresses of a career (as I was at the time). “We will look at the ways in which running changes you,” wrote Fixx, “physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. And it was the first book to explain to a mass market how “the qualities and capacities that are important in running – such factors as willpower, the ability to apply effort during extreme fatigue, and the acceptance of pain – have a radiating power that invariably influences one’s life.”
It’s a book that combines Fixx’s own experiences with quotes from runners of all kinds, from Roger Bannister down to (an oddity at the time) “a London girl who runs for half an hour every morning in Kensington Gardens”. In fact, one entire section was titled “On not feeling like a fool”, a problem Fixx said “may be more severe in the United Kingdom than in the United States”. (This was the early 1980s, remember.) A British runner was quoted, saying that “ridicule is common here, particularly from kids… I was once so incensed over this at the end of a 17-mile run that I stopped and harangued my audience. It made no difference, they just laughed.”
Which made runners like me feel better about claiming the pavements in our running kit. “As runners become more common,” predicted Fixx, “the laughter will no doubt die down.” As indeed it did.
LtW’s Top Running Literature
For this feature we also asked our readers to think of their favourite running reads. Maybe you’ve already read all these… or maybe you’ll find some inspiration. Thanks to all our readers who contributed – and happy reading!
1. Feet in the Clouds: a Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession by Richard Askwith
2. The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones
3. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
5. Keep on Running, the Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict by Phil Hewitt (2012)
7. Flanagan’s Run by Tom McNab
8. Grand Trail by Alexis and Frederic Berg
9. Running Free: A runner’s journey back to nature by Richard Askwith
10. Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes
11. Your Pace or Mine?: What Running Taught Me About Life, Laughter and Coming Last by Lisa Jackson