It is not down in any map; true places never are. – Herman Melville
At the core of Robin Harvie’s The Lure Of Long Distances: Why We Run (2011) is a disturbing yet intoxicating idea: that you’re not really free in any endeavor until you no longer feel the gravitational pull of wanting to return to the safety of “home”–however you may define it. In this page-turning, literary memoir, Harvie, a fluid writer and adept runner of ultra-long distances, explores the experience of endurance exercise, its pains, and its transcendences. Along the way he learns about himself, his family’s histories, and the appeal of long distance running.
The book is powered by a simple question: Why do we run? If you’re a runner of considerable distances you probably have your reasons: maybe to stay trim and license generous eating habits, to escape, or to generate those feel-good endorphins. But there are other, slightly more intangible–and for me, more important–reasons to run too. There’s the joy of motion, of turning your body into a playful vehicle of kinetic energy. There’s also the mystery of what happens to your mind as you run–all those little (endorphin-induced?) perceptual shifts, how your thinking moves into another gear as if in an exercise-induced critical trance. If you go long enough and conditions outside and in are just right, you can lose yourself through motion. Running, like good repetitive music, affects all kinds of cognitive changes. As you get lost in an ergonomic flow, your body, your mind, and the landscape around you all fuse into one.
Harvie explores the sources of long distance runners’ “deep visceral need” (146) to do what they do and experience “the power of liberation through movement” (168). He comes by his subject matter honestly too. He ran his first marathon in 2000 and then spent years training to race faster only to find that his times weren’t improving. The solution? Run further. Harvie entered the extreme sporting world of ultra running, running races more than twice the length of the 26 mile marathon. The Lure Of Long Distances chronicles his preparation for the biggest race of them all: The Spartathlon, a 152-mile race in Greece, from Athens to Sparta. Harvie doesn’t quite finish the run, quitting at the 85 mile mark. But the story he tells about his journey reveals much about the human condition.
Throughout his narrative, Harvie returns often the subject of mapping, topologies, and cartographies. Running allows us to explore physical landscapes, sure, but what it really does is tell us about ourselves–the geography of our psychologies, our thoughts, our imaginations, our strengths and frailties. In the course of revisiting the place of his childhood summer cottage on the coast of Denmark or running along the river Thames, Harvie excavates a web of memories and life stories.
Yet as much as running triggers thoughts, Harvie is equally interested in its tendency towards autonomy, its capacity to represent nothing but itself–a one step at a time, rhythmic locomotion. We need to “rid ourselves of all the symbolism and metaphor” he says, “to become pure kinetic energy” (77). Harvie is interested in motion. Motion, he notes, ” has a meditative quality, an ability to slow down the rhythm of our lives” (187), sometimes gracing us with what feels like an awareness “of the world right down to the atomic level” (198). In running great distances, ultra runners are graced with a transformation of awareness that “involves a merging of consciousness and landscape” (198). What transforms them is the motion of running itself.
Part of this transformation is really a breaking down of body and mind and this fact leads Harvie to discuss creativity. He compares running ultras and the disintegration they wreak on body and mind where “the mind empties itself of all habits” (223) to the creative process as described by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act Of Creation. Koestler coined the term “bisociation” to describe how the mind links disparate ideas to create new hybrid forms. Out of the creative act–or running long distances, as Harvie argues–”is generated a new topography of the individual, and, by extension, the world” (223). This is an elaborate way of explaining how new ideas frequently appear to us while running.
But what, you ask, has all this running business to do with music? (This is after all a music blog.) Harvie draws on sound and silence to describe the experience of running, noting how “there would always be a gap between what it sounded like and what it felt like” (224). Interestingly for me, running has no outer soundtrack, unless you count the sound of shuffling feet over pavement.* But this relative outer silence masks a rich inner world of triggered thoughts, memories, and affect. And the way to access these sensations is through silence. As Harvie notes, the key is “to learn to be silent in a world of noise, and to discover that silence has no narrative. Silence intensifies sensation–by turning the body inward” (227).
Where running really resembles music though, is in how difficult it is to actually talk about it. Not about what it means, but about the elements of its unfolding–its processes, its presence, and its capacity to seemingly be a world unto itself. So it is in this book that running remains an invisible presence: where are those thousands of evanescent miles Harvie ran in training? And this is precisely the point: like musical experience, running is something you can only “get” by throwing yourself into its unfolding over time. No “theory” of running or music ever adequately renders their energized lives as energized “affecting presences” (to quote anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong). To experience affect–whether in running or musicking–you have to participate in real-time in their presences.
In sum, The Lure Of Long Distances is an absorbing study of perception. It’s about the feeling of consciousness and what it means to go further physically than you thought you ever could. Through his Spartathlon effort, Harvie manages to exceed all his prior limits of endurance, and his hope was that this colossal, running-induced state of “self-obliteration” would remain with him permanently, lifting him “above the grubby banalities of everyday life. That didn’t happen” (252). Harvie may or may not have become truly free. But lucky for us, he’s written a narrative that renders his transformation into a Runner through repeated, perpetual motion.
*Equally interesting is how the tempo marked by my shuffling feet will occasionally trigger phantom playback of music in my mind’s ear. The rhythm of my feet, in other words, becomes a metronome that sets the tempo for the imagined music. Sometimes the running tempo is a tad too fast and I notice that the music has sped up to match my stride. Who needs an iPod when you have such seamless body-synced music playback!