“When running, thinking plays sixth fiddle to sensing–for hearing, seeing and feeling how places present themselves to our consciousness takes precedence over careful consideration.” – Vybarr Gregan-Reid, Footsteps, p. 56
Vybarr Gregan-Reid’s Footsteps: How Running Makes Us Human is a lucid and literary exploration of running. Gregan-Reid is an academic (professor of English) who has turned his analytic and communicative powers towards understanding how and why humans are well-designed for running outside and describing in micro-detail that experience. Footsteps joins a growing list of Quality books about running, including biologist Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run, Robin Harvie’s The Lure of Long Distances, Richard Askwith’s Running Free, Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans and The Way of the Runner, and novelist Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The best parts each of these books is when the author grapples with what it is the happens exactly (or vaguely) perceptually-speaking when we head out (yet again) to run. The ways in which the authors describe the hidden life of running reminds me of the challenge of analyzing other fleeting aesthetic experiences, such as listening to music. (Phew, I knew there was a way to connect this to music!)
Gregan-Reid’s book is woven from a rich cloth of historical and scientific references (noted in endnotes) and conceived in a four-part, grand style (“Part I: Sensing, Part II: Reasoning, Part III: Earthing, Part IV: Roaming”). His essential point is that running through natural environments (preferably barefoot, with a non-heel striking technique) is the best way to re-charge “a physical empathy that is impossible to know intellectually” (83). Stop right there: Have you ever considered the idea of recharging your sense of physical empathy? When we go outside to run, we revisit old capacities for having sensory experiences that are deeply imprinted on us. Humans are ideally suited to running slow and steady, not least because we have large feet, efficient cooling capacities, and the ability to keep our heads steady as we run. More importantly, running does something very powerful to our mind: it frees it to engage the sensational world around us in a playful, open, non-judgemental, and associative way that on the best runs can feel like effortless attention.
To support his claims, Gregan-Reid draws on writers such as Thomas Hardy (“It is the attitude of the observer which makes things great or small” ), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“In Coleridge, movement is elevated into a philosophy” ), and numerous others who spent as much time walking around outside as they did committing words to paper. He also draws on attention restoration theory (ART), which suggests that natural environments offer us “soft fascinations” that we interact with when we run through them. ART suggests that exposure to the sounds and sights and smells and terrains of fields, forests, hills, and mountains can restore and build our powers of being in the world. All this, of course, is in contrast to the dreadful running treadmill, a technology whose history is intertwined with the prison system in nineteenth century England, where it was once known as a “discipline wheel” (198).
Building on the theme of soft fascination, Gregan-Reid borrows the word “nothinking” from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleek House to suggest a state of mind that running restores and builds. What an excellent concept! Nothinking is like a flow state in which we connect our experience of memory with noticing and reflection in the present. The author elaborates: “The experience of ‘nothink’…brings with it a kind of attention to the details and aspects of the world that are seemingly imperceptible at other times. ‘Nothink’ creates a kind of high-definition recollection coupled with a creative ability to identify points of connection between the inside and the outside” (214).
As Gregan-Reid takes us on his running excursions in various locales–from the lake country in the U.K. to the Pacific Northwest, from California and Paris to the Charles River in Boston and nearby Walden pond–he does an exquisite job of articulating his book’s second major theme: freedom. In his barefoot ramblings down country paths, along rocky coastlines, and even in and around urban centers, the author provides a sense of the blissful freeform freedom running outside can generate. “We may not be able to escape the city” he writes, “but we are still free, when running, to revel in the fact that we are basically highly mobile stone-agers ripping down the lanes, byways and boulevards of our cities” (228).
As I read the book I found it interesting how it is that neither walking nor riding a bicycle have the same effects as running, and I wondered if running’s special status is due to its tactile rhythmic aspects? I was particularly attuned to those passages in which Gregan-Reid speaks of the running body knowing things about the world of which the conscious mind is unaware. When he runs, he says, “it feels like I could do this with my eyes closed, that my balance and the movement of my limbs are processes that are independent of thought” (237). (In fact, he does experiment with running with his eyes closed.) In addition to matters of proprioception, I found myself thinking about running’s impact on our sense of time: What happens when you move your body at a faster tempo than usual? Does the intensity of your movement somehow make your sense of the environment around you seem to move slower? For me, the answer is a resounding (and somewhat trippy) yes. But the running that Gregan-Reid describes is never about speed because speed can break the trance. It’s more about a kind mobile idleness, a rhythmic flaneuring that has serious meditative qualities. Like the creative process itself, running long and slow is free play with mysterious cognitive benefits. “Our time is too valuable and short to be contained within our cubicles and workspaces” says the author near the end of the book. Footnotes makes a poetic case for those human qualities of attention “that cannot be outsourced so easily, that we have free access to, once we clear the decks of cognitive noise and distraction” (266).