Notes On Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s “Footsteps: How Running Makes Us Human”



“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 Cregan-Reid, Footsteps, p. 56

Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s Footsteps: How Running Makes Us Human is a lucid and literary exploration of running. Cregan-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!)

Cregan-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, Cregan-Reid draws on writers such as Thomas Hardy (“It is the attitude of the observer which makes things great or small” [161]), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“In Coleridge, movement is elevated into a philosophy” [59]), 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, Cregan-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 Cregan-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 Cregan-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 Cregan-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).


On Lessons From Long Distance Activities Which May Also Apply To Making Music

1. It doesn’t feel great at the beginning.

2. Take it slow at first.

3. Have a plan of action.

4. Add a little each week.

5. Allow time between sessions to recover.

6. The activity itself is discipline.

7. If possible, use the activity as an opportunity for exploration and adventure.

8. Alter your plan of action depending on the specific circumstances of the day. Conditions are never optimal.

9. The longer the activity, the more your mind changes: new thoughts just…appear.

10. Fatigue makes clear the adage “mind over matter.” But still–it hurts.

11. Today sets up tomorrow and another plan of action.

12. Timing things is useful. But so is going by feel.

13. Steady rhythmic movement is fun.

14. Places feel different when you’re moving through them.

15. There is always something more to say, but that something hasn’t arrived yet!

On Running, Time, And The Flow Of Non-Thinking Thinking: Running With The Kenyans

Among the joys of Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans, a succinct and engaging tale of the author’s experiences long distance running training at high altitude in the East African countryside, is the realization that there aren’t really any secrets to East African running prowess besides constant training, continuous pushing of body boundaries, as well as what I imagine is some kind of awesome capacity to endure the pains that comes with this kind of excruciating endurance exertion. As I read I found myself thinking of that phrase “there’s no there there.” For the runners–no special shoes, no special eating regimen, and even no special precision practice routines and post-run analyses. Just run, rest, eat, and run some more, over and over again. A repetitive monastic running groove, you could call it, powered by a desire for international athletic success.

Finn’s trajectory as the visiting runner is predictable but also insightful. Over the course of his several month stay in Kenya, he gets fitter and faster through his training with a running club and eventually runs an impressive sub 3-hour marathon. Along the way, he observes his Kenyan colleagues as they train and realizes that their method revolves around a minimal and simple approach to training that works to effectively bypass over-thinking it. In one of the most fascinating passages, Finn compares Western and African approaches to using a watch while running. It turns out that the watch, that enduring symbol of the Western conception of time, can be used in ways other than just quantifying experience. Finn observes:

“while in the West we time everything so that we can measure and analyze it afterward, or keep track of our running pace so we can calculate whether we need to slow down or speed up, Kenyans use their watches in a completely different way. By running their intervals according to the regimented beeps of their watches, Kenyans are actually taking the thinking out of their running. When the watch beeps, they speed up. When it beeps again, they slow down.[…] Each session is forgotten as soon as it is done. The timing is just a way of structuring the training, of telling them when to start and when to stop.”

What struck me about this passage was how it conjures a kind of empty mind mindset of those Kenyan runners with their beeping watches which they mostly ignore except as a sonic cue. Without regular recourse to the numbers of pace timings, the runners often use only a sensed bio-feedback from the feeling of what happens (to borrow a phrase from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s book) to their moving bodies as guidance.  In this sense, the runners seem like really good listeners to the feeling of what they’re doing as they’re doing it.


I found this really interesting, both because I sometimes like to measure and time and document things (running included, of course) and because I just as often “zone out” and really have no idea of what I’m doing (while running, obviously, and in many other activities!). In other words, I like precision as a self-imposed game, but often just go by feel.

And as per usual with things I read, I found myself thinking analogically, trying to find links between running and musical practices. One memory that came to mind upon reading about the beeping watches was my once upon a time endless practicing with metronomes, letting the machine take care of the steady quarter note pulse–click, click, click, click–while I busied myself with playing different subdivisions of those clicks: 123-123-123-123 (a triplet), or 12345-12345-12345-12345 (a quintuplet), and so on. (If you’re wondering: yes, percussionists and drummers can find this kind of activity fun…) Thinking about it now, the metronome, like the watch, took the conscious thinking of out of the activity, turning it into a game for the hands to try to fit their subdivisions into the allotted space of those steady quarter note clicks. (Sidebar question: Does playing with a metronome ever really improve one’s sense of time? Isn’t time sense–like running pacing, maybe–a more internalized, body-generated mechanism?)

This non-conscious thinking while doing also reminded me of a conversation I had with a composer schoolmate years ago. He had just listened to my performance of a piece I had written for vibraphone and said: “It sounds like you really like the Dorian mode.” I was puzzled because in his question was an assumption that I had consciously known what I was doing when I put the music together, thinking about scales and Dorian modes and whatnot. From my perspective though, I didn’t know what I was doing, but my hands did manage to find things that sounded right, working with the constraints posed by the layout of the vibraphone to narrow down possibilities and then structure the piece around these constraints. Thinking about it now, the layout of the instrument, like the beeping watch for the runners, took the conscious thinking of out the composing process, turning it into a game for the hands.

But back to the lessons of running. In sum, I took away from Finn’s book a sense that we might do well to structure some of our activities so that we can take out conscious thinking to better get on with the flow.

Strange Mechanisms: On Entrainment And Running To Music

“…the music, the words of the mottoes, the steps of the dance, trigger the strange mechanism.”
— Jean Rouch in Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance (1985:181)

Yesterday I ran the NYC Half Marathon (in a time that qualified me for the NYC Marathon–yes!). One of the things I noticed along the route was the presence of live musicians and DJs playing music every few miles or so. I’ve never run with portable music players, because I’ve never bothered trying and because the sound of the music “shaking” with my body movement doesn’t sound right to me. Maybe talk radio would work, but wobbling music? No thanks.

But if the music comes from somewhere outside a set of headphones–and I have no choice whether to listen to it or not–I’m open to it. On the 13.1-mile course that took us from Central Park down through Times Square, over to the West Side Highway, down to Battery Park, and then finishing at South Street Seaport, there was music all over the place. A number of race fans had these little cowbells–the real cowbells that I assume cows wear, complete with little strikers inside–that they shook to create a mighty racket as we went by. In any other context the cowbells could get on your nerves, but on the course they sonically signified fan support and enthusiasm, as if saying: “We see you and feel your pain. Keep it up. You’re doing great.”

There were also lone musicians along the course, all of them men with acoustic guitars, most of them seeming a little “off” in one way or another. Their enthusiastic strumming didn’t carry very far in the open air, and none of them seemed to be playing anything recognizable as music anyway—they just strummed away. But like the sound from the cowbell folks, the strumming came across as welcome enthusiasm, as if to signify: “I don’t know why you’re running, but I shall play my guitar in solidarity with your effort.” As strange as it was, I appreciated the strumming.

On the open expanse of the West End Highway (highways are surprisingly calm places to be when there aren’t any cars around), there were a few bands too. Two guys looking like a 1980s-era Beastie Boys tribute band (complete with oversized gold chains and sunglasses) did some awfully bad rapping. And a few miles down the road was some kind of vintage punk rock trio. As I ran by trying to get Gatorade down my throat without choking it occurred to me how gentle punk has become in the context of the 2012 musical landscape. It still signifies punk-ness, I guess, only it doesn’t shock anymore. Running by the punk trio with Gatorade running down my shirt, I actually got a sad for a moment as I thought about it. This happens with almost every musical idiom: what was once cutting edge becomes assimilated, just another style for musicians to draw on, to be put to yet further tasks of cultural signification. (Maybe that punk trio, like the Beastie Boys-ish rappers, was being ironic? But how could I know for sure?)


But the real stars of the NYC Half Marathon sonic landscape were the DJs. Not because they were so good, but because they were so loud. At various points I heard the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, Biggie Smalls’ groovy “Hypnotize”, and at the race’s beginning and end, Usher’s electronic 4/4 thumper “DJ Got Us Falling In Love Again.”*

Interestingly and shockingly to me, I ran in sync to both Skynyrd and Biggie. As soon as I heard their respective songs, I instinctively locked into the tempo by adjusted my gait a little—my stride rate becoming quicker for Skynyrd and then slower for Biggie. I was happy too, because for those brief moments I was perfectly distracted from the physical task at hand, my attention pleasurably consumed by the experience of being physically in sync with songs with which I’m casually well acquainted. It was fun, through the thought (not to mention the sight!) of me smiling while running in sync to Lynyrd Skynyrd is still really disturbing.

What I was experiencing for those brief blissful moments could be called a kind of entrainment, the experience of a person syncing to an external pulse, usually one produced by others with whom one is interacting socially. You could say we do this in a mild way when we tap our feet to music, and in a more intense way when the music compels us to dance (or run) in time to it. Taken to its extreme, entrainment can set the stage for altered states of consciousness such as possession–the rhythm of an external stimulus prompting us to groove with it and ultimately enter into some kind of transcendent state.

In his book Music and Trance: a theory of the relation between music and possession (1985), French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget examines the relationships among music, trance, and possession around the world through case studies ranging from the ancient Greeks to Western opera, shamanistic and ritual drumming practices in Africa and the Black Atlantic, to Islamic dhikr ceremonies in the Middle East. Rouget contends that music itself doesn’t cause trance, only helps create the conditions that might trigger it. It’s in this sense that music and its varied ritual contexts, says Rouget, can function as a perceptual launch pad that the French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch once labeled a “strange mechanism.”

The music on the course—yes, even the Skynyrd–probably didn’t put anyone into a trance but was nevertheless my strange mechanism, energizing me because it provided a stimulus that was at once a kind of aural clock and something to focus on, giving structure and helping me make sense of a few minutes here and there as I was consumed by listening. Without music, I tend to search for sounding things to focus on anyway—things like the sound of my breathing or the regular rhythmic “swish” of my arms moving under my jacket. If you pay attention, there’s always something there to either focus on or sync to.


After the race, in the midst of the cheering crowd and the booming music that echoed off the buildings around South Street Seaport, I thought about two possibilities for designing a race day soundscape. The first would be a completely silent race. There were brief moments of this as we ran through Central Park where the crowd was sparse and all you could hear was the sound of feet hitting the pavement. We sounded like a herd of buffalo, and because all you could hear was feet, as a runner it felt like being in a herd too—the sensation of being swept along in an animal wave. But okay, I agree with you, a silent race would be a real downer of a race in a place like NYC. So, the second soundscape possibility would be to wire the course with one huge set of connected speakers playing a single piece of music for several hours. But I leave you with questions: What would this music be? Would it be highly rhythmic, like an extended DJ set? And would its tempo correspond to the supposedly ideal running pace of 180 strides per minute, with songs clocking in fast at 180 BPM or with a half-time feel of 90 BPM? Most importantly, what would be experience of running to such an extended soundtrack feel like?

Below are those three songs I heard on the course. It’s a DJ “set” that could probably never happen anywhere else!

*I actually didn’t know it was Usher singing this song until I tried singing it myself—or at least what I remembered of the hook’s melody: “Baby tonight, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-nah”—into the Soundhound app on my iphone, and voilà: Usher!  (What can’t cellphones do again?)