Book Review: ‘Why Running Matters’ by Ian Mortimer.

For many of us running really matters. It’s been a lifelong interest for me and something I’ve done with varied levels of success, interest and effort since I was very young indeed. As it stands, I think I’m going through what some might call a slightly evangelical phase with my own running and probably boring most of the people I know in singing its praises. So a book on why we run was a very exciting prospect!

Ian Mortimer isn’t a runner, in that it’s not his profession. In fact, where running’s concerned he’s not unlike myself; middle aged, enthusiastic competitive and probably a bit more injury prone that we’d both like. However, while I’m a humble English teacher Mortimer is a historian and the writer of the best selling Time Traveller’s Guides series.

On approaching his 50th birthday, Mortimer made a series of vows or challenges to himself. In amongst them were taking part in 45 Parkruns and 5 half marathons across the year, producing an album of his own music, seeing a Shakespeare play and organising three concerts by world renowned musicians. In amongst it all, he’d write this book. Phew!

So the book itself is one hell of an achievement. Finding time to write it in amongst all that running and other activity is quite something. By coincidence, I am too approaching my 50th birthday and while Mortimer’s challenges prompted similar thoughts of a series of challenges or ambitions, I was glad I’d picked it up in August when it was far too late to attempt as much as Mortimer did!

The book chronicles Mortimer and his running companions’ performances at the Park Runs and the half marathons, while also attempting to contemplate exactly why it is we run. Because clearly, like the title tells us, running matters, but it’s what it actually means to people that is explored here.

A source of irritation throughout the book was that Mortimer is a really decent runner! Mean spirited I know, but reading about his times and placings in various Park Runs left me feeling quite jealous and more than a little bit irked! But I suppose this is part of what the book is about; we run to be competitive. And the book delves into this in great detail because Mortimer seems incredibly competitive and so while his times were irritating – and accompanied with a smile from this reader too – it left me feeling quite a warmth towards the man himself. His determination was inspirational while remaining quite comforting. Every time he went out to run he was looking to improve on times and performance, which is very much my approach. Sadly, I’m not always successful here!

Reading of Mortimer’s running adventures all over the south west of England was really interesting. HIs descriptions of the various courses, weather conditions etc felt comfortingly familiar, even though I haven’t taken part in any of the races. But his thoughts and theories all held weight with me. And the atmosphere of all those Parkruns did too! Mortimer also wrote a lot about running with his sons and while occasionally the dose of schmaltz involved was a bit much, as someone who occasionally runs with his own son, I could empathise his his pride and enjoyment in doing so.

‘Why Running Matters’ is a really interesting and well-informed book. Mortimer knows his stuff. He’s an experienced runner who has thrown himself into races and challenges of varying levels over many a year. It was this that had me nodding along enthusiastically throughout my time reading. And although it would seem to have a bit of a niche target audience, I would argue that there’s something here for a lot more than just those of us who run. Mortimer’s year is undoubtedly inspiring and the discussions on the competitiveness, camaraderie and the at times almost meditative side of running would hold the interest of many a reader, whether they run or not.

If you’re a runner who wants to read about running, then – obviously – this is the book for you and you’ll certainly get a lot out of reading it. However, even as a non runner, if you’re someone looking for inspiration or even just a gentle push towards the door and searching out something to do with your time, you’ll enjoy ‘Why Running Matters’. And if you’re one of those people who watches runners from the comfort of your car as they pass and just wonders why, then the book will at least help explain what on Earth it is we’re thinking when we leave the house to pound the pavements squeezed into all that lycra!

I give ‘Why Running Matters’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Legs like jelly and lungs fit to burst, but crossing the line with a smile – my experience at Parkrun.

As some of you know, for the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. And for those of you who didn’t know, well…how to put this? For the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. So now you know.

The quest came as part of a reaction to a health scare. In April 2018 I was admitted to hospital with quite severe heart palpitations and about a month later had to have an operation called a boob job. Just kidding, it was a cardiac ablation. Basically they destroy the bit of your heart that’s causing the problem by inserting catheters through your blood vessels and blasting the affected area with radio waves to create scar tissue that doesn’t conduct the electricity that is reaching your heart and causing the problem. Basically.

My reaction to this was to be a little bit frightened. On the whole it wasn’t a pleasant experience and it left me feeling quite worried that I might be a lot closer to death than I’d ever imagined. And so, as part of a lifestyle change, I began to exercise again. I began to run. Because, baby, we were born to run.

For the most part this has been a very solitary activity. Apart from a few early runs when my son would come with me, I’ve been out running alone. Having discovered X-Box though, my son has decided that he no longer cares about his dad’s health and thus I have no running partner and a son that couldn’t care less whether I live or die. And of course, I jest there. Dark humour and all that. Of course he cares. The whole family does. I mean, who would put the bins out if I keeled over?

I don’t mind the solitary side of things. I like running alone. It leaves me free with my thoughts – I don’t tend to listen to music – and since the operation I feel like I’ve become mentally a lot stronger too. So while as a young man I’d readily give in to the little voice telling me to stop, nowadays I’m made of sterner stuff. I’ll battle on when I feel tired and I’ll run through the periods when I feel like I might be sick. That solitary half hour or hour is more like a break – no one to engage with, nothing to bother me, except tired legs and lungs.

Recently though, my daughter had begun her bronze award in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. As part of it she has to volunteer for anything up to six months and so, when she was struggling to find somewhere to do this, my wife intervened and contacted the people at our local Parkrun. The organiser, Michelle, couldn’t have been more helpful and agreed instantly to take on my daughter and her friend as volunteers. And this is how I found myself on a narrow lane in Oakwell Hall, West Yorkshire stood in a crowd of people buzzing with anticipation.

In truth Parkrun has been on my radar for ages. It appealed as soon as I read about it, but there was always something stopping me doing it. There are several local to me so I wasn’t short of options and wouldn’t have to travel too far, but that final push to take myself along had always eluded me. But then, with my daughter needing a lift to Oakwell Hall and there being nothing to do but hang around when I got there, I decided to take the plunge. And so I found myself standing on the aforementioned narrow lane in a country park in West Yorkshire wondering what I’d let myself in for one Saturday morning in late August.

It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last run and so my head was full of doubts. And there seemed to be hundreds of others here too. Most were fellow runners – I optimistically classed myself as a runner, despite my feeling that the last bit of today’s run might well be crawled – and then there were quite a few others either volunteering in some capacity or spectating. For a few minutes I was convinced I’d made a big mistake and wondered if anyone would notice if I simply wandered off in the direction of my car. But then I looked over to where a group of volunteers were standing, getting ready to head off to their marshalling points, and spotted my daughter and her best friend. Both were here as part of their Duke of Edinburgh bronze award…I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t face explaining why I’d done the wrong kind of runner. So I pushed the positives.

One of the moments that I was dreading was the guidance for new Parkrunners. I’d got it into my head that I was sure to be the only one and that while someone lectured me about running, a whole load of Saucony clad young folk would be standing around eyeing me up and tutting at my inexperience.

Unsurprisingly, it was nothing of the sort. Firstly, there were around a dozen of us new to the run, so I could hide in company. Secondly, the talk was enthusiastic and good humoured; it was clear that everyone wanted us to do well. And finally, a quick glance around told me that there was no difference between us newbies and the veterans that we stood amongst – everyone was just here for a run.

Following the briefing of the virgins, I decided to head down to the start of the run. Still suffering from nerves and a little bit of self-doubt I headed towards the back of the ever growing group. Looking around it didn’t take long for me to notice that everyone seemed happy. There was a selection of ages and body shapes, the weather was good and it was the very start of the weekend. Amazingly, it didn’t take long for this Parkrun ‘vibe’ to take hold of me. While normally I’m cynical and quite resistant to smiling, I found myself gradually relaxing. Positive thoughts seeped into my mind and it wasn’t long before I was telling myself that not only could I actually do this, but that I could enjoy it and perhaps even do it well. Such is the atmosphere at Parkrun.

It wasn’t long before I was joined in the starting area by a lot more runners. A check of my watch revealed that it was a few minutes to the 9am start time. And then, at the head of the pack, sans megaphone, appeared race director Michelle. At first I struggled to hear precisely what she was saying, such was the noise of dogs around me. Actual dogs…that’s not me turning all pirate on you. But occasionally people would clap, so dutiful as ever, I clapped along, not sure whether I was feeling positive or not. Slowly but surely though I got to hear what she was saying and basically Michelle was being a one-woman motivational/relaxation tool. She also seemed to be a dog whisperer too, as the more she shouted, the quieter the hounds became. By the time she began asking whether there were any tourists or first timers I was relaxed and ready to run. I secretly hoped that the dogs had fell asleep – surely even I couldn’t finish last if the saying about letting sleeping dogs lie was going to be adhered to. And then, before I knew it, we were off!

At the back of the field we shuffle awkwardly forward, occasionally breaking into a jog, before slowing again as the road narrows. Luckily, by the time I pass my daughter for the first time, I’m doing something that resembles running. Despite the uphill start and the fact that the lane narrows to a path within a couple of hundred yards, I’m feeling fine as we reach the first turn onto a track I know well from family walks around the park.

For a short while I jog steadily along, sort of stuck behind people, but also running on auto-pilot and not particularly interested in upping the pace. And then, as the track widens enough a couple of runners pass me and it snaps me into some sort of action. I kick on a few times and get round some of the runners around me, picking up a comfortable pace and stretching my legs a little.

Soon, we hit the first downhill stretch and I negotiate this fairly carefully, aware of the fact that if anyone’s going to take a tumble, it’s going to be me. Then the track narrows again and the pace is back to a crawl, but I’m feeling relatively good.

As the track opens out we face a short, energy sapping uphill climb over some cobbles – well we are in deepest Yorkshire – through the car park and we’re about halfway around our first lap of the park. I’m suddenly aware of clapping and some shouting and when I look up I’m greeted by the sight of several high-viz jackets adorning a group of volunteers who proceed to do a wonderful job of congratulating everyone that passes on their progress, however slow we may be, or in my case how much our face resembles a plum tomato. And this is one of the many great things about Parkrun; everyone is so supportive and positive. At various points around the 5 kilometre course they stand and congratulate you or tell you what a great job you’re doing. And in the spirit of the whole thing you find yourself thanking them right back. As a veteran of 6 Great North Runs I know that I react well to such encouragement and crowd participation and although it’s on a much smaller scale here, it’s no less welcome.

We crest the hill and across the road from me is my daughter and her friend. Again, despite my embarrassment, it’s a boost and I lengthen my stride ahead of another downhill section. Another bit of a kick and I’m feeling pretty good – *coughs* for a man of my age – and I manage to pass a few people on the way down the hill. Near the bottom though comes a bit of a test. Oakwell Hall features a path that zig-zags down towards the stream at quite a severe angle, so you’re going back on yourself and taking some rather sharp turns. My legs are tiring and by the time I’ve hit the bottom of the hill and crossed the bridge over the stream I’m blowing a bit. In what I’m rapidly finding out is true Parkrun fashion there’s another volunteer twist as a female marshall stands shouting encouragement while shaking maracas at us at the bottom of the hill. Strange, but brilliant and the kind of thing that takes my mind of my aching body and makes me laugh in spite of it.

But there’s no let-up as we hit another steep uphill section. I make the mistake of running up the stairs and have legs like jelly at the top. Within a few minutes there’s another steep uphill climb, but by the top we’re heading towards halfway and as the trail opens up I realise there’s more people to be passed. By the time we hit halfway I feel a strange mix of being full of running and absolutely knackered! I’m feeling OK though and more to the point, I’m enjoying myself. There are more marshalls encouraging us, more downhill sections and, sadly, more uphills too, but before I know it I’m heading along the final few hundred metres of trail and powering -sort of – for the finish line. I have no idea whatsoever of how I’m doing or of what my time might be, but I’m enjoying myself and I know that I need to open up my stride and try to have a big finish. Just before we turn right into the final straight I’m passed by a couple of runners. I tell myself that it’s OK, they’re both a lot younger than me, but I try to respond and catch them. There’s nothing left in my legs though. Still, I spot a woman in colourful leggings ahead of me running with a dog. I’ve enjoyed my run, but I can’t get beaten by a lass in fancy dress. I summon up one last kick and seem to be catching her up, but it’s too late. As much as my mind wants to sprint, my legs have had enough. I’m making no more ground up today, so with my time in mind, I keep up my middle-aged sprint and try to pass the finish line with a tiny bit of style and probably slightly less dignity.

Whatever I might look like though, I’m done. And I think I’ve done OK. Parkrun may not be a marathon or any kind of huge test, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my morning. Everyone’s been welcoming and the runners come in all shapes, sizes and approaches, which is comforting when your legs are like pipe cleaners and as your body heats up it all goes to your face, making sure you look like the aforementioned tomato after about 500 yards.

It’s not really a race, but you’ll be informed of your position in the field and your time, so there’s always going to be that competitive edge. As it turns out, shortly after I get home I’m informed by email that I managed to drag myself around the 5km course in just over 31 minutes. It’s an automatic personal best too, due to the fact that I’ve never done Parkrun before!

As a result of the run I have to give myself a couple of weeks rest as my back reacts badly to the trail running. However, within a fortnight I’m back and this time I manage to take almost a minute off my personal best. Then, a week later when I’ve clearly caught the Parkrun bug I manage to get round in 29 minutes and 3 seconds. My third Parkrun and my third personal best!

I hope that I can go on and complete many more. For now I’ll stick to Oakwell Hall, but I have it in my mind to sample the atmosphere at others as well, because that amount of encouragement is strangely addictive. And maybe that’s the thing about Parkrun – a non-threatening, friendly, positive place where everyone – even your competitors – want you to do well. Who could ask for anything more while dragging their middle aged, lycra-clad body round a park?