As part of the Festival of Ideas held at the Watershed in Bristol, I went to a Q&A style discussion lead by Julian Baggini with Mark Rowlands, a philosopher who has married the history of philosophy with the act of running. Rowlands proposes in his new book ‘Running with the Pack’ that the motivations as to why we run as well as philosophical experiences based on running a marathon and other long distances. Running and philosophy are not two worlds that have historically been linked, and never to such detail as in Rowlands’ anecdotes and experiences. I was confident I had all theories surrounding the act of ‘running’ nailed, sports psychology..effective nutrition tips.. I had read and absorbed the words of Chris McDougall in ‘Born to Run’ but with no consequent investment on barefoot shoes. After my recent blog post about losing motivation knowing my attitude to running will have to stick to a strict training routine for the Bristol half, I wanted to find out how running for enjoyment and running to train for a half marathon can alter your mindset.
Looking back at the session, there were certainly some aspects of Rowlands’ theories that tied in with McDougall’s, for instance, extending a run by focussing purely on rhythm. McDougall inspired me in my own runs to find a rhythm, to look at my footing as light and airy and my strides are long and bounding – similarly, Rowlands referred to the ways in which cognitive processes best respond to rhythm. I think that a steady rhythm is what reassures the mind of that the body is a beautiful mechanical engine, but to facilitate this process I need to listen to a good beat (or RPM), a playlist that has an RPM of 80 bpm and above helps drive my arms and legs in sync. With the help of music, my mind takes a mental departure from the task in hand and begins to re-order and compartmentalise the chaos from the last 24 hours. Rowlands embraces this process but calls on several basic Western philosophies to extract four aspects of a long distance run.
The 4 elements to a run
- Phase 1 – just a body, aware of all pains of the run, the fully embodied self
- Phase 2 – no longer a body, the body is a slave to the mind, ‘self is a mendacious master’ – psychological drive, Descartes
- Phase 3 – no longer a body and mind, losing all sense of ‘self’, David Hume that we are a bundle of thoughts, feelings and emotions – meditative state, where ideas come into your mind and no ‘thinking but thoughts’
- Phase 4 – despite the pains of the run, and the cascading of all these negative thoughts the Sartre thought process that reasons have no authority over us, and no reasons at all can make me stop. Reasons and causes.
I can understand how most people experience Phase 1 and Phase 2 as there is some degree of physical responses which everyone will experience. The opening strides of a run when an individual embarks upon a hill just minutes into the exercise opening up their lungs and raising the heart rate with blood infusing into the driving muscles. Phase 3 was singled out by fellow philosopher Julian Baggini – does every runner go through this feeling of existentialism during a run? The word ‘meditative’ was thrown around the room by contributing runners, with meditation playing a major role in a person’s run. According to Rowlands, Buddhist monks have been known to go out for long runs purely on the basis of meditating. We are now presented with spirituality in running which then begs the question – do we run to benefit from something whether it’s to strengthen a faith, or do we run for the sake of running? If there are spiritual merits to be gained from a run, to be closer to a God, to invest in faith then yes. Rowlands referred to a previous workshop he carried out where runners explained they run for ‘sanity’, which suggests that we run as a cathartic outlet. Rowlands’ admitted to doing when he claims to think during a run (only in a poor run, where thinking hasn’t yet been disconnected and thus the flow of thoughts have not yet happened). Although we have reached these phases through various mental states or phases, it may be instrumentalised by the reasons why we are running in the first place, Phase 3 – the meditative state may be better utilised by a Buddhist monk, who runs to achieve a harmonious state of zen and therefore running for benefit. Is it possible for an individual to disassociate running with benefits? Are we actually capable of carrying out an activity without an end result which we endeavour to beat?
Success: Do we run to succeed?
We run, according to Rowlands, to achieve something greater and better, at times, to feed our egos and to deliver smug acknowledgement that we’ve done something good. In the event of a Marathon, it is paramount you don’t mark the goal of finishing the event as a mile stone just passed, instead you forget about the goal and continue to run without feeling of competition. Baggini questioned this, how can you aim for a goal and then effectively – dispose of it entirely? We are omitting the setting of a goal post, one of the key fundamentals to sport psychology – a target that will motivate the individual and drive them to succeed. It is impossible to succeed without setting a goal, but then ‘success’ is measured in different respects – running competitively to reach a goal, or running metaphysically to reach an peaceful state of mind. The two will garner entirely different results.
I agree that in some runs it is possible to reach a state of complete calm, where mind and body are intuitively working together and thinking departs in replacement for the floatation of occasional thoughts, feelings and sensations which barely make a mark on my consciousness. It is complete switch off and it’s absolute bliss. But this state is entirely dependent on mood, how busy a runner’s schedule is for the rest of the day, weather and any fatigue left over from previous activity. I think the final phase which Rowlands’ outlined matches the highest level of pain threshold which a runner hits on a 14mile and over run, at this stage, I believe all meditative feeling to have been disposed of and for the body to be outwardly rejecting any reason that the mind tries to assert on it, I perceive this stage to be the most primitive and closest to the core of why we run. Looking briefly into Sartres’ thoughts on this, this is an act of disobedience of body over the mind’s authority – surely this is best applied to a society as a collective? And how can this class clash be paralleled with an individual’s body and mind?
Overall, I like Rowlands’ thought process behind a long run, but it is only in an ideal world where would run for no other reason than to be immersed in nature – whilst this is an aspect, it does not exist as the sole reason as to why I do it. I do it for selfish reasons, to become a better person, to reach goals, to bask in the glory of finishing a half marathon and while Rowlands’ four ideas notions of mind & body disconnections are duly noted (and for some, it’s great reassurance) what drives my rhythm and what keeps my legs moving is the goal at the end, the voice within my mind coaching my body to push harder and to convince it into overcoming new pain thresholds. Similarly, a fantastic run is when I have mentally compartmentalised and sorted my thoughts, I think, I control what I think and at the end of my run – I know all the resolutions to my problems whilst feeling the endorphins released from physical activity. Philosophy cannot teach much here for me, but it can certainly be used to periodically to pinpoint experiences of freedom and limitless potential.
You can buy Mark Rowlands’ book from Amazon
Check out my video montage which deconstructs the notion of running through contemporary media