(First published in the Royston Runners Newsletter, January 2012).
The other day I heard a joke about runners, which is a rarity. It was on a DVD of one of Bill Bailey’s live gigs when he was doing a long adlib. He turned to the audience and said, ‘You’ve got to watch those runners,’ (pause for comic effect), ‘they’re the ones who find all the dead bodies.’ Not bad.
If I had to choose two books on running to take to my desert island (along with my running shoes) then I would choose the following. First Neil Bascomb’s ‘The Perfect Mile’ (Harper Collins 2005). This is the story of the breaking of the four minute mile back in the 1950s when Englishman Roger Bannister, Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee competed for this ultimate prize. It’s told in a very human way showing the contributions made by all three runners and how their great rivalry, full of high drama and incredible effort drove the record time down until Bannister was able to breach 4 minutes in his famous run. It’s a book about the human passion for running, with some exciting descriptions of the races they took part in.
The American, Santee was a great runner but ultimately and unfortunately ruled himself out of the running by falling foul of the very rigid regulations safeguarding the amateur status of the sport. At the time Landy was considered by many to be the more worthy runner, having consistently run close to 4 minutes for some years and done it the hard way, as a front runner. Bannister’s record breaking time (3.59.4) had been achieved through a combination of pace makers and Bannister’s blistering finish. Shortly after, Landy took Bannister’s record by a whole second and a half (3.58). The stage was set for their classic encounter at the Empire Games in Vancouver in 1954 – billed as ‘The Mile of the Century.’ From the gun Landy set off at a fast pace in an attempt to draw the strength out of Bannister’s legs, but the Englishman never let Landy build up a significant lead and on the final turn of the last lap, just as Landy looked back over his inside shoulder, Bannister summoned up the strength to go past on the outside. He won by 5 yards (3.58.8), both runners under 4 minutes. It was an incredible achievement and cemented Bannister’s position not only as a record breaker but a ‘race’ runner against the best opposition there was.
The book also brings to life the incredible public and media interest in the record breaking attempts. This was a time when running held its rightful place as a foremost international sport. This is a great book to take on holiday or read when you are injured and can’t run. This will pick you up and get you wanting to run again.
The second book is ‘The Art of Running with the Alexander Technique,’ by Malcolm Balk and Andrew Shields (Ashgrove Publishing, 2000). The key to this book is in the title – The Art of running. What this book does is get you to think about the process of running by concentrating on two things, ‘mindfulness’ and body posture. There are some great practical tips on improving your running style, simply by be being aware (that is – mindful) of how you are running and making simple technical adjustments. It’s a book which encourages you to think less about running specific times and distances and more about running itself as a physical activity.
There are a series of case studies of individual’s and the injury problems they have encountered and how these have been sorted out by the application of the principles espoused in the book. I have often gone back to it as a ‘refresher,’ especially when recovering from injury or having had a break from running.
At the core of the book’s teaching is the importance of the alignment of the shoulders, neck and head (the Alexander technique). Many runners tuck there chin in and look down at the ground when they are running, myself included, when we should be looking forward to the middle distance holding our heads upright. So what is the classic injury free running posture? In a nutshell, running ‘tall,’ looking ahead, with the elbows bent at 90 degrees and the arms moving either straight backwards and forwards or slightly across the body; the knees rather than the feet leading the forward movement; the legs turning over in a semi circular fashion, flicking the heels up behind, running lightly and quietly.
When I go out running I make a conscious effort to put all this together. It tends to fall apart as I get tired towards the end of a run – so it’s important then to make even more of an effort to stay free and loose, maintaining good style, even if it means dropping the pace. Running is not solely about end results in terms of time and distance – some of the most enjoyable runs I have done have not been personal bests but a simple run in the country when I have judged the pace just right, maybe held something back and finished strong.
Many beginners to running start off thinking of it as a ‘science’ where you measure performance solely in terms of times and distances, seeing progress in terms a continuous improvement in ‘measurables’ – I think we have all gone through this phase – often running ourselves into injury. If you are lucky you learn fast and realise there is a bit more to it and start ‘listening to the body’. Sometimes the learning curve takes a little longer! What this book does is get you thinking right about what you are doing and from that flows better performance.
When I go out for a run, for the first five to ten minutes or so I am assessing how it feels, are my legs strong, do I feel good, do I feel loose? If I need a longer warm up then that’s fine – it’s important to judge each outing on its merits, rather than forcing a particular pace. I have found out from experience that I usually have one ‘good’ (that is fast, strong, flowing) run in me every week, the next is usually a recovery run and the third is building back up again. That is what the ‘art’ of running is all about – being aware of what your body is capable of and working with that rather than pushing on harder and harder regardless.
I should also mention a book suggested by Gordon Baxter. It’s called ‘Wild Trails For Far Horizons’ by Mike Cudahay. It’s now back in print and available from Amazon. Gordon says it’s ‘absolutely inspirational for any long distance runner.’ If others have suggestions for books on running etc., please let me know via my blog site (see below). These book reviews have taken up quite a bit of space so I’ll start my series of ideas for places to run next month.
Happy New Year