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An Illustrated Memo To Non-Runners
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Running Notes: An Illustrated Memo To Non-Runners Distant Signals distantsignal.blogspot.com Distant Signals, unless said otherwise. Most photos have been taken on actual running locations. May-June 2008
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Hello, Non-Runner! Like most changes in your life, this one starts with a problem. You have no social life and yesterday you found yourself talking loudly to the bottle of beer. (“Hey, nice bubbles!”). Or you are a workaholic who can not sleep. When you close your eyes, Excel tables swirl around in your head. Or may be you are just fat. Or a depressed receptionist. Whoever you are, there is one basic idea that may brighten up your life. And yes, this idea is to run, jog or whatever you name it. Of course, unless you have already done it, you are probably skeptical to it, but you do not have to decide right now. Just ﬂip through the pages and see if you ﬁnd out something that you did not know about running. You will not ﬁnd the usual marathon runnerʼs stuff or tips for becoming a professional athlete. There will be no interviews with doctors or sportsmen and no graphs. There will be no philosophical connections between running and the order of the Universe either. This is not a paper about becoming the best runner. It is a paper about becoming a better, more creative and joyful person by using running as your tool.
In Search of Joy
But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise ... but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. Henry David Thoreau
Picture ﬁve or six 12 year old boys bicycling at top speed through a small university town in Estonia. One of them is pedaling 50 meters behind, trying to catch the others. That is me, somewhere in 1985. As you see, I was generally a bad biker since I lacked the persistency to train. I was best in class at ball throwing though, (probably because besides reading, hauling stones into windows at empty buildings next to my neighborhood had ﬁlled my slightly delinquent pastime). Some years later I liked to play squash. The smash of the ball, the familiar squash hall noises always created a special mood. I liked to solve the impossible game combinations, to rush at top speed, even falling against the walls was fun. But often I was indifferent to victory. My hits often ended straight under the partnerʼs nose so he could ﬁnish me off by a move called "sudden drop". Why was I not all about defeating the opponent? Sometimes it annoyed me. Achieving was considered to be an ultimate virtue around back then. I could only comfort myself with the fact that I was “achiever” in other
areas of my life. At least I could refer to several breakthroughs in my professional development. But still. Sometimes I recalled long childhood evenings full of soccer. You just played the ball, you felt sheer fun from good company, movement, from the warm air, smell of trees. Who remembered the score the next day? Who cared? The day was always new, the moment the object of celebration. Was this the feeling I was after? It took me some time to understand that besides pure achievement there must be something more to sports. It can be called “the ﬂow”. Or may be it is what Johan Huizinga calls "fun", “aardigheid”1 that accompanies gaming. It is a state of mind that makes you forget about everyday problems. You let go and everything steps into its place. So I decided to forget most things that they told me in sports magazines2 and went to ﬁnd out. I gave up the desperate achievement, uninstalled the computer from my bicycle, abandoned the idea to buy pulse-meter-watch and headed for the fun side of physical movement. Instead of going to an ironman competition, I headed straight in the suburbia, villages, backyards. I started jogging there. And I liked, what I saw.
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study if the Play Element In Culture, Beacon Press, 1971.
Of course you still need to buy good running shoes and of course you need to stretch your muscles after sports. No one wants injuries.
I saw children playing, old men idling at the game of chess, young people ﬂirting. Sometimes I had to run from dogs, once I ran together with a strange dog. I felt how my moods changed. New ideas kept coming to my head and changed the course of my life. I may be not an orthodox runner, but there has been a lot of fun in these hours of jogging and still is. So, if you are like me, but have always been scared away from running by the look of hardcore marathoners who run like 500 kilometers a month until their joints need to be replaced by metal parts, then keep reading.
Breathless Becoming a runner can be painful. This is why many people hate running. They think that "it is only for speciﬁc freaks". The truth is that running is no more difﬁcult than any other sport, it is just more honest. The effort is the same as in many other ﬁelds, but there is no way to fake it. On a tennis court you can take it easy on a slow day, but in running, 8 kilometers is objectively 8 kilometers. You either run it or you don't and it takes an effort. When I started running, I had not been sporting for about 10 years. On a sunny day I bought full new gear that looked cool. Coming out of the department store, I was thinking “Boy, I will be a runner!”. Proudly I took the stuff home, put it on and went out, fully believing that the following will be quite easy. It took just 200 meters of reality to transform me into a spitting, coughing, aching and cursing miserable person, who wanted to turn back. So I walked for about 500 more meters and went home. I put my new gear away for several months, but for some masochist purpose I decided to try again. This time I attempted a morning jog. The fresh air, mist, green parkways and singing birds were waiting for me when I woke up at 7.30 and put on my trainers. At 7.45 I began to understand that morning sports is not for me. I had chest pains, ugly cough and felt sleepy for the rest of the day. Failure. I was starting to realize that I was not able to do it.
As time went past, I raised my head again. This time I went for a do or die mission. I took my car out of town. I measured the distance of 1,5 kilometers, let my car at the roadside and decided that no matter what, I will run back and forth. It was not easy at all. At 400 meters I was already out of oxygen and I had no idea, how I would pass the next 2600 meters. The small bridge that was my turning point, seemed to secretly move to the opposite direction. The wind was against me. I had an urge to start walking. Finally when I reached the bridge, I felt that my heart is beating in my throat and I was wondering whether it was the taste of blood in my mouth. But somehow, driven by the embarrassment of previous failed attempts, I persisted and made it back to the car. After I caught my breath, I suddenly started to feel good. "I have to remember this feeling," I thought. It was like some kind of new warm substance was circulating in my blood and I felt relaxed and happy. I drove back to city with a feeling of accomplishment.
The Dancing Shadows For some reason I started to like that particular place on the highway and I kept coming back there for running. The distances became longer and I started to explore the road to the both directions. At a junction a smaller road turned away and I found myself between a forest and a large grassy ﬁeld. This became my favorite route that I followed 2-3 times a week, whenever I could. I started to get addicted to the place and to running. Often I left my friends and drove to jog. It was August and it started to become dark early. Since my favorite track was mostly desolated, I hardly ever saw anyone. One evening, after the darkness had descended the landscape I noticed some dark animal silhouettes moving around the ﬁeld, fast and silent. There were about 4-5 of them chasing each other as playing. Since there was no sound, it was almost mystical. I decided that these were young hogs, since wolves never let you this close and there are no other animals of such size among Estonia's wildlife. What can I say? The beauty of this experience gave me goosebumps.
Twilight Run Twilight is a time to wake up for wild animals. They stick their noses out of the bushes and smell the air. Soon they will dare to run around and it will be busy time for both, predators and preys. At dusk I feel excited and I want to run as well. I am not afraid of dark forests, I feel at home there. I feel like a wolf. Therefore I believe that my ancestors were hunters, not crop growers. According to scientists, humans are built for long distance running and this may have been one of the hunting tactics in the early ages of humankind:
Simply run the animal for 5 or 10 miles until it's dying of heatstroke, and then knock it over with a feather. "That's it. It's amazing. It's so easy." 3 Twilight in the city is a good time to run too. On another August evening I was jogging in a small beach town called Pärnu. Trotting past the romantic wooden houses with ornaments, I reached the plastic villas of newly rich. In the half-dark they looked better than they actually were. Some inhabitants were ﬁnishing washing and waxing their SUV-s. Young people gathered on the the street corners. A girl started waving to me and so did the other. The guys threw me remarks: "Faster, faster!" Then I reached more silent parts of town and my footsteps sounded next to whispering gardens. People were in their living rooms, windows open. Pieces of music and speech ﬂoated in the darkness. Then I went back to my place and I felt as if I had just experienced some kind of a ballet.
Biologist and runner Bernd Heinrich, Ph.D as quoted by Richard Conniff, Menʼs Health, “Yes, You Were Born To Run”, May 2008
Flashback On a Sunday morning I jogged to an old part of town with two storey houses. I passed the place where my ﬁrst girlfriend had once lived. Suddenly I remembered long forgotten details. A funny note I had left on a door. I remembered how a huge mirror once fell down on us while we made love and how it shattered into pieces and how we were unharmed. The ﬂashback was so vivid, that I felt like in a time machine. I was shaken by the bits of past I had rediscovered. But it also felt good to pay an imaginary visit to these days.
Running Away On one evening the sky was lit with stars. I was totally alone, only distant dogs barked their conversations into the warm evening air. I jogged on the hilly road and looked at the constellations in the sky. Somewhere far away a plane was landing and I was thinking of people sitting in it. I was looking at the glow of the city further north and I was imagining all the people watching their televisions or staring at the computers. It felt good, because it helped to keep my mind off from a problem. The problem was that I had broken up with my girlfriend. Sadness gave me energy to run. I was angry at myself and the world. But running seemed to make me feel better. It healed. With every step I became detached from the past. With each step I departed from her into the new world.
Ideas and the State of Mind I am not an expert, but I know that running does things to your mind. You will feel great. You will ﬁnd solutions to problems and you will even become high. They say that runnerʼs high happens on long distances, but I get a mild high already at around 5 kilometers. It happens much more likely with sunny weather and music may increase it as well. Runnerʼs high can not be compared to any artiﬁcial intoxication that I know of. Of all the joys it reminds me of just... well, joy. You will get an overwhelming feeling of wellness. Sometimes you feel that you can run forever. Things you see on a street or on a landscape may become a beautiful sequences that beat the best music
videos. You will feel alive and you will be part of now and here. Of course, it does not happen every time. Sometimes you will be too tired, or your mind is full of too many things to notice the signals of the body. Running is a good tool for solving problems. May be it is the additional oxygen rich blood that will ﬂow into your brains or may be it is something else, but you can start running with a problem in the back of your mind and end up with a creative solution for that without even trying to think too hard meanwhile. While running I developed several concepts that have helped me in my professional life as a consultant. For example, I ﬁgured out how small groups of people communicate in Estonia. I have written several articles thanks to the ideas I got while running. And this memo has been created mostly of thoughts I have got while running.
Screenshot from a ﬁrst person shooter Crysis, by Electronic Arts, www.electronicarts.co.uk
Running For Video Gamers Running is vital part of many computer games. In World of Warcraft you spend most of the time traversing between different realms of the game universe and mostly you move along by running. The game designers have created incredibly beautiful landscapes for you to enjoy during your long trots through forests, deserts and mountains. In most ﬁrst person shooters you run like hell. Running is probably also used to make games last longer and it functions as a separation of action scenes. Of course, this is not real running. Playing Colin McRae rally does not make you a race car driver either. But while you start
thinking of it, you may ﬁnd some unexpected connections to the real world. First, the sense of direction. I believe that playing computer games has given me a some bizarre skills for ﬁnding my place in real geography. Two months of World of Warcraft and countless hours of several ﬁrst person shooters have equipped me with a mix of photographic memory and something like a sixth sense. I seem to ﬁnd my way back from my running routes quite easily. Second, the aesthetics. I do believe that playing video games helps you to see the world differently. You will be able to see the landscapes and textures through new lenses that may just add another layer to your perception of reality. Just as any cultural experience makes you richer and more able to combine new ones into new meanings, combining video gaming and real physical movement, can make you discover new ideas, emotions and understandings.
Feeling For Social Capital I like to follow small aspects of life that indicate the social capital or help to create it. So while jogging in Madrid in 2000, I thought of the "Angry Dog Index". I understood that the way dogs relate to joggers, shows how much social capital is around (postal workers are a different story, they enter the dog's territory). It may sound funny, but in the nineties it was rather difﬁcult to ﬁnd a reasonably safe jogging route in Estonian residential areas since chances were that you got chased by a furious dog, whereas in Madrid the dogs were no more dangerous than sheep.
The reason is actually pretty obvious - dogs have a very fragile nervous system. The more social capital there is, the more dogs get cared and patted and they are less stressful. From the other hand, the more social capital there is, the less people train their dogs to be angry. Of course, you can see the rises and declines in social capital by many other indicators that a runner in a city will become painfully aware. Will the cars let me pass the road? Will I be eyed suspiciously as someone who could grab hanging undies from the clothesline and try to escape with them?
Cities As Open Books Many medieval cities tried to mimic De Civitate Dei, City of God. It is the same nowadays, just that the idea that the city wants to embody, does not have to be religious. While you run, you will have time to think about the aspirations of the city. If you look at a certain region at Rävala puiestee in Tallinn, you see that capital has accumulated fast into the buildings of this region. The tall glass ofﬁce buildings represent the hopes of investors after Estonia joined the European Union.
If you run to the Old Town you see similar pattern, because several hundreds of years before the Hanseatic League was the ideology that shaped the limestone districts. And then you could go to the Soviet built Lasnamäe and you will see the traces of another utopia there. People moving along the straight gray lines that were meant to take us right into the sunrise of communism. You will understand it, when you run there.
Running With Headphones Music can be a great distraction while running, especially when you have to make an uphill effort. It is very difﬁcult to ﬁnd the right earphones as well, so your ears can start to hurt. It is difﬁcult to ﬁnd comfortable volume for the music when the environment noise levels are changing. For example, tires of passing cars on a wet road can produce a noise that can ruin your listening experience. Still, if you manage all these problems, music will probably bring great fun into your running. There are websites that offer you playlists according to your training tempo. By running to the rhythm and knowing the “beats per minute” (BPM) of a song, you can control your
running pace. The mood of the music may motivate you and lift your spirits. But if you want to experiment, I recommend you to discard the science once again. Forget BPM and all else and just put your mp3 player on shufﬂe. Let the music of chance guide you through your run. One tip that may make running extremely feasible for some people is that running is one of the best times to listen to verbal podcasts. You can gather a lot of new knowledge in a well concentrated form. I use to listen to lectures and interviews with authors of new books. My favorite podcast channel is Hearsay Culture at KZSU-FM which is ran by David Levine 4 .
Running With Other People Run with me and we learn a ton of things about each other. Some people are achievers. They are always a step ahead of you. The others keep conﬁdently in the same pace with you and only sometimes test you by adding some speed. There are people who like to talk during the run. For me it is a very convenient way to meet some friends and talk. We choose a tempo which is good for talking and the next hour will be interesting and social. After the run, you stretch, feel good and talk some more. I do not like mass sports and I do not go to big running events more than one or two times a year. It is simply not necessary. But I admit that there may be a certain appeal in running together with a mass of people.
Ambient Running End of May or the beginning of June. One jog recorded in smells. First the smell of the newly mowed grass. Then horse shit stink near the Open Air Museum. Someone is making a small bonﬁre and you can smell the burning branches. Pancakes at the next turn. Grilled meat. Smell of old hay. Bonﬁre again.
In Snow It is Winter and I am covered with thick, damp snow. I look like a running snowman and I am slowly making my way against the strong wind. At this point I do not know, why am doing this any more. I hate the wind and the snow. 40 minutes later I feel well again. I am happy for what I did. But there are times when running in cold Winter is a pleasant experience from the start. The crunching sounds of fresh snow, chilly air, the calm. Beautiful.
I move like with the eyes of the children...for me the city is a playground. Forrest from parkourgenerations.com
On the ﬁrst look, running freely through obstacles in city environment, called parkour or free running, has not got much in kind with simple running. But if you check out the exploratory side of jogging then you may change your mind. Running free without measurable goals, for the joy of movement and discovery is what is expressed in its ultimate form in parkour, but also to an important extent in running as I see it.
David Belle performing a jump. http://kyzr.free.fr/davidbelle/
Summary So this is it. I am happy if I was able to show you something new in running. It is not only a memo to you, but a memo to myself, so that I would not forget the best moments of it. Tallinn-Vilnius, 2008
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