Running Repairs

Justice warriors

Nick Cohen says pounding the streets brings its own rewards that sometimes life itself can’t fulfil

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Running isn’t a sport that requires skill. Unless you are at the highest level, running is nothing more than putting one foot in front of another, three, four, five or six days a week, month after month, year after year.

Runners do it because running brings justice to an unjust world. To explain that rather grandiose statement, consider that running guarantees that you will get out what you put it in.

If you are running 10 miles a week and build up to 20 miles, or go from 20 to 30, or 30 to 50, you will not just lose weight and see your chances of suffering from cancer, heart disease and type II diabetes fall vertiginously. You will become a faster and better runner simply by covering the miles.

They will see no justice, just a poleaxing reminder of that oldest of truths: life isn’t fair

Little else compares. Malcolm Gladwell has propagated the comforting “10,000-hour rule”: if you practise anything for 10,000 hours before the age of 20, you will excel at it.

More scrupulous researchers have debunked him. They found that hours of practice could not explain the difference between good and excellent violinists, for instance. Talent and luck cannot be worked round, however hard you try. To state the obvious, all notions of self-help crash into the barriers set by your genetic inheritance. I could study quantum physics for the rest of my life and never understand it, and the same might apply to you, dear reader.

Meritocracy has become a dirty word today because people, most notably young people, have “worked hard and played by the rules” to use the crass politician’s slogan, and been left empty-handed.

They studied for their exams, as society told them to, passed them all, and looked for a good job and a home of their own where they and their partner might live in relative comfort, and found that neither was on offer, however hard they laboured.

If today’s radical right is powered by the left-behind working class, its radical left is filled with the left-behind middle class. Many others will feel their anger at some point in their lives. They will
look back at the 10,000 hours — or tens of thousands of hours — they put into working for employers who never rewarded them, or into working at a relationship with a man or woman who left them.

They will see no justice, just a poleaxing reminder of that oldest of truths: life isn’t fair. Nor is it. But in its rough, sweaty, little way running is.

The comedian Paul Tonkinson makes my argument better than I can in his 26.2 Miles to Happiness: A Comedian’s Tale of Running, Red Wine and Redemption (Bloomsbury Sport, £14.99), the best book about running I have read.

C.L.R. James asked, “What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?” The same question can be asked about running, as Tonkinson realises. Parts of his description of how he trained to run the London Marathon in the incredible time — to my battered body — of under three hours are as funny as you would expect a comedian’s narrative to be.

But as the book progresses a darker theme appears. His stepmother horribly mistreated him when he was a child. She forced him to eat his every meal away from the family in the garden, whatever the weather or season. She tyrannised and controlled him until his father found the sense to leave her.

Tonkinson tries therapy and has nothing but praise for the analysts who helped him. But it is running that quells the demons which leave him up late at night downing bottles of wine.

He is captivated by the justice in its promise that, if you train hard, your body will remember each session and adapt to everything you do. If you run more miles, you will become a stronger runner. If you practise running fast, you will become a faster runner. Running said to him, “You are the agent of your own transformation,” and kept its word.

There is no intermediary with running, no vagueness

It offers an escape from a world where “everybody is getting better at marketing but nobody’s trying to get better at the thing itself”. There is no intermediary with running, no vagueness.

“Nobody is going to grab you at Mile 16 and usher you off the course because the company’s restructuring,” Tonkinson concludes. “You will not be told at Mile 20 that you’re no longer needed because we’re relocating to Frankfurt. It’s your gig, your race, your terms. You can earn this.”

This is why, if you happen to be in London on a cold, dark and dank morning, you will see me and thousands of others running through the streets. It may look as if we are trying to escape, as if we are running away, when in truth we are trying to lock our lives into step with our pace by running towards a rare kind of justice.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover