Thursday, July 19, 2007

starting to run

I've started going running every day - well, almost every day. I've never wanted to do this before but I find it so satisfying that I feel in some buried way I always did want to.

The average lifespans of other mammals in the wild correlate rather closely with their size. On that basis, the average lifespans of humans in the wild ought to be around 33 years and for most human populations until very recently that's more or less what it was. In the wild, running was a natural motion for humans and a necessary one. Most of us now never need to run and before I began this regime I scarcely ever did so; and accordingly, I couldn't. My lungs couldn't supply enough oxygen to keep me moving, and the first time I went out I managed no more than 500 meters and I felt horrible. Little more than a month later I can do a couple of miles rather easily and even then, when I do come to a stop, I don't feel horrible. I've attained some sort of equilibrium and my lungs can always keep up with the oxygen requirement. It feels empowering. Leave my car at the garage to have a bearing renewed: then run home.

One of the illusions I've been living under is that going out regularly to look at nature (plants, mostly) was also keeping me fit.

Certainly, it's useful to be physically fit if you are interested in wild flowers. It's useful, rather than speculating about how the ecology may have changed on the far side of that hillcrest, to say: Well, let's go and have a look! It's useful to be able to range over quite long distances in order to traverse different environments, which are always reflected in the different plants they support.

Many of the best places for plants involve some sort of physical demand. Mountains most obviously require endurance and a lot of scrambling. In limestone country, the most rewarding places are invariably steep gradients where ploughing is precluded and where the liminess outcrops on the surface without accumulation of a more neutral topsoil. Around the sea-coasts you can expect a battering of wind. And even in the cultivated lowlands you need to be comfortable negotiating the hazards of barbed wire, walls, streams and slithery slopes. In both hot sun and light rain it's surprising how soon the weather can start nagging at you and distracting you from taking the time to inspect plants closely.

But unfortunately, though it's useful to be fit when you go out to look for wild flowers, looking for them isn't really a good way of getting fit. It is a very stop-start form of exercise; a maddeningly stop-start form of exercise, as I'm often made aware if I try to combine nature study with going out for a bracing country walk with a non-naturalist friend. When I'm more sensibly on my own, it might turn out that there's so much to see in the first 100 meters that I don't really go anywhere at all. Or I might walk five miles and dash up and down a disused quarry half a dozen times. Only very gradually did I become aware that these latter excursions were becoming rather infrequent. The accumulated weight of all those sedentary years of earning and reading and writing was beginning to tell on me.

Running as a leisure-pursuit is essentially an urban activity, despite the deep unpleasantness of taking in large gulps of traffic fumes, something that as a shallow-breathing loiterer I never really appreciated. With unelastic limbs of an age well past the average lifespan of wild humans, running safely requires a level and trustworthy surface that is hardly ever found in nature; jogging for exercise is, like skateboarding and rollerblading, a creative response to the possibilities of tarmac. I fantasize that one day I will graduate to fell-running and to leaping carelessly from rock to rock as once in childhood forests (Swedish forests are full of rocks), but this is a dream.

It's too early in my new passion to make much observation of anything while running. Wild flower spotting while running seems barely practical and anyway I've banned it, as a temptation to idle; I have a convert's fervour about not stopping. What I feel sure of is that at some stage this activity, like any other, will reveal itself as providing a different awareness of nature; I hypothesise, a greater awareness of smells, a larger view of landforms, a different range of sensitivities to wind and weather. More likely, I haven't yet any inkling of what I'll be shown.


At 7:08 am, Blogger Vincent said...

This piece had a lot of resonance for me as well as being beautifully written. I haven't got round to running and perhaps won't. they say "don't run before you can walk". Well I can walk and it's an achievement, but still not ready to run. Perhaps age . . .

I like the universality in your piece, relating running to our ancestors and your own interests and the holism of including geology and botany in the sweep of your narrative.

Empowering, to choose one word from your string. Yes.


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