The power of storytelling
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 13 December 2021
Sport, like a Hollywood movie
I may have mentioned at some point that I have a plan to try to make a film about my 3,100-mile race - though nothing is certain about that yet. As part of my research, I started watching some sports documentaries this year, and ended up getting gripped by F1: Drive to Survive, a Netflix series about Formula One racing driving.
I had almost no interest in the sport before watching the series, however it's so well put together that I soon found myself also following the F1 season in real time.
What makes the series so gripping are the human stories, rather than the high-octane car racing. Most of the episodes focus on the personalities of the drivers, the team managers, the bosses etc, and the relationships between them - it helps that the sport is so full of galactic-sized egos, as there’s nothing as entertaining as seeing a huge ego getting taken down. The film-makers get so close to the characters, that you begin to feel like you know them, and as such, you begin to care about the results in the races.
Yesterday, as Max Verstappen pipped Lewis Hamilton to the F1 world title in a dramatic end of season race, it seemed like half the world was either gripped by it, or wondering why everyone else was gripped by it. And a huge factor in this recent surge in interest in F1 has been the Drive to Survive Netflix series. This is the power of good storytelling.
I’m not saying my film will make the 3,100-mile race a global event that will lead the main news bulletins everywhere, but what I have always striven to do in my writing is to tell stories. The reason long-distance running is so huge in Japan is in large part down to the way Japan’s main newspapers have, since the beginning, embraced the sport of distance running - and in particular ekiden - filling pages and pages with the rivalries, backstories etc of the sport’s main figures.
In contrast, the stories of East Africa’s incredible athletes have always been largely untold - which was the very reason I wanted to write Running with the Kenyans in the first place. I, for one, knew very little about Kenya’s athletes - where they came from, what they thought, what motivated them etc. I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever written a book about Kenya’s great runners. It was clearly - to my mind - one of the most compelling, intriguing stories in the history of sport: how had one corner of east Africa (Kenyan and Ethiopia) come to dominate the world’s most popular (in terms of participation) and accessible sport? It seemed that nobody had ever been there to ask the question, and to tell the story. And it was a story that needed to be told.
There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that I love that says: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” It seems like a strange thing for a great scientist to say, but what he means, I believe, is that we all interpret the world, even as adults, and make sense of the world, through storytelling. And if you can begin to understand the power of storytelling, then you’re on the right path to understanding human nature and the world around you.
Keep on digging
In my own story, it took me until Thursday last week to recover from my illness enough to get back out running. I made up for it with a double run on Sunday - something I’m going to have to get used to quickly. As I was labouring through that second run, I started feeling like I was entering the edges of the pain cave - nothing serious, but the first few steps towards the entrance. And in doing so, I started to see the value in the pain cave metaphor. I imagined I was on day 20 of my race, and I was asking myself: “Why? Why am I still going? Isn’t this just complete madness?”
I can see that becoming a repeatedly frequent question, and one that is going to feel more and more valid, and potentially harder and harder to answer. But then I imagined I was digging in the pain cave. That was the answer. The harder it gets, the more you have to dig. And it felt like it made sense in the moment, in that it gave me a reason to push on, to keep going, because I wasn’t just going around in pointless circles, but I was on a process of discovery, pushing deep underground, inside myself.
Whether that works in the race, who knows, but it has clearly helped enough ultra runners in the past to have become a thing that we/they all refer to. Just this imagery, this feeling, of digging, helps you to keep going. And since you’re always - in the end - glad you did, it begins to feel that, yes, by digging you really are discovering new treasures buried deep down there in the pit of your inner world. And those treasures are valuable enough to make you want to go back and dig again.
In some ways, this is, again, storytelling. When you’re running an ultra, you get to a point where you need to rationalise it to yourself, and the way you do that is to tell yourself a story. Maybe it’s the story of the next day, and how bad you’ll feel if you don’t finish. Or it’s the story of how joyful it will feel to cross the finish line. Or maybe it is the story of your entire childhood running through your mind! Perhaps, like Damian Hall, you imagine you’re a Frodo-like figure on an epic quest to save the world. Or, perhaps, you go back to that tried and tested pain cave story, the one that seems to work so well. You’re digging, digging. And if you keep going, you tell yourself, eventually it will all be worth it.