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Why running is like football
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 12 July 2021, the day after the final of the Euro 2020 football championships
As I wake up on a grey July day in England, the day after the country’s loss in the final of the Euro 2020 football championships, the radio full of tales of gloom and ugliness, I realise the importance of patience.
For anyone not steeped in football, I appreciate the national mood being affected by a football match may seem perplexing, and I often feel that way myself. Relying on a sports team for your happiness is to build your house on very flimsy foundations - especially on a team with a track record like England. But there is something in the collective surge and fall of emotions that makes football so comforting and exhilarating for so many. If people are to suffer, then they suffer together. And when they celebrate, they get to celebrate together as one joyous mass. It brings a sense of souls merged, our deep-rooted collective instincts fulfilled.
Running is not usually like that. It is very much a personal, individual journey. It is you, alone, feeling your body moving, fulfilling its purpose. The ultra runner, John Kelly (who is American but lives in England), wrote on Twitter this morning: “What a devastating loss to England - for that, I'm truly sorry … But the perpetual heartbreak from my own favorite teams is partly what drove me to focus on goals where I have personal control & reward. For that, I'm grateful.”
Yes, running is you alone. In running you don’t rely on others, either for success or joy. When you watch a marathon, it is to appreciate the individual efforts, to see another person’s journey or dream being fulfilled. You appreciate it, but it rarely affects your own sense of happiness. Sure, it can be emotional - and for me it often is - but it is a detached emotion. It is the emotion of watching a sad or uplifting film. You feel for them, the people in the film, not yourself.
But running is not completely detached. Let’s not go too far. Running in a group with others can bring a deep sense of togetherness, of collective striving. You can feed off the energy of the group. Even just one other person, running side by side, can make everything feel easier. And when you join a big race such as the London marathon or Comrades, the collective surge can be overwhelming. The difference is that this happens among those taking part, rather than for those watching from the sidelines.
The construct of a race is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. When all the races everywhere got cancelled due to the pandemic, I shared a piece of writing from my book The Way of the Runner, in which I come to terms with my final ekiden in Japan being cancelled. In the book, I write:
Why do we need the worldly construct of a race? What purpose does it fulfil? It is the completion of a goal, sure, but wasn’t that goal only ever a mechanism to get us out running? Those days of training are not wasted if we don’t run the race. If you miss your exam at the end of a course, it doesn’t mean you haven’t learnt anything.
And yet, the race is important, in that it is the coming together, the communal moment, in running. Some people run without racing, but for me, I love this collective rush, this sense of occasion that, while not so nation-consuming as football, can still be just as strong for those of us who chose to take part.
I was thinking about the value of all this in view of my upcoming 3,100-mile race around the block in New York. I keep thinking that to prepare for it, I need to start doing some of my long runs around boring loops, to get a feel for that, and to learn to focus my mind when there is nothing to look at, when there is no sense of a physical journey, no feeling of progression in the real sense of actually getting somewhere. But so far I haven’t managed to do it even once.
I live near a flat, one-mile loop by the seafront, which would be perfect. But the thought of going there and running even two hours around and around that loop is hard to fathom. So hard, in fact, that it feels like it would be almost more tedious than the actual 3,100-mile race.
I keep thinking, how is this possible? How can two hours around Paignton Green seem unbearably tedious, while the thought of the 3,100-mile race seem quite exciting? It is, I think, the construct of the race that changes everything. If I was just going to run 3,100 miles around any random block, on my own, with no fanfare, or finishing line, or people counting the laps, or people running it with me, it would be completely different. But somehow, being in a race, with others, doing it together, makes it seem possible. That collective energy, the connection to others, is a powerful force, in running too.
Interestingly, the only country where running is primarily a team sport is Japan. And in Japan, running is more popular, even as a spectator sport, than football. Funny that.
So why patience?
Well, firstly, this England team needs patience. It is a young team still developing. It is really only at the start of its journey, not the end. And I too have realised in my running this week that I need to be patient, as my journey is also only just beginning. All week my legs have felt tired after the three previous weeks in which I increased my training. So I decided to ease back on the mileage this week. To get to that start line in New York ready and in one piece, I need to manage and nurture my body, not punish it. So my longest run this week was just 10 miles. And that, just like missing a few penalties, is fine for now.