What I think of when I think about running

Rohit Brijnath’s love/hate relationship with long (ish) runs


The smile-less Czech Zátopek won the 10,000m at the 1948 London Olympics. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The smile-less Czech Zátopek won the 10,000m at the 1948 London Olympics. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One of the kindest things about playing sport is that amateurs have no idea how they look. It is possible that you believe your effortless backhand was designed in Roger Federer’s personal studio. How nice. Fantasy is a vital part of sport and to video yourself would be to destroy an extravagant myth.

Ask me.

In 2011, certain that I was stylistically related to Hicham El Guerrouj, who ran as if in velvet shoes, I went to a laboratory to film my gait for a story. The doctor broke the news gently. My knees did not flex, my stance was too upright, my bounce too high, my shoulders not swivelling, my arms not driving. I erred by not seeking a second opinion.

For reasons unclear, Hermes, the God of athletes, dislikes me, for running constantly finds a way to embarrass me. In December 2012, having recently turned 50, I ran a short distance with the ancient marathoner Fauja Singh, then 101, who suddenly decided to sprint by the sea and left me winded and wounded. For the record I would like to state I had an injury.

Running flirts with spirituality even as it is fascinated with gadgets—a friend tells me one app offers a recorded pep talk from Tiger Woods—and no sport is so happily stuffed with Yoda-like pronouncements. “As we run, we become,” said the great Amby Burfoot. Indeed. The wise and wondrous Czech Emil Zátopek noted that “if you want to win something, run 100m. If you want to experience something, run a marathon”.

No thank you.

But this is who runners are, masochists caught in an undertaking so profound they do not even require a rival (they defeat clocks), inquiring with every extra step into their own toughness, driving themselves past exhaustion (the great Australian Ron Clarke was unconscious for 10 minutes after the 10,000m at high-altitude in Mexico, 1968) and occasionally wearing the agonized look of Zátopek, who noted, “I am not talented enough to run and smile at the same time.”

Of course I dislike running. But I still do it, once a week, on Sunday evenings as the sun turns kinder. It is my ritual of self-abasement. In Chariots Of Fire, the determined Christian Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast”; but I am a slow sidewalk stumbler whose purpose cannot be this. Everyone overtakes me, even my 10-year-old nephew last Christmas. He laughed, the little swine.

My lower legs are very thin, much like the famed Kalenjin tribe in Kenya, but there all resemblance ends. In his brilliant book, The Sports Gene, published in 2013, David Epstein wrote that “seventeen American men in history have run a marathon faster than 2:10; thirty-two Kalenjin men did it just in October 2011”.

Their running is music, I need songs in my ears to run. The first track to start me off—kindly refrain from giggling—is You Should Be Dancing—and my first goal is the next bus stop. These days I aim not for a time but for a flyover 3km away. If I reach there I am Paavo Nurmi.

My father is guilty of introducing me to life’s beautiful things: jazz, encyclopaedias, wildlife, compassion and Nurmi. Take one tale. Before the 1924 Olympics, the Finn learnt the 1,500m and 5,000m would be held within 2 hours of each other. So three weeks before the Games, he replicated that test and broke world records in both events.

I grew up to Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Rome marathon barefoot, read passing stories of an all black, Filbert Bayi, who raced against John Walker, a man in all black, and was mystified by John Landy. In a mile race in 1956, he went backwards. When Clarke fell, Landy spiked him as he tried to evade him, so he stopped, checked on Clarke, and then restarted the race. Of course he won it. These men were gods.

Ethiopia’s Bekele (in the lead) holds the world record and Olympic record in both the 5,000m and 10,000m events. Photo: Paul Thomas/Getty Images
Ethiopia’s Bekele (in the lead) holds the world record and Olympic record in both the 5,000m and 10,000m events. Photo: Paul Thomas/Getty Images

To watch a string of Keinos, Defars, Morcelis, Dibabas was to consider that humankind in long-striding motion over a reasonable distance was the closest we come to two-footed poetry. The 100m is ego and explosion, but now I find it unsatisfying, lacking the drama of tactics, jostling and many winds of the longer races. So easily these runners move, so fast they run. If you break down the 5,000m world record (12:37.35) into 100m runs, then Kenenisa Bekele is running 50 consecutive 100m races at 15 seconds each.

Africa is the birthplace of humankind and evidently, of elegant running. It seemed they did not ever walk but only ran and so the idea that the Kenyans cheat is like an obscenity. They lope, I tottered last Sunday. My friend, a writer with multiple sclerosis, for whom running is healing and joy, tells herself an Olympic gold is to be won when she is tired. I tell myself, run to that tree, that lamp post, that bus stop.

The Bee Gees are harmonizing in my ear about Lonely Days and I feel like a mafia informer with his feet encased in concrete. This is not that rare day you search for when you feel weightless, and can run forever, and can do what Nurmi never did, which is smile as you move.

The flyover is just there, another 2-3 minutes away. I curse, I dream of icy Coke, I try to eject the spit that’s congealed in my mouth, I feel the humidity clinging to me like an overheated lover, I think unkindly of Rahul Dravid and Abhinav Bindra, who evangelize about the virtues of suffering.

And then I just stop.

Can’t. Move. Any. More. Weak. Willed. Bastard.

I hate running. I have failed. Cars hiss by. But I tell myself, at least I ran. Then I stand in the dusk and wait for a bus home.

Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Straits Times, Singapore.

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