Sunday, July 29, 2007

Wild Orchids and Spindle Trees

With all the rain this year, plants seem to have grown tall and green. I was thinking this as I was running through the footpaths of Ashridge, sweeping the bracken away from my face. I then thought about how much I missed doing this with my friend, who last year emigrated to New Zealand with his family.

We had a particularly male type of friendship that it was based on two things; running or cycling, and drinking beer. For many years went over the trails of the Chilterns, talking about this and that. I think it kept us both sane when work was either especially tedious or fraught.

His background is botany, well that was his degree - his work is arboriculture. This meant that our routes would sometimes be interrupted by looking for plants. This always opened up my eyes to things I would never otherwise notice. For example there is a gully, with a path, alongside Pitstone Hill. To me it has looked completely unremarkable. To my friend it was a wonderful example of an unspoilt downland ecosystem, a sheltered area with varieties of grasses and flowers that had not been ploughed or overgrazed by sheep.

The short turf is rich in flowers and is colourful, comprising the yellows of Common Bird's-foot-trefoil and hawkweeds, the blues of scabious and milkworts and the pink of the dwarf Squinancywort. The orchid flora is often very diverse, including Early and Late Spiderorchids, Bee, Frog, Musk, Fragrant and Pyramidal Orchids, Greater and Lesser Butterfly-orchids, and Early-purple, Green-winged and Burnt Orchids.

Many a time we would stop whilst he went looking for small wild orchids.

On another occasion we passed a hedgerow and he pointed out a spindle tree, saying that it got its name because the straight, hard branches were used for spindles, as well as artists’ charcoal. Other times we would talk about why trees would spontaneously drop limbs or we would follow the changes in the season and compare the years.

To me this is what soft-core running is about – feeling part of the environment, through exertion. The contrast with hard training is that if you had a schedule and were measuring your performance, stopping to look for orchids would surely mess it up.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Ice Bath

There is an element of masochism in running. You put yourself through a degree of pain for the pleasure you feel when you have earned the right to stop. Soft core runners like myself are not too big on the idea of seeking-out pain, we just accept it as part of the mix that makes running satisfying. We need the feeling of testing our boundaries, pushing ourselves, and knowing we have achieved something.

I don't really know the boundary between extending yourself and just trying to prove you are hard. However I know there is a strain of thought that thinks tougher means better and I think it is one of the reasons iced baths have gained favour as a means of post-run recovery. There is , of course, a plausible reason why they might work but it reads more like a hypothosis than something fully supported by the evidence. I still suspect that the underlying idea is that nasty medicine works best.

it was therefore really pleasing to read this refutation. It is not that I want to stop people diving into iced baths if they like them. Many people obviously think they work (and thinking they work is probably significant in actually making them work) so they should continue. No, I was pleased because I like to see ideas being properly tested - just because something is plausible doesn't make it true and we should not confuse the two.

However i must admit I get more satisfaction when the testing confirms my own prejudices - in this case I prefer a tepid shower.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

More Lack of Understanding

Following on from the last post this is another example of an academic not understanding running.

In this puritanical age in which we live, it is perhaps unnecessary to labour the point that one should not always give way to immediate gratification. Paradoxically, it may be more important to stress the folly of avoiding such gratification without checking that the long-term benefits are really worth it. America has become a nation of masochists who spend hours aimlessly jogging and depriving themselves of all but the nastiest foodstuffs. No rational hedonistic calculations are made… These self-punitive tendencies are just as irrational as Aalways clutching at the nearest pleasure… the desire to live forever and the self-punitive activities that accompany it are surely as much caused by fashion as the crinoline and the mini-skirt. And behind it all lies the most widespread, irrational and powerful fear of all, the fear of death.

I suppose that if you find even the thought of running uncomfortable then it probably inconceivable that others can find pleasure where, for you, there is only pain and discomfort.

Although it is an error of thinking to be totally bound by your own viewpoint,I would not be too harsh on this. Firstly it comes from a rather wonderful book Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland, which strips bare the ways that we all mess up in our thinking. Secondly, underneath, there is the life-affirming message that one should not stop doing, or eating, what we enjoy. The subconscious assumption that there is a big pay-back for all pleasure is irrational. We should not look for and then celebrate false virtue.

However if it had been me I would have used another example but only because I like running.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

These Philosophers, They Know Nothing

They order things differently in France. When you run it is not just exercise; it is a political and intellectual statement. I loved this story about Sarkozy because it is a great example of a wonderfully patrician judgement based on complete ignorance. Alain Finkielkraut is obviously no runner but equally obviously that is no bar to having an opinion on the subject.

However I like this quote:
But Mr Sarkozy has rekindled a French suspicion that the habit is for self-centred individualists such as the Americans who popularised it. “Jogging is of course about performance and individualism, values that are traditionally ascribed to the Right,”

Not because I want to dismiss it with a snort of derision (though that is tempting) but because it generates within me a genuinely mixed response. On the one hand it is right – when we run we are self-centred. We are concerned with how we are feeling, our heart rate, our mileage, and our time. There is an underlying feeling that we can improve through little more than our own effort.

On the other hand it is a classic piece of reasoning from prejudice. It focuses on one aspect of running and makes that stand for everything about the subject. In doing so there can be no recognition that a runner is also part of a community. Many people put in hours of work to help run clubs and help others, out of love not for reward. People will support other runners, whatever their level of performance because they know everyone is on the same path (just at a different place). If we are going to play at silly political labelling then those are seen as more left wing virtues.

I think that to the outsider running seems boneheaded. It is exercise that causes pain and injury for no good purpose and it is easy to mock and make a contrast with more subtle pastimes (as is done in this rather facile comment piece). Those of us on the inside know that it is far more complicated than that. It is not only physical exertion as it involves our intellect, our discipline, our emotions, and our sense of worth.

All we can do is content ourselves with the knowledge that we know and they don’t.

PS – If I was Sarkozy I would not be worried about the people making fun of the idea of running. I would be upset about the coaching comments on my style and weight – that is a bit low.