Lifestyle12 May 2020

The Athletic Life: using poetry to lift your training runs


Running and poetry (© Christel Saneh)


Kate CarterIf you're looking to enhance your running experiences but have already exhausted your favourite albums, playlists and podcasts, perhaps poetry might be worth exploring?

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


A few years ago during a particularly grey and cold winter, I found myself really struggling during long runs. I was marathon training, so they were essentials on the ‘to do’ list, but while my legs seemed willing, my head just wasn’t in the game. I would spend far too much of the early part of those runs thinking about how far I still had to go, and not nearly enough just – well, not thinking at all. In an effort to give my brain something else to occupy it, I ditched the music playlists, and turned to audiobooks and podcasts.

They worked – to an extent. I soon discovered my usual favourite comedy podcasts were a terrible idea for me – laughter may be the best medicine but it’s not conducive to calm, relaxed breathing on a run. Long novels or convoluted narrative podcasts certainly helped my brain to tune out, but meant I kept having to stop when I ‘snapped back’ to what I was listening to and realised I had absolutely no idea what was going on. This peaked when I downloaded the Sherlock Holmes short stories and kept missing the crucial plot moments when Holmesian genius reveals all.

Then I remembered Words and Music. This BBC Radio series combines music of all genres with poetry and prose, spoken by actors, in a sort of esoteric mixtape. It hardly ticks the ‘must be 180bpm’ box that running playlist purists often demand, but it was perfect for me. Little bite-sized chunks of poetry or music that distracted me, without taxing my ability to concentrate after 16 miles on the road, when the blood flow to the brain seems to have been diverted to legs and lungs. Each episode is themed, and as well as being both distracting and soothing, the programme is a great introduction to poems or writers you perhaps hadn’t heard before.

It did, however, make me wonder why I’ve rarely stumbled across great poetry about running. Does the relentless monotony of the runner’s footfall just seem a bit too easy a target for a poet? Or, more likely, had I just not dug deep enough? I started searching and found, initially, rather too much motivational-mantra-on-sunset-picture stuff, but then, deeper down, some gems. The first lines of Benjamin Grossberg’s wonderfully-titled ‘God on a Treadmill’ ought to resonate with anyone who has run on one of those infernal machines in a badly-lit gym: “Sometimes it takes miles to give up resistance/ though the mirror shows a body unresisting, shows/ perhaps something to admire. Others may”. 

I’m not sure I can claim William Greenway’s poem ‘Running the Body’ is really about running, rather than simply living, but it’s also a poem I fell in love with. “Until I had to balance the blood/ Weigh and inject what would burn/ Every crumb I put into It, I never/ Appreciated the body” it begins – reminding me also of a great line from John L Parker’s classic novel, ‘Once a Runner’. “He did not live on nuts and berries; if the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs.” The runner’s body is of course never simply a machine, but on a long run, there is something I always find helpful about the idea that the body in movement, on the run, is doing what it is supposed to do. I think that’s also reflected in the last lines of Greenyway’s poem – “..and behind it all, an art/ the incessant and constant/ timing of the heart”.

Another gem worth reading for those who love to run trails and across country is David Wagoner’s ‘Running’ (“Running across country easily at evening, taking the stones/ As easily as stubble, running from nothing but going”). Or ‘Running Near the End of the World’ by Walter Pavlich, more resonant of tough, slogging runs than floating, pastoral ones: “The days of gliding, of running/ unearth, wild spark pain-points/ flaring inside my thighs..”

Many of these poets are hardly household ones, and I found them simply by searching. And yet somehow, I didn’t realise until very recently that one of my favourite poets, WH Auden, actually wrote a poem entirely about running – or rather, about a specific runner.

In 1962 Canada’s National Film Board decided to hire a first-time director to make a short film about – well, anything they wanted. The chosen director, Don Owen, chose as his subject a young runner – already a star and soon to be an Olympian, Bruce Kidd. Owen, given a large budget, and with some chutzpah, contacted WH Auden – whom he admired greatly – to add the narration.

The resulting 11-minute film is extraordinary, from the quiet flowing introduction of Kidd running alone along the seafront, to the culminating race victory. I urge anyone with 11 minutes to spare to watch it. It’s very much a film of its time – the early 60s – and it’s almost impossible to imagine what the 2020 equivalent would be. Or to imagine it would ever get commissioned at all. But the action is captivating, and Auden’s words capture so many of the basics of running and its inherent contradictions: “By instruction only/ Can limbs learn to live their movements/ Without thinking.” And the contrast between the calm exterior of Kidd and the turmoil of lungs and heart within: “The camera’s eye / does not lie / but it cannot show the life within.”

And so, while listening to poems about running may not be the best distraction while you run, the words of these poems do tend to pop into my head when I’m out, gliding (in my head) or pounding (more accurate) through the streets and the parks and the open spaces. And when they do, they are a perfect distraction.