A Phenomenology of Running: A Proposal

In the posts during the last year I have been touching on the phenomenology of running from a range of perspectives. This is really the topic I want to capture, it occurs to me. It will become a project on this blog going forward.

A complete philosophical account of the phenomenology of running would need to meet a number of criteria.

First, it would need to cover all aspects of running, including the physical sensations of the body moving through a space and the sensations of the body’s own efforts, as well as the alterations to the subjective framing of these within the intentionality of running as it shifts and changes.

Second, it should address running at all speeds and distances, from short sprints to ultra-marathons and beyond. Of course, I am most interested in how longer-distance running affects the nature of our awareness of what it is to be a physical being, but it would be wrong to exclude the impact of sprinting on thought, sensation and perception.

Third, it must address the deeper phenomenology of the alterations to consciousness itself, and what initially might be called ‘higher’ awareness of self, no-self and other.

Finally, it should make reference to and be informed by the many approaches to running that already exist. I could not possibly hope to begin without these guides that range over accounts of barefoot running with indigenous tribal peoples, ancient wisdom from Buddhist masters, new running ideas and mindfulness, tales from champions, and leading-edge running science and philosophy.

Doing this will allow me to draw on all the interests and perspective on running I have mentioned to date. I hope readers will think it worthwhile. I shall continue to post about my running more generally alongside this project, and include information on races as before.

If anyone else would like to jump into the conversation, please do leave a message.


Subjects and Bodies

Recently I have been reading a book by the philosopher Roger Scruton: On Human Nature. While I find much to disagree with in Scruton’s political philosophy, when he writes about aspects of human experience and the centrality of the subject, intentionality and the I-you relationship in our morality, he weaves a compelling theory about the eliminability of the subjective. I think he is mistaken about some of the conclusions he draws from his arguments, which follow his oft repeated conservative narrative, but the core thesis is, I find, sound and deeply insightful. The humanities can never be replaced or find a substitute in objective scientific accounts of human nature.

Running is a real encounter with the raw experience of embodied animal nature mediated through our choice to run, to go beyond what basic physical feedback would tell us is possible or desirable. In doing so we both live within and recognise our fleshy objective nature,  and explore the ways we can transcend that as a subject whose experience of running is more than as just an animal.

This is all particularly true in a marathon. There is a point where you are running beyond what is physically good for you and for longer than your body wants to; for me this around 20 miles / 30km / 3.5 hours. This means that, perhaps counterintuitively, from that point you are in full contact with the subjective nature of running even as your body is exhausted.  I am beginning to wonder how this idea might be further explored and connected to my other thoughts on the Zen nature of running.

Not every run is a good run, but every run is good

On Sunday I completed the long run I planned. All 17km of it, up and down tracks and trails, roads and highways; very little of it was flat. The weather was wet and windy. And cold. I was wearing shorts and had no gloves, and my legs and hands quickly became numb and red. I felt like I had no energy at all. I was so slow that several faster runners overtook me on the road with very little effort, before I had really even got going. The rain soaked through all my gear making me feel even more heavy and sluggish. Towards the end my phone decided to shut down so I couldn’t even accurately log the full run in mapmyrun. And throughout I felt niggling pains in my ankles and knees. In other words, it was, at the level of details, an awful run.

However, even as I was slogging though the woods on a lonely track at around the 14km point, with the chilling rain running down inside my waterproof, I was struck how ‘in the moment’ of things I can become when running. The trees were hung with the emerald green of mosses dripping with life from the water in the air; the firs smelt fresh and sharp with rising sap; the greens and browns and greys of the woods were rich and intense; the uneven path under my feet was full of ancient stones connecting me to billions of years of Earth’s history. At the moment, cold and drained though I was, I was there, completely in that environment and moving though it. I thought back to earlier points in the run and though they were now just memory and the past, they had contained similar richness and were replete with lessons had I chosen to pay attention … That moment in the woods is now memory too, of course, although I made a special note to myself to write about it later.

This got me wondering about consciousness itself. It’s an enormous topic and very much at the forefront of research in cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. However, I approach the subject from a slightly different direction. In her great little book Zen and the Art Consciousness, Susan Blackmore notes that we pay less attention to the real phenomenology of consciousness than we should. During meditation she explored various aspects of conscious experience, including her sense of self, now, time, continuity of awareness and wholeness. She found all of these to be other than we think they are in our ‘common sense’ view of the world (one that is largely the product of our cultural, religious and intellectual history, I suspect). I have found similar things myself in meditation (although that is not the point of meditation). But I think running provides similar insights. Consciousness seems to flicker into slices of time. I find I am much more aware of the non-continuity of consciousness when running. I find myself suddenly snapping back into it from breaks in the stream of complete consciousness; in the breaks my body has just been running. And in that moment of ‘snapping back’ everything that I have not noticed somehow gets filled in, in a sketchy kind of way. Similarly for my sense of time. (I will write more about this soon, because I think there is something worth pursuing here.)

And so I think even a bad run provides a means for exploring who we are. I guess that is one answer I would give to Lars’s question about why we run: it is self-understanding: from the limits and possibilities of physical being, right down to the level of conscious experience. All running is good!