Short Blankets

This column by Simon Gear first appeared in Runners World SA in August 2010

I was asked a curious question the other day.  “Do I, like ‘normal people’, run along solving the world’s problems and looking at the scenery, or am I always analysing clouds?”  I didn’t really know where to start with this.

First was the astonishing assumption that normal people run at all.  “Normal for what?” you may ask.  Normal people absolutely should run.  So should the criminally insane and the greyingly boring.  Especially the criminally insane, as someone might be after them.  But generally, normal people don’t run.  Which is a pity, because it would make them more interesting, and a bit happier too.

The next part of this that bothered me was the thought that people may be under the impression that I am spending the one part of my day that is truly mine, looking at clouds.  Now as many people who have watched me do my other job gleefully point out, it doesn’t look like I spend a lot of my billable hours looking at clouds either.  Perhaps a bit of window gazing would prevent the more dire forecasts or the retreat into the refuge of “Partly cloudy and … um... a 30% chance of rain.”  But am I so meteorologically minded that I spend all my running time gazing skywards?  No.

Finally, there is the idea that all the other runners are out looking at the scenery and solving their issues.  I think it was Seb Coe (in his pre-Lordship days) who pointed out that if you can notice the scenery, you aren’t running hard enough.  Probably not entirely true, Seb.  Of course it’s more fun to jog along the beach or trot along a path into the mountains, but generally those aren’t what Seb would consider running.  Certainly, I’ve found that hard racing can happen anywhere and the scenery doesn’t make a difference.  But casual runs are better in parks than on roads.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that your eye needs to rest on distant horizons for you to truly relax.  Hence our obsession, as a species, with views.  But if you’re out to really mould your body into something special, the scenery really doesn’t matter.

The same with this idea that running gives us the peace and quiet to think.  There is no doubt that when I come back from a run, my mind is clearer and my emotions are more settled.  But I can honestly say that I have never solved a problem on the run.  When I run, even when I’ve specifically gone out to think through something, my mind is a blank.  At best I’m thinking about the run that I’m on.  Sometimes I may be fantasising about upcoming races, but there it ends.  Running equips you with the energy and clarity to sort stuff out later, but no one I know fixes things on the run itself.  There just isn’t the time . You’re too busy running.

Running demands an awful lot of mental energy.  You think you’re breezing along, all natural and automatic, but try tackling a complex mental problem.  It’s astonishingly difficult.  I bet that part of the reason that running is so refreshing is that it diverts an enormous amount of effort away from the usual parts of your brain and just gives it a rest for a bit.  Most of our blood is off sorting our legs out, for a start.

Before the World Cup, someone asked Carlos Parreira whether Bafana would be attack our defence minded . He told the now oft repeated story of a man in bed with a small blanket.  Sometimes he can cover his head, and sometimes his legs, but never both at the same time.  I reckon running is a little like that.  If you want to turn out a well rounded human being, you absolutely need to train your legs and your head.  But while you’re training the one end, the other is going to take a rest.  And both will be the stronger for it.

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