Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality
by Mark Rowlands
218 pages, Granta
Review by Pat Black
Every day, a strange group of people strap themselves up with tape and bindings, clabber themselves with unguent, slip on garish, stretchy fabric and indulge in a very modern pastime: running.
I’m one of them. Not that you’d recognise it as "running", going past me in a car. One colleague told me that she’d seen me "power-walking" on my way to work one morning, and I had to inform her that my curious shambling gait wasn’t power-walking – it was my run. The old knees don’t kick so high any more, my breathing sounds like the death cry of a thousand field mice and the contrast between gut and training gear becomes ever more horrifying with every passing month. And, basically, it’s sore. Still, I make myself do it. Why?
That’s the question Mark Rowlands tries to answer in Running With The Pack. The author of the best-selling The Philosopher And The Wolf follows up that work with an examination of the human imperative to run in anthropological as well as ontological terms. The book is structured around several key runs in the author’s life – from the Welsh valleys of his boyhood through Irish mountains and French beaches and finally arriving at the finish line of the Miami Marathon, where he made his first attempt at a major road race at the tail end of his forties. The what, how and why of human hamsterism are the author’s main concerns.
Physical aspects are examined – the rush of endorphins once a goal is completed, the horror of a grade two calf muscle tear (done that, more than once; hope never to repeat the experience) and the ebullience of running, literally, with a pack, as the author takes to the road as a means of tiring out his three immense dogs.
But there are also higher concerns, too, as Rowlands examines how running has intrinsic value in the same way that play has for children, totally separate from the world of instrumental value people in the west have constructed around themselves. Other philosophical viewpoints including those of Heidegger, Hume and Descartes are examined through the framework of long distance running. Rowlands even dares to contrast the very nature of the universe under the laws of thermodynamics with human activities, such as running, which seek to contravene them.
It’s quite meaty stuff, and asks dark questions such as: why bother with an enterprise like plodding up and down lonely roads when we, the planet, and in fact the entire universe, are doomed? But there are lighter inquiries, such as a study of how the chief evolutionary success of humankind is not the cerebral cortex, but the arse. Our booty allowed us to get out of the trees and run after our prey on two legs, absorbing the shock and lending momentum to every giant leap to follow. This certainly casts twerking in a whole new light.
This one’s well worth digging out your old trainies for, whether you love getting physical, physical, or not.