Why We Run: A Story of Obsession, by Robin Harvie

A recent 10-month lay-off from running due to chronic plantar fasciitis brought home how different a pursuit it is to any other kind of exercise.  While numerous gym and pool session kept my fitness up, neither were an adequate substitute for the decluttering and mental clarity achieved through running.

Robin Harvie’s Why We Run (2011) is one of the latest in a string of best-sellers that have tried to account for the seemingly mad behaviour of long-distance runners.  As part of his grueling – stronger word needed – training regime for the ghastly 153-mile Spartathlon, Harvie was prescribed two gym sessions a week.

“As Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘The treadmill… accommodates the mind which is more comfortable with quantifiable and clearly defined activity than with the seamless engagement of the mind, body and terrain to be found outdoors.’  In other words, the modern gym caters for the sentimental athlete who wants to have the luxury of the experience of athletic exertion without having to pay the physical or mental price for it.  For twelve months I went for 2 hours twice a week without fail, and I hated every minute of it.”

Why We Run is a very raw account of his personal motivation for running extreme distances, and Harvie delves into his family’s painful past to get closer to the source from which he, and all other families run.  His 12-month training programme is played out in the aftermath of the death of his father-in-law.  His guilt at embarking on such a selfish pursuit is apparent throughout as he and his wife try to come to terms with the death and piece his mother-in-law back together.

His valiant but failed effort to complete the Spartathlon on his first attempt makes for great reading as Harvie is a damn fine writer and disgustingly well-read.  After 17 hours and 85 miles Harvie’s body could take no more and he retired at check-point 38.  He makes the horrific point that his 12-month programme was enough to help him complete the 85 miles, but that the effort involved in completing a  Spartathlon is a life’s work. That’s bad news for his poor wife; he’s going back again.

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