When reflecting on trailrunning, the kind of running I’ve pondered about most till date, I’ve focused on my motivation for hitting the trails, but never really addressed the fundamental question of why one would want to run a landscape in the first place. I may experience running as a way to connect with my environment and make it a place of my own, but looking at it from the other end of this equation, running doesn’t seem the obvious modality to engrain a landscape into a person. Walking would offer itself as a more appropriate motion of choice. These days I am also getting my feet and my head around the activity of hitting city pavement. So let’s get at this question from the city angle.
The man-made environments of cities are as much eco-systems as so-called natural landscapes, so conceptually they’re just another kind of landscape, and apart from practicalities, the questions why run a city and e.g. why run a mountainscape can be understood as variations on a theme.
The god-mother of the city as an eco-system view, Jane Jacobs, walked the city, and her legacy is befittingly honored and promoted by friends, colleagues and others whom she inspired by organizing walks.
The ‘research methodology’ of Teju Cole, whose approach to the city experience illuminates my thinking about city running, is to make long destination-less walks, observing the city as an alien to avoid the blinders of preconception and increase the chances of luck, or urbanating as he calls it, placing himself within the family of traditions that includes Baudelaire and Benjamin who describe and theorize the flâneur (the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city), and the dérive (an unplanned tour through an urban landscape directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings), of the situationists and psychogeographers.
Isn’t walking the prototypical way to connect to one’s environment, make it one’s own? The best book I know about walking, Geoff Nicholson‘s The lost art of walking. The history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism, certainly would suggest that. Let Nicholson do the talking himself, more convincing than my blabberings:
And indeed, when running is being ‘theorized’, what is foregrounded are the competition, its training aspects, health benefits, self-discovery potential. In the trailrunning world, the landscape is given its due, but it is telling that those who most vociferously emphasize the natural environment do not seem to address the specificity of running as a way of being out there. They often alternate running, climbing, walking and skiing, but don’t offer thoughts on what particular vantage point or connection each way of movement offers, at least not that I am aware of. Anyone running spectacular landscapes, be they natural or man-made, obviously likes running as an activity, but what’s the edge this specific way of moving about has over other possibilities of connecting with them, making them one’s own?
Zooming out, figuring out where the category borders are, and what is beyond them, is always a good strategy when mapping conceptual territory. I followed it in my previous investigation of the multidimensional space of running, exploring its overlaps with climbing, dance and walking, and concluded with labeling it pedestrianism. Revisiting my results I now realize that one of the claims I made, that it doesn’t make much sense to separate walking and running, is only partially true. Yes, separating them doesn’t make sense because (as my post argued) power walking and running can be near equally efficient, thus walking at a speed at the upper end of the natural range for the walking gait is surely part of the pedestrianism conceptual space. But what about other kinds of walking? Calling the flâneur a runner would be stretching the pedestrianism category, defined as it is for me, and convention, by the efficiency of movement from A to B.
I get into really murky waters here. The dictionary meaning of pedestrianism is much more general than its technical ‘sports’ meaning, and although the latter is the one commonly intended when the term is currently used, the connotations of its broader self (the practice and fondness of walking), are also present. So while my kinda pedestrianism would exclude the flâneur, another understanding of the term would exclude the runner, a state of affairs that is inherent in semantics and thus unavoidable.
(I should not digress, but cannot help myself: pedestrianism’s second dictionary meaning is the quality or state of being unimaginative or commonplace, which opens up a whole new register of overtones that I am not going to pursue here)
There is no real way out of this quagmire, so better use it for what it’s worth, and ride the different waves of meaning wherever they take us without worrying about the destination. Each dive into the conceptual space (well, I just used the label semantic, are they the same, not really, but there is this interesting overlap, and….just another example of the general point I’m trying to make) might result in new discoveries, deepening, enriching, increasing the texture, cluttering, your understanding. This time round, re-visiting pedestrianism has enticed me to look again at what I had previously given up upon, the ambition of visualizing the intractable, maybe at a more general level that previously envisioned. For a starter: let’s define walking and running as two separate spaces with a substantial overlap.
Another nugget that offers itself sort of naturally once one goes beyond what I had previously subsumed under pedestrianism is the thought of zooming out even further. Remember, the trigger for all of this is the fundamental question why one would want to run the city, rather than the very obvious and potentially much more sensible, and certainly much more conventional alternative of walking it. But why stop at walking? Are there no other options? Let’s further zoom out to what I by way of working title would label the conceptual space of motion. What does that bring into the picture?
Using your own two feet is but one kind of motion our tool-using species has access to. The usefulness of higher speeds over longer times/longer range in shorter time has found expression in e.g. the taming of horses, and the invention of bicycles, motorcycles, cars and planes. Let’s look at the city as experienced by motorcycle or car, or from the birds-eye perspective of a plane. From the perspective of connecting with the environment these are undeniably modalities that offer something that is experientially inaccessible to the runner or walker.
And then, at the other end of the speed continuum (not the only dimension on which these ways of moving about differ, but that’s the subject of part two of this post), we have, the still ground of motion, of which the prototypical version is sitting some place, on a terrace or in a park, letting the world go by.
In part two of this post, still to be written, I’ll try to get some thoughts on paper that actually address the question in the title. This was just preparing the ground, defining the framework within which I’ll search for answers. Will I actually find much of value? What kind of value, the satisfaction of better understanding? For slippery subjects like this one unlikely ? Anything practical? Even less likely? What keeps me going for the time being is that the voices out there (if they are genuinely authoritative is another matter, but their reach makes for a certain hold over the collective imagination of the running community) are so unsatisfactory.
Or is it just me? Discovery and adventure says the blurb, deeply rooted in the values of trail running and the mountains, are brought to the city. From the commentary in this Salomon video it’s evident that the running comes first, for whatever reason people do it already, and then the city offers opportunities for discovery, which is true, but the new-agey soundbite discovery doesn’t consist in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes is all that is on offer to flesh it out. Can one be more specific?