on running a narrative

I may rightfully be accused of silly conceptual urges, tinkering away at my map of the running universe,  and of pigeon-holing what running is all about (for me). Owning up to my hobby horses and questioning them is the best I can do, can’t wish them away. The particular question I want to address here is why. Not why I can’t wish them away (not gonna bore you with free will conundrums here) but why I have, or is it need to have? such hobby horses with respect to something as simple as running in the first place.

I wouldn’t ask the question if I thought it was just a personal issue. I’m convinced, for whatever that’s worth, that it’s pretty much universal. Not that my particular obsessions are universal, but the need for a story that gives meaning to one’s running is. No one runs like Forrest Gump.

Whatever one thinks of the overall message of the film, intended, or hineininterpretiert, the scope for controversy seems to be considerable (which makes it a nice example of our species’ unlimited capacity for meaning-making from, well, not all that much), I’m pretty sure that the Forrest character’s claim that he ran for no particular reason and had no answers (why should he, the ultimate answer had been known for some time by then: 42) is recognized by many runners as somehow, deep down, an important truth. Not so explicitly part of the practitioners’ lore as George Mallory’s because-it-is-there, but present in an implicit recognition that there is more to running than the expressed reason(s) one has for doing it. In the awareness that no explicit reason does full justice for one’s attraction to it.

The Born to Run story has spread like bush fire because it speaks to exactly that sentiment of running being core to our being. It may be a total bogus story, who knows, but I bet it is so popular because it addresses that intuition head on. I never waste an opportunity for giving Chris McDougall the floor, because I love his story telling ability, so you’ll have to bear with another version of his narrative:

The point (obviously?) is, that this evolutionary story, if true, would explain why we enjoy running just for the heck of it, but does way more than that. It gives us reason to run for health, become a better person (whatever that may be), and solve an impressive list of social ills. The story explains an underlying shared experience as well as a plethora of different ‘rational’ reasons to run (including the quite fundamental one of competition, however much that is down-played in the pop version of McDougall). It’s got a hook for everyone, while simultaneously doing justice to a widely shared intuition that we run because that’s just something we’re meant to do.  So, yes, Born to Run like Forrest but with an overwhelming urge to add reasons.

We’re pathological storytellers by nature so from that perspective the answer to the why question is simple: we’re born to do so. But my why has a rhetorical, somewhat annoyed side to it. I am tempted to call it desperate but that feels overly dramatic, and overdoing it on the stylistic devices front would be highlighting the Strange Loop character of my effort here a bit too overtly. As would calling it angry.

Anyways, we react most strongly to what we recognize in our selves. That I am compelled to share the below two examples of running stories indicates how much they resonate with me. I may sing the praise of trails and making landscapes my own most loudly in my writing about running, but there isn’t much in other explanations/exhortations/ celebrations about why we, i.c. I, run, or should run, that sounds foreign to me. Competition, health, discovering what you’re made of, nothing of that is totally absent from my narrative goody bag. But some reasons hit closer to home than others and it is those that, when their praise is sung by others, I react to most vividly.

My point here is not to criticize these storytellers, but to make use of what they evoke in me to bootstrap my way out of narrative capture. Admittedly a doomed venture, because storytelling cannot be stopped; but that doesn’t disqualify Forrest’s wisdom of running without a narrative overlay (and yes, I do love finding that kinda wisdom in Hollywood as much as in caves, on mountain tops, or at river banks).  It’s not about getting rid of narrative, it’s about not getting caught up in it.

How can someone who is serious about non-duality talk about running like this? Remind you, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has a large following. He’s the son and successor of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the Shambala centres.

Not that the connection is anything new (and I’m not referring to the marathon monks of mount Hiei – have a look here for video- but to a classic from the first wave of jogging enthusiasm  – yes I love that descriptor – the 1974 Zen of Running). As is the self-improvement angle that apparently is unavoidable when one wants to build a following. Makes sense: who wants to follow someone or something that has nothing to offer?

Enough said. On to the other trigger: the dirtbag runners. This is the intro to the article from the trailrunner ezine that alerted me to this new but nothing new phenomenon:

This past summer, I hit the road with one of my best friends, Cat. We lived out of my car and drove from national park to national park—taking every opportunity to run and explore new trails, as well as crew at several ultramarathons across the country. We bought maps and circled our goal destinations, plotting out our adventures while drinking stale coffee at small-town diners. We got lost more times than we could count.

Somewhere along the way, abandoning societal norms just kind of happened. What was the point of washing our clothes every day (or showering) when we were constantly getting dirty? Why brush our hair when Buffs and trucker hats solved the problem so easily? There was no one to impress, no jobs to interview for, no parents to question our behaviors and no reason to feel sorry about any of it.

Our nomadic lifestyle took us to ice caves in Washington, to slot canyons in Utah, to the tops of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. I crewed for six of my friends during a 50-mile race through Leadville, Colorado. In Ashland, Oregon, we shared beers with a few famous runners. By the end of our trip, we had skinned knees, blisters, dirty clothes, a messy car, dangerously low bank accounts and deeply enriched souls.

Doesn’t it sound wild? Until I checked out the websites of the writer and the community site they’ve started, and was taken aback by the emphasis on partying (but that I am a grumpy old recluse shouldn’t be held against these youngsters) and sponsorship (call it affiliates whatever you like, doesn’t fool me) which really is the opposite of wild, and transforms every move they make into a branding exercise.

Indeed, another story about being free of everything, including stories, that’s propped up by so much narrative it makes me dizzy. Before you get me wrong, I love storytelling. It’s the weight that comes with looking for truths through narrative that bothers me. The truth about running can only be found in running, not in stories about it. Which is not to say that there is no truth to be found in narratives about running, just that those are truths about narratives not about running. Have I lost you?

Probably time for an uncomplicated teenage tune to cheer you up (or make you wince, whatever):

If the Rinpoche take on things hasn’t alerted you to it yet: there is obviously a whole different take on our monkey mind. That story focuses on disciplining it, reprogramming it, be it through mindfulness, NLP kinda conditioning and framing tricks, or any of the plenty other toolboxes out there (ultimately all variations on a limited number of themes, which should give them some credibility, because universals always hint at something basic to the human condition). And storytelling is part of that toolbox. How to get happy: change the story you tell yourself. Enjoy a currently popular promoter of this positive psychology premise – his own storytelling, or should I say stand-up comedian talents are worth it:

Then there is guys like Tony Parsons, who tell a very different story. A story that actually cannot be told by words, in the sense of communicated by language. Some in any audience for reasons unique to their being, resonate with the choice of images and concepts of a particular speaker on this particular talking circus, and are touched. Many just misunderstand and turn into followers. How the honest (unfortunately, as in any line of work: lots of charlatans on the market too) non-duality performers cope with that reality is a bit a mystery to me, but hey, I’m not enlightened. However that may be, the story the non-duality talkers try to tell is no story in the conventional sense.

Somewhere deep down, again, that’s where wisdom resides isn’t it, the gut (it was there long before the brain, and so our roots, those of the life form animal, start there rather than in the meta-machinery of the nervous system) tells me two things: the two perspectives are part of one whole, truth includes the person working hard at myself as well as the non-personal awareness of aliveness, and never the twain shall meet because they are not separate in the first place. By now I’ve lost even myself. Which makes me just that tiny little bit happier.

Maybe time to go out for a run.

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
This entry was posted in (trail) running, psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to on running a narrative

  1. Pingback: trendy trailrunning trivia | roger henke's fancies

  2. Pingback: the urban running that has a narrative | roger henke's fancies

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