top of page
flame toes 2.3

The Running Muse

       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

Running in History

Dictating the Pace

Adolf Hitler in World War I

Hard to imagine him running, for some reason, but Adolf Hitler's primary duty in the First World War was as a despatch runner between his List Regiment HQ and the trenches, a role in which he won an Iron Cross. He is said to have liked it so much that he turned down a promotion because it would have meant leaving the messenger group.


According to a fellow runner (they always ran in two's), the pair of them were 'falling more than running' across the mud and craters: 'We bent low, racing across open country. I could scarcely lift myself from the ground any more and still Hitler urged me onwards, onwards!......sweat dug deep rivulets into our faces......I dashed with Hitler to the battle HQ of the 17th regiment. He scarcely gave me time to get my breath back before we raced on to the 21st regiment.......grenades chased us through the darkness of the night......"Now push on!", said Hitler.' It wasn't to be the last time he said that at war, of course.


In his memoirs, 'Two Despatch Runners', this same fellow runner, Balthasar Blandmayer, described Hitler repeatedly refusing to rest between runs: ' "You're crazy", I cried out angrily. "How would you know?" was his prompt reply.'


In a letter from the front, Hitler describes himself hitting the ground in the face of a barrage of shells before making a run for it: 'If we are going to be killed, it is better to die in the open.......I jumped up and ran as fast as I could across open meadows and beet fields, jumping over fences, hedgerows and barbed wire entanglements.' He must have had some free time, though, as below is his 'Study at Fromelles', his drawing of the area where he served as a runner.


It was during the Battle of Fromelles at the Somme that a shell exploded in the message-runners dugout, causing severe shrapnel wounds to Hitler's thigh. He returned to his running duties some months later, but was wounded again at Marcoing, where a British soldier, Private Henry Tandey, came across him and took aim, but baulked at shooting a wounded, exhausted man. Unable to run, Hitler just looked and nodded at Tandey, and slumped away (this incredible story and its even more incredible aftermath is told in David Johnson's The Man Who Didn't Shoot Hitler). A later mustard gas attack caused Hitler to lose both his sight and his voice, so it was in hospital that he learned of the German surrender and began to form a plan for the Reich's resurgence: 'When I was confined to my bed, the idea came to me that I would liberate Germany and make it great again', as he put it in Mein Kampf.


Within two decades, he was Chancellor of Germany, and it was running that was to provide the greatest public humiliation to Nazi racial theories when the black American athlete, Jesse Owens, embarrassed the pride of the Reich on their own doorstep at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, winning four gold medals. Hitler is quoted as saying that 'those who have antecedents in the jungle have a better physique than civilised whites and hence should be excluded from future Games'. It is not recorded where he thought the whites' antecedents came from.


Owens himself always asserted that he had been snubbed more by his own President than by Hitler, at a time when multiracial running events were forbidden in his home state, Alabama.

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics

Hitler saw Greek classical sculptures of athletes, warriors and women as embodying the ideals of his supposed Aryan master race. He even bought the famous Discobolus, 'The Discus Thrower' (actually a marble copy of Myron's Greek bronze original, now lost). This iconic artwork was brought to life, literally, in Leni Riefenstahl's groundbreaking but controversial documentary about the Berlin Olympics, 'Olympia', which was later considered by Pauline Kael, doyenne of film critics, to be the greatest twentieth century film directed by a woman. The Running Muse will be returning to 'Olympia' to outline the way it revolutionised the aesthetic and technical aspects of the filming of sport, particularly athletics.


As for Private Tandey, who had won a Victoria Cross at the battle at Marcoing, he had cause to regret not shooting the messenger, not least because he was an air raid warden during the devastating Blitz bombing of Coventry in the Second World War.


Quotes are from Balthasar Blandmayer in John F. Williams' 'Corporal Hitler and the Great War 1914-1918: The List Regiment'; from Adolf Hitler's letter to his lawyer friend, Ernst Hepp; and from the Nazi architect and minister for armaments, Albert Speer, in his book, 'Inside the Third Reich'.

Fast Times on the Ocean of Storms

'I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don't intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercise', said the man whose pulse rate more than doubled when taking one small step -  Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong. He may have been the first to walk on the moon, but he clearly had no intention of being the first to run there.


That honour would fall to one of the two astronauts exploring the moon's surface during the next mission, Apollo 12's Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, both of whom found running to be a more efficient way to 'walk' in one-sixth gravity. Neither remembers which one ran first, however, and hardly any video footage of their lunar excursions exists, because Mr. Bean had apparently pointed the colour TV camera at the sun and damaged its sensor.


Since they were running extraterrestrially across one of the biggest craters in the solar system, an actual image would've made all those stunning Rave Run pictures in Runner's World look rather.....well, pedestrian. Fortunately, fascinating footage does exist of lunar running from the last time humans wandered there, as we'll see.


Bean also managed to leave several rolls of photographic film behind on the moon surface, which may be why he took to representing this and other missions in paint on his return. Below is his 'Fast Times on the Ocean of Storms', a self-portrait in acrylic and Moon dust. Yep, real Moon dust. Note that both feet are off the ground.

'Fast Times on the Ocean of Storms', acrylic and moondust painting by Alan Bean

Walking is essentially controlled falling. As the body moves forwards and its centre of gravity vaults over the stiff front leg, the back ankle pushes off towards the front and the fall is arrested. Crucially, this involves a certain amount of bobbing up and down - in energy terms, potential energy converts to kinetic energy and back again, with energy being added by the muscles at push-off.


Running involves timing this so that the back leg leaves the ground before the forwards one has landed, i.e., both feet are off the ground at some point. This criterion is used to distinguish walking from running in competitive sport as well as in the dictionary. As the speed of walking increases, it becomes more economical to run in terms of the energy required, and thus in terms of oxygen consumption, the 'locomotive breath', so to speak.


Things feel a bit different when gravity is reduced and there is no atmosphere, though. To illustrate this, we'll take a topical case where the force of gravity is several hundred thousand times weaker than on earth. Here's how one commentator on today's astonishing Rosetta landing on Comet 67P explained what walking on its surface would be like: 'Step (carefully). Hurl through space. Flail. Slowly arc towards comet. Land. Bounce. Skid. (Repeat).'


Bean's lunar running experience also felt unfamiliar, albeit to a lesser degree: 'I was light on my feet, much as I expected. When I pushed off with one foot, there was a long pause before I landed on the other foot, like running in slow motion. I could feel my muscles completely relax as I glided along to the next stop. I seemed to float just above the surface.......I felt I must look like a gazelle, leaping long distances with each bound. I looked over at my partner........he was space-borne for a long time, but, to my surprise, he wasn't rising very high or leaping very far at all. Then I realised that in the moon's light gravity we did not have the traction to push hard backwards with our boots. I wasn't leaping like a gazelle - it only felt that way.'

The frictional forces that give traction are proportional to weight and would thus be reduced, especially on a dusty surface. Although our weight is less on the moon, our mass, inertia and momentum are the same as on earth - add the 'long pause' waiting for the leg to land, which takes six times as long, as well as the cumbersome, pressurised spacesuits which have water sloshing around their inner layers for cooling, and you can imagine how the actions we are used to taking on earth could lead to problems maintaining stability, stopping, turning, going downhill, etc..  


Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were not only running on the moon, but were actually comparing two different running styles - loping (as in the above clip) and bunny-hopping (see below). 'Loping's the only way to go', says Schmitt, the cameraman.

Now I'm no fan of the treadmill, but in this next fascinating clip, astronaut Karen Nyberg shows us how she runs in zero gravity on the International Space Station, where the astronauts have to exercise daily because of the effects that the absence of gravity has on muscle mass and bone density. The treadmill has to be set on a vibration isolation system, otherwise unwanted loads are imparted to the whole space station.


I'm reminded of one of Mr. Christie's tortuous applied maths questions at school, which asked us to consider the forces acting on someone standing on a board on a ball of ice in a lift suspended by a spring in a moving capsule in earth orbit, and then calculate the overall resultant force - 'if any', as he put it.


That isn't quite as fanciful as it sounds: research experiments published in 2007 in Acta Astronautica investigated the optimum gait for moonwalking in one-sixth gravity by suspending spacesuit-clad walkers from a spring. Their results showed that bending your knee was indeed harder in a pressurised suit, but because its springiness tended to straighten it again, much of the energy put in to each step was recovered.  


This finding led to a counterintuitive conclusion that confirmed the empirical reports of the Apollo astronauts: if your oxygen supply is low while strolling around in a spacesuit, you should run back to your base, not walk, because the extra springiness of running means a higher percentage of the energy used per unit distance is recovered.


Anyway, here's Karen of the vertical hair: note her strange running form, leaning back. In weightless conditions, she does not need to manage her centre of gravity into the usual earth position - her form is determined by the harness that keeps her perpendicular to the treadmill.

A dozen men have walked on the moon, and some even went backwards, using a kind of reverse shuffle, but most of them were running at some point. Within a few years, Police were singing 'feet, they hardly touch the ground, walking on the moon', and Michael Jackson was moonwalking backwards himself, rather more elegantly than Neil Armstrong was in first stepping on to the moon.


But here's a thought for those of you who may be taking part in the MoonWalk night marathons now happening annually in London and Edinburgh: you'd be doing well if you can move faster than those 12 men, relative to the earth - they were travelling at one kilometre per second.


Those first lunar footprints are still there, preserved by the stillness. Back on earth, a quarter of a million miles away and four million years before, some of the first footprints of our bipedal ancestors were made in volcanic ash, and they too are preserved on a Tanzanian sandbar at Laetoli. Next week we will be looking at the first human runners, but for now I'll leave you to meditate on these pictures......

early human footprints at Laetoli
astronaut footprints on the moon

By The Running Muse, Nov 29 2014 1:28PM

Five Unlikely Runners

Runners these days come in all shapes and sizes, living a range of lifestyles and roles, but I think most people were still surprised to see tubby transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard running all those consecutive marathons, or to read that bad boy uber-rapper Eminem (below) enjoyed running over 16 miles a day (2 x '8 Mile', I like to think).


I myself confess to a childish thrill on learning that avant-garde novelist James Joyce won hurdling trophies, that his fellow Irishman, Abraham ('Bram') Stoker, author of 'Dracula', was an Athlete of the Year in Dublin, or that an overweight man with mental health issues won every Olympic event one year at the ancient games (until I discovered that he was also the most powerful man in the world at the time, the notoriously capricious Roman emperor, Nero).


But there are some recent historical and artistic figures I just couldn't visualise running at all, even when told that they did. As mentioned a few posts ago, Adolf Hitler is one of those, even though it was his job at one time (as a despatch runner).  Below are five others, three of whom had reputations as hard drinkers, while the other two have been referred to as either terrorist leaders or freedom fighters, depending of course on who you ask and your own point of view.


All are men, for some reason. Discuss.  




In 1985 Israeli F-15's bombed the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Tunis, killing 73 people, but their target, the portly PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, escaped death because he'd left the compound to go out jogging that morning.


He lived to see one of his personal security guards, Majid abu Maraheel, who himself had been shot in the arm by Israeli border guards in 1991 while out on a training run, compete in the 10,000 metres at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta as part of the first Palestinian team to compete in the Olympics. He came last in his heat in 34 mins 40.5 seconds, but received a rapturous standing ovation for the 74 seconds he was alone out on the track on his final lap.


In this 2004 photograph, Arafat is lighting a flame outside his Ramallah office as a symbol of his commitment to a ceasefire truce during the Athens Olympics of that year, echoing the ancient Greeks' cessation of hostilities to enable athletes to travel and participate in the games, which in those days were just one part of a large religious festival.





When the 39-year-old Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, a legendary drinker and smoker, died in New York in 1953, he had a newspaper cutting in his wallet which included this photograph of his triumph, aged 13, in the 1928 Swansea Schools one-mile race.

dylan thomas

The publication of his first collection of poems was itself the result of a newspaper contest. His '18 Poems' included the arrestingly titled 'When, Like a  Running Grave', a tortuous musing on the way 'time tracks you a cinder death'. (The word 'cinder' here, besides conjuring up an image of funerary ashes, also recalls the cinder running tracks of his time).


His centenary in 2014 saw the creation in Swansea of the Dylan Thomas Mile in his honour. They of course should have called it the Llareggub Mile after the name of the fictional Welsh village where his most famous work, Under Milk Wood, is set. (Llareggub is a name best understood backwards.)





Mao Tse-tung, the revolutionary communist founder of the People's Republic of China, was a great advocate of running, and he particularly recommended his own regimen of exercising in the nude twice a day, according to his appropriately named biographers, Pantsov and Levine (mercifully, no photograph exists of this, so the fully clothed action pic below will have to do).  


'Long distance running is particularly good training for perseverance', he wrote in his 1917 'A Study of Physical Education', a statement of the obvious, perhaps, but one he thought needed saying. One presumes that he practised what he preached, but when he later became a communist, he little knew how that maxim was to be tested to the limit.


'A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step' is another quote often attributed to him, but this is actually from the Tao Te Ching, a classical Chinese wisdom text, and Mao actually said 'a thousand li' (as written in the Tao), not miles - one 'li' was a traditional Chinese distance now set as 500 metres, but as late as the 1940's, it had apparently varied depending on the effort required, so that a trip up a mountain was fewer li than the journey down!


His exhortations to persevere would come to the fore as he led the 1934 Long March, an 8,000-mile survival trek by 100,000 communists over treacherous rivers and mountainous terrain, all the while under constant attack by Chiang Kai Shek's nationalist forces (only 30,000 survived it).


His band's survival condemned millions more to die during Mao's own subsequent 'reign of terror', in which he would use the language of running to denounce whole classes of people as political enemies, calling them imperialist or capitalist running dogs, for instance, and regaling even moderates with that Confucius saying about the man who runs in the middle of the road getting run over by chariots going both ways ('stay safe - be an extremist' seems to be Mao's unorthodox take on the ancient philosopher's wisdom).



In 'The Fight', Norman Mailer's riveting account of Muhammed Ali's legendary 1975 'Rumble in the Jungle' world heavyweight boxing title fight with George Foreman in Zaire, the hard-drinking writer relates how, at 51, he went out on a 3 a.m. 5k training run with Ali a few days before the bout.


'That running takes more out of me than anything I ever felt in the ring', Ali himself had said, and, sure enough, after a couple of miles, Mailer couldn't keep up and found himself alone in a forest. Emerging on to a deserted road in pitch dark, he suddenly heard a nearby lion that roared 'like thunder, and it opened an unfolding wave of wrath across the sky and through the fields'.

Norman Mailer and Muhammed Ali

He couldn't see a thing except for the lights of Ali's compound in the distance. Expecting the lion to leap on him at any moment, his life flashed before him, and he was already imagining both the headlines and his obituary. Pumped full of adrenaline, however, he chose flight over fight, picked up the pace and eventually arrived back safely, at which point it was Ali's turn to roar when he heard Norm's story, pointing out to him that he had just run past the local zoo.




'I train every night on stage', said Joe Strummer, lead singer of punk rock legends, the Clash, after completing one of his three city marathons in the 1980's. He had been his school cross-country champion, and it seems he relied solely on that base fitness and all that relentless thrashing around at gigs to get around the 26.2 miles.


He certainly wasn't a fan of putting in the training miles, judging by the account he gave to an American interviewer of his build-up to race day: 'Drink 10 pints the night before the race and don't run a single step at least four weeks before the race. It works for me.' A variety of cigarettes and distinctly non-performance-enhancing drugs also featured.


He entered his first London marathon on a whim at the last minute, running resplendent in a Clash 'Take the 5th' US tour T-shirt with its skull-and-crossbones motif depicting Uncle Sam. His girfriend, Gaby Salter, had failed to complete the race, but both finished the Paris Marathon the next year.


He heard London calling again for his final run in 1983, when he was part of a Sun newspaper team running in aid of Leukaemia Research. Whether his time would have been faster or slower than his 4hrs 13mins by sticking to the Runner's World 16-week marathon training plan, only the running muses would -  oh, wait..... ...well, some of them would know.

By The Running Muse, Apr 17 2015 07:23AM

Runner, I married him

' "I am sorry to have made you run so fast, my dear", he said, with a grateful sense of favours to come.'


The speaker here, Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd', had mistakenly assumed that Bathsheba's running after him across the fields, face flushed, implied an acceptance of his marriage proposal, and so he immediately starts a conversation about their married life together. Her running in this context was a signal to him that she was up for it.  


We have already seen in previous posts a few stories from Greek myth and German folklore that link running prowess with matrimony, where the prize was marriage to the loser or to a princess, for instance. Other tales involving some kind of running trial have marriage as the consequence rather than the prize, such as the 1957 western, 'Run of the Arrow' (see 'running quotes'), while the most popular ports of call for Spartan husbands prospecting for a wife were the rare all-female races of Greek antiquity (and this in a city-state which practised 'husband-doubling').  


The human race goes on, of course, and it is not only in the animal kingdom that running has played a role as a kind of mating display to impress potential partners. Indeed, nuptials were a prominent and explicit feature of our history's oldest organised competitive was divorce.


Let me first set the scene for the story of those games, which were first held 4,000 years ago, by recalling one of the more extraordinary feats of performing under pressure in a race - the story of Macha in Irish legend.


At a local tournament of games and races, Macha's husband, the brilliantly named Crunnchu, had boasted to the king, who had just won a chariot race, that his wife could run faster than the king's horses. To save him from being executed, she is forced to run against them whilst nine months pregnant. She not only wins, but also manages to give birth to twins at the finish line before the horses arrive in her wake!


The scene of the race was named Emain Macha, 'the twins of Macha' (today's city of Armagh), capital of the Ulaidh tribe who gave their name to Ulster, and home to the most celebrated of Irish mythological heroes, Cuchullain, himself no slouch as a runner: at the age of six, he could hit a hurling ball, throw his hurling stick and spear after it, then run and pick up the first two before catching the spear in mid-flight.


In Marie Heaney's version of the tale in 'Over Nine Waves', Macha's appeal for help from the crowd at the start of the race falls on deaf ears. As a result, she places a nine-year curse on them: in their hour of greatest need, they will become weak and defenceless from labour pains, the only men in 'history' to experience the pangs of childbirth.


When Ulster subsequently comes under attack from the army of Queen Maeve of Connacht, its soldiers' incapacity drives the heroic, single-handed deeds of Cuchullain, the only warrior immune to the curse, as he cuts a swathe through Ulster's enemies in epic adventures such as the 'Tain bo Cuailnge', the Cattle Raid of Cooley.


Now, Cuchullain's father was Lugh, who gave his name to the Gaelic festival that celebrated the beginning of the harvest in the last fortnight of July, Lughnasa. It was at this festival that he held funeral games for his foster-mother, Queen Tailtiu, thus inaugurating the Tailteann Games in Ireland, which predate even the ancient Olympic Games by at least a millennium and were held in their original form until well after the Norman invasion.

The rowing section 1924

As well as athletics contests, including hurling, there were competitions and prizes for mental and artistic ability in tests of strategy, storytelling, singing, weaving, poetry and the making of jewellery.


The games were also the occasion for 'handfastings', arranged marriages after which the couple had a year and a day to decide whether they wanted to divorce on 'the hills of separation'. To do so, each of them would simply march up one of the twin earthen mounds there and turn their backs on each other across the Vale of Marriage, at which point the marriage was 'broken', without social consequences. No legal bills, no paperwork, no nothing. Just straight back down to the races, maybe, in search of another mate.


In medieval times, the games/handfasting combination continued intermittently as a fair at the original site at Teltown, County Meath, itself named after Tailtiu. They were then resurrected without the matchmaking after Irish independence, as the government and the Gaelic Athletic Association sought to create a new Irish sporting identity, eschewing British 'garrison games' such as football, rugby and cricket.


This modern version, open to all of Irish ancestry, was first held at Croke Park, Dublin in 1924. The extensive range of events included chess and music, but by 1936, the politics of the island's partition had scuppered the games, and the name only survives today in the Irish Schools Tailteann Interprovincial athletics festival (see below for an unusual and successful dip for the line in the Boys 800m in 2012).


The poem 'Ode to the Tailteann Games' won a bronze medal for Ireland at the 1924 Olympics in Paris in the Mixed Literature 'event' of the arts competition (yes, there were modern Olympic Arts Competitions run by the International Olympic Committee until 1948, but that's another story, a fascinating one that will feature here soon).


The writer was Oliver St. John Gogarty, the senator, surgeon, poet and athlete on whom James Joyce based the character of Buck Mulligan in 'Ulysses'. He had just won a gold medal at the Tailteann Games themselves for his poetry collection, An Offering of Swans - W.B. Yeats was on the prize committee - and Gogarty had also competed in the archery there.


He is seen here in Orpen's 1911 portrait, now at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, but he is perhaps more widely known today for the famous music pub named after him in Temple Bar, Dublin.


As for matchmaking festivals, they continue elsewhere today, notably in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, during which they still have horse races, although the human athletics on display is limited to pub crawls.


Meanwhile, a certain amount of informal handfasting still goes on in running clubs and even at the modern Olympic Games, and it's a common sight these days to see proposals and weddings before, during and after city marathons. The current Citroën TV advert even has two strangers running in opposite directions and bumping into each other at a corner, with their future three children springing instantly from their collision.


Sadly, there are no modern equivalents of the 'hills of separation', unless you count leaving your partner sliding to the bottom of muddy inclines in an endurance race. Whether marriage itself is an endurance race, a hurdle race, a marathon or a sprint, I'm not sure the world is ready for Olympic Separation Trials or a Divorce 10k with a certificate in the goody bags.


The vicissitudes of marriage were handled so much more sensitively in those civilised race meets of 4,000 years ago, don't you think?



Over Nine Waves: a book of Irish legends (1994) by Marie Heaney, Faber and Faber

Top image is 'The Storm (La Tempête)' by Pierre Auguste Cot, 1880, oil on canvas, 234cm x 157cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

bottom of page