The Running Muse
a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner
Running in Literature
'I have often observed in women of her type a tendency to regard all athletics as inferior forms of foxhunting'.
The woman in question is Lady Circumference, who has come to the annual sports day of a minor public school to present the prizes in Evelyn Waugh's hilarious first novel, Decline and Fall (1928). The speaker, who is the school's headmaster, had been no less scornful about the sport himself: 'I can think of no entertainment that fills me with greater detestation than a display of competitive athletics, none - except possibly folk-dancing.'
He was probably voicing Waugh's own cynicism, which was by no means limited to athletics, although the young Evelyn had apparently made every effort in the compulsory school cross-country runs across the Downs at Lancing. At a time when a world war was raging, Waugh, seen above in Henry Lamb's portrait, had founded the school's Corpse Club 'for those who were weary of life', and at university was a member of an avant-garde circle of aesthetes called the Hypocrites. The intellectual antics of both institutions would infuse the black humour and satirical wit of his early writing, much of which would present challenges to today's arbiters of the politically correct, to put it mildly.
In Decline and Fall, four chapters are devoted to the chaotic planning and running of the Sports Day athletics events, as well as to the aftermath. Running had already put paid to the career of the story's protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, a teacher at the school who had been sent down from university for running trouserless across the college quadrangle, having been debagged by the Bollinger Club's posh rowdies. He nevertheless thought running was good for the boys, 'useful in the case of a war or anything', a utilitarian philosophy of sport more in keeping with Spartan ideals than with public schools' oft-proclaimed allegiance to those of Olympia or Corinth.
In the heats, compulsory for all, one of the masters, Mr. Prendergast, had sent the conscripted runners off through the rain towards a clump of trees, only to find that none emerged: 'I expect they've gone to change. I don't blame them, I'm sure. It's terribly cold. Still, it was discouraging launching heat after heat and none coming back. Like sending troops into battle, you know', said an unfazed Prendergast as he drew up a list of 'results' anyway.
The Countess of Circumference, who always addresses her son by his equally trigonometric surname, Tangent, wonders why he's in the quarter-mile race at all, as 'the boy can't run an inch'. True to form, he is injured by the starter firing his loaded service revolver into the ground via Tangent's foot (' "Am I going to die?", said Tangent, his mouth full of cake'); the consequent decline of both Tangent and his foot is chronicled intermittently for the rest of the novel.
There follows a comical account of the races, after which the winner of the three-miles is accused of having lain low behind some beeches for one of the six laps. The subsequent settling of the issue requires administrative realpolitik in the face of parental uproar: the cheat is declared the winner of 'the five furlongs race' (i.e., his five laps), while the second finisher wins the three miles event. Alert readers will note that five furlongs is not five sixths of three miles, but, in Waugh's defence, such confident stupidity is entirely in keeping with his portrayals of almost everyone involved at the school.
Waugh brings what one critic called his 'exquisite sense of the ludicrous' to the upper class world of bright young things floundering within decaying institutions, and this is mercilessly reflected in the shambolic events at the school athletics meeting in Decline and Fall. By all accounts, including his own, Waugh was a bit of a grumpy old snob, but 'the beauty of his malice', in V.S. Pritchett's phrase, was aimed at socialites and socialists alike. Any of today's bright or grungy young things writing about the way sport reflects society would do well to look beneath his seductively elegant prose and fastidious irony to the underlying social assumptions and prejudices, condensed here into a few runs around the trees.
A few decades later, on the cusp of a less deferent world, the sports day of a very different institution would explode on to the literary world in Alan Sillitoe's short story of rebellion, 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', later made into a film in which a borstal prison school runs against a public school in a cross-country race. The Running Muse will bring you the results.......
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, Chapman and Hall (1928), Penguin (1937 - present).
Evelyn Waugh by Henry Lamb, 1929, oil on canvas, Lord Moyne collection.
Evelyn Waugh by Feliks Topolski (above), 1961, oil on canvas, University of Texas.
Running through Hell
"I am in Hell!", the infamous rebel yell of Fletcher Christian on H.M.S. Bounty, articulates a feeling only too familiar to long-distance runners as the body mutinies against the demands being placed on it. Each runner's brain has to manage the howling protests of the body it governs, and marathons are certainly run as much in the head as on the feet. Hell must be endured, its demons conquered.
If you're going through hell, they say, keep going and come out the other side, but what if you're going through Hell? The running conditions there would surely make the oppressive heat of the Marathon Des Sables seem like a balmy spring day, but, strange to relate, running in the lower chamber of the afterlife has a small but rich literary heritage, not only in the horror genre, but in at least two of the greatest works of the Western canon. Perhaps tellingly, there are no chronicles of any such races being held in Heaven, Paradise or any other pain-free realm.
'Hell' is the English word used to translate the Biblical names for the abode of the dead ('Hades' in New Testament Greek, 'Sheol' in Hebrew), but the idea of Hell as a pit of suffering, despair and punishment has more in common with Tartarus, the part of Hades reserved for the wicked in Greek mythology. These original 'nether regions' would go on to suffer a terrible linguistic fate - they became a euphemism for the groin area, chapsticked or otherwise.
The abstract concept of hell invoked by runners to describe their agony refers to this place of eternal torment, so it is no surprise that many of today's most gruelling obstacle races - typically run through freezing rivers, hills of mud and walls of fire - have names such as Hellrunner, Run Through Hell and the delightfully oxymoronic Santa's Hell Run. Well, here's the daddy of them all.........
The medieval Florentine poet Dante witnesses plenty of Hellrunning on his spiritual journey to the very heart of darkness. In his 'Inferno' (the Italian for 'Hell'), this quest is chronicled as a kind of guided therapy for his midlife crisis, but as he arrives in Hell's foyer for his first session, he is greeted by the ominous entrance sign 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here' (above), beyond which he sees the fate of the Uncommitted, the neutral souls who sat on the moral fence doing nothing in their life, either for good or for evil.
Their rather harsh punishment is to run naked for all eternity in the hottest part of Hell in pursuit of a meaningless banner which never stands still. Like them, it stands for nothing. These were life's opportunists, but they have only earned themselves the constant attention of stinging wasps giving them a literal prick to the conscience (and presumably motivation to keep on running towards their perpetually retreating finish line).
When Dante later comes across an old teacher of his in a desert of fire reserved for the 'sodomites of the Inner Ring' of Upper Hell, he accords him great respect, writing that even here his mentor
'was like one of those who run for the green cloth at Verona,
and he seemed not the loser among them,
but the winner.'
This is a reference to an annual Lenten footrace, the Palio di Verona, the prize for which was a green banner, 'il drappo verde'. It is still run as a 10k race today, although the participants are no longer naked - and the men's winner receives a cock as his reward.
Speaking of which, those of you caught short during marathons will be surprised to learn from Dante that many of the cubicles of Upper Hell are reserved for the 'incontinent' (they're not toilets, though, since Hell is 'damnation without relief', according to Rowan Atkinson). Now you might think that making the incontinent wander forever on burning sands is a bit over the top as retribution for a weak bladder, but the word refers more generally here to sins of uncontrolled passion and excess, such as lust, wrath, gluttony and greed - and it is the Flatterers who end up in a river of faeces, in their own bullshit, perhaps.
Other running sinners include extravagant spendthrifts who are chased and savaged by vicious dogs through the Wood of the Suicides (below), thieves being pursued by snapping serpents, and pimps and seducers, who must constantly flee from horned demons goading them with whips.
One of the winged demons, however, is more at home here and runs through his workplace like some kind of fell-runner
'with nimble feet so swift up every crag,
his fierce, dark face split by an evil grin.'
The fallen angels of John Milton's Paradise Lost are altogether more playful in their running. As they wait for The Lord of the Flies to return to Pandemonium (the capital of Hell) from the Garden of Eden, they decide to pass their leisure time competing with each other and 'in swift race contend, as at th'Olympian games'.
They even came to compete in an away fixture in the rather less cheery but much more recent account of Hellrunning in Clive Barker's thrilling short story, 'Hell's Event' (also a graphic novel). It tells how 'Hell came up to the streets and squares of London....icy from the depths of the ninth circle' to threaten the future of humanity - by entering a team in the London Marathon, no less. (Barker's reference to ice quotes Dante, whose Satan is immobile in a lake of ice in the very centre of Hell, which rather subverts the meaning of the phrase 'when Hell freezes over'.)
In this darkest of running fables, the agents of Hell see democracy as just a new cult ripe for takeover, for 'without the human urge to compete....Pandemonium may well have fallen for want of citizens'. They unleash some seriously Manichaean action during the race when the marathon runners, like Dante's thieves, find themselves being pursued by hideous, hissing creatures, albeit disguised at the start line.
The only rule for the good guys is 'don't look back', the age-old maxim from running coaches, capricious gods and Bob Dylan that has often been ignored, notably by Lot, Orpheus and Bob Dylan, but even they did not suffer the extreme consequences meted out here. At least we runners are free to face our mid-race demons without sanction......that's democracy for you.
In terms of runners' hell and an understanding of the solitary runner's mind, perhaps the best horror story is David Clayton Carrad's 'Competition', a tense, atmospheric mystery set in a remote part of coastal South Carolina. A pre-dawn jogger is musing philosophically on the pitfalls of competitive running, as opposed to running for its own sake, when he sees a car's headlights ahead, engine idling. The ensuing nightmare has the protracted sense of menace of Steven Spielberg's 'Duel', with the denouement being played out along a narrow causeway exactly 10,001 metres long.....in the dark, of course. Hell is indeed murky.
Many of the above trials will be familiar to modern runners - stinging wasps, vicious dogs, burning sands and impatient cars on a country road - but hell for them is mostly experienced between the ears, the runners' underworld..........and even 'swift-footed Achilles' was reduced to 'the ghost of a great runner' in the underworld, according to Homer. Some of those entering races today may be thieves, be seducers or be incontinent, but it is only the Uncommitted in training who will receive certain punishment on race day, for they will truly feel in Hell.
'Devils and Monsters: Runners in Literature to 1600', from Running in Literature (2003) by Roger Robinson, Breakaway Books
'Hell's Event' (1985), short story by Clive Barker in Books of Blood, volumes 1-3, Sphere Books
Illustration from is from the graphic novel version, Tapping the Vein: Book 4 (1990, Titan Books), drawings by Steven E. Johnson, Alan Okamoto and Jim Pearson
'The Wood of the Suicides', illustration for The Divine Comedy by Gustave Dore, wood engraving print
'Competition' by David Clayton Carrad, from The Year's Best Horror Stories X (1982), ed. Karl Edward Wagner; it originally appeared in Running Times magazine in June 1981
I am grateful to John Llewellyn Probert, horror writer (johnlprobert.com) and surgeon (who presumably doesn't advertise too many details about his literary life to his patients), for his suggestions regarding running stories in his particular specialty (horror, that is, not urology)
I have been unable to find the original source of the top image (the Uncommitted at the gate of Hell)
By The Running Muse, Jan 26 2015 06:35PM
You would be hard pushed to find any literary genre which has no references at all to running. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Bible through to Shakespearean drama, children's tales and the full range of poetry and novels, there is plenty of fleeing and racing and chasing to punctuate the stories as they unfold.
As metaphor, running can bring a sense of intense emotional movement or an urgent striving in the lives of the characters, a psychological energy that embraces a need for freedom and escape, maybe, or for direction and self-control.
'With both legs on, I go faster than a bird can fly', says a one-legged character, for instance, in Philip Pullman's translation of 'Six who Made their Way in the World' (aka 'The Six Servants'), one of the Children's and Household Tales collected in the early nineteenth century by the Brothers Grimm.
This proto-paralympian, whose other leg has to be strapped on, has been recruited to run in a race against a princess for marriage or death, during which he grabs a bit of a kip half way around.
Already we can recognise elements from other tales here - from Ovid's Atalanta story, for instance, or from Aesop's fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. This particular story also involves the assembly of a team with specialist skills in pursuit of a common goal, a theme which finds later echoes in the world of cinema, such as in Akiro Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (as well as its western remake, John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven) and the Ocean's 11 movies.
In addition, while one-legged runners had once been organised as freakshow entertainment in 'cripple races', the one-legged characters of literature have often been portrayed as strong and obsessive in their quests. Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate anti-hero in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, for instance, could run with or without his crutch 'with the speed and security of a trained gymnast' (see him taking that curve below!). Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby Dick also springs to mind.
Falling between those two stools, perhaps, is a 1964 'Beyond the Fringe' sketch in which a one-legged Dudley Moore is determined to audition for the role of Tarzan - 'a role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement', as Peter Cook tells him.......'your right leg is perfect, I've got nothing against your right leg - unfortunately, neither have you'. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the comedy, Dud is on a challenging quest of sorts, albeit articulated in a way that may grate on modern ears.
These are just some of the motifs in this one short fairytale that crop up time and time again in all kinds of sagas and legends from different eras, regions, media and cultures. There may appear to be as many different kinds of stories around the world as there are imaginations to create them, but there are those who claim to have identified just a handful of fundamental plots underlying all of them.
Cultural transmission through migration and trade can only partially account for the way so many tales have evolved independently over millennia in widely separated lands, and explanations for this are likely to be found amongst traits or experiences that have common elements for us all.
Candidates include our relationship with natural phenomena, or perhaps the structure of the brain and the psyche that emerges from it, or even the capabilities and limitations of our physical bodies - which include running, of course, a very common narrative theme as the goodies and baddies pursue each other or evade archetypal dangers. Another one is food.
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested that even this small set of basic narratives derives from one universal 'monomyth', but the classification of folktales has moved in the opposite direction. The Arne-Thompson 'tale type index' recognises over two thousand categories (with titles including 'The Grateful Dead' and The White Snake', rock fans!), number 2025 of which is - yep, you've guessed it - running food.
Now regular readers will be aware that The Running Muse would not be taking up your time with anything as useful as nutritional advice for your PB - the 'running food' of our title simply refers to food that runs, more specifically to food that runs away. Oh, and talks.
Probably the most widely read running quote ever comes from the sugary mouth of a fugitive biscuit: "Run, run as fast as you can! You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man!"
This charming boast from the children's story, The Gingerbread Man, also known as The Gingerbread Runner or the Gingerbread Boy, was originally an oral tale from the US, first published in 1875. It will be familiar to older readers from the Ladybird book and to younger ones in the animated film, 'Shrek', in which an evil prince chants the above refrain as he pulls off our hero's legs during interrogation.
In the printed versions, the half-baked ginge - half man, half biscuit - escapes from the oven, but is pursued across the countryside by various people and animals. Perhaps unwisely, he repeatedly taunts their running ability as he stretches away from them, but, like any cocky runner getting a deserved comeuppance, he eventually meets his match. As the rhythm of the story builds up to a climax, it is from the jaws of the cunning fox that we hear his pathetic cries: 'I'm quarter gone....I'm half gone....I'm three quarters gone....I'm all gone!'
It's not often that anyone commentates on their own death quite so resignedly - 'Help!' would have perhaps been a more effective survival strategy - but there is an explicit lesson for children to absorb here, a moral case that is presented to them in a more familiar way than, say, in the isolated 'pride comes before a fall' from the biblical Proverbs, or in more complex narratives where arrogance (hubris) meets with retribution (nemesis), such as in the Greek myths.
Themes of food, hunger and survival are staple ingredients of fairy tales. They offer 'contradictory metaphors of life and civilisation as well as barbarity and extinction', as mythographer Marina Warner puts it, adding that 'control of food - procuring it, preparing it, cooking it, eating it - lies at the heart of determining who eats and who gets eaten in the material of fairytale', the Grimms' 'Hansel and Gretel' being an egregious example.
Runaway food seems to tap into that anxiety. The academic name for such folktales is 'The Fleeing Pancake', a genre which includes the adventures of an elusive Hungarian cheese that eats people, the thrilling escape of a whole vegetarian dinner, and a modern version of The Gingerbread Man by Eric Kimmel that has a tortilla outrunning predators in a rattlesnake-infested Texan desert.....until it meets a wily coyote
Back in the real world of 10k's, I myself tell the story of my fruitless pursuit of an impressively speedy banana in a race. Now I wonder which of those seven basic narrative plots my highly embellished account would be filed under: 'overcoming the monster', 'voyage and return', 'rebirth', 'comedy', 'tragedy', 'the quest' or 'rags to riches'.
And which one of those, dear reader, do you think best describes the story of your own running life? Most of them, perhaps?
Well, whichever, our tale of the runaway biscuit will certainly strike a chord for those of you afflicted with that bane of many a runner bouncing their bowels along a marathon route, the 'runner's trots', a kind of diarrhoea often known as........'the gingerbread man'!
Yep, it really is - I'll leave you to work out why, but let's just say I've witnessed many a long distance runner suddenly increase the tempo to 5k pace while veering off in the direction of roadside bushes.
'In my end is my beginning', as the poet said.
The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories (2004) by Christopher Booker
Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (2013) by Philip Pullman
W.H. Auden's 'Runner'
'The camera's eye does not lie,
but it cannot tell the life within,
the life of a runner.'
These words form part of the commentary for a 1962 short film by the National Film Board of Canada (see link below). 'Runner' is about a young track star, Bruce Kidd, and is unusually poetic for a documentary, you might think, until you spot that the script commissioned for the narration, which is mostly in verse, has actually been written by the celebrated English poet, W.H. Auden.
The film has a groovy jazz score not unlike the film soundtrack to 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', released in the same year, but the narration, which is not by Auden, seems rather stilted today. Some reviewers enjoyed its laconic feel, though, and the jazz mood is certainly enhanced by the runner in the cool trilby hat at club training!
Auden wrote in many different styles on an enormous range of subjects, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who, while still at school, could act the parts of both Katherine, the witty, feisty object of desire in 'The Taming of the Shrew', and Caliban, the subhuman son-of-a-witch in 'The Tempest', surely a unique combination of Shakespearean roles.
He would go on to write three plays with Christopher Isherwood (below right, with Auden), one of which contains the original version of his famous 'Stop all the clocks', which became more widely known after its inclusion in the 1994 film, 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'.
That Protean quality extended to his critical caprice. He claimed never to have experienced any kind of physical sensation or sentiment when reading poetry, yet he lambasted the poet and critic A.E. Housman for his scholarly reticence ('deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust, kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer....'), despite Housman stating in his only lecture that the sine qua non of poetry is emotional engagement.
It is thus ironic that, in a recent anthology* that asked 100 prominent male figures which poems made them cry, Auden was the most popular author, with five men nominating works by him. One of those men was actor Simon Callow, who nominated 'Lullaby', not 'Funeral Blues' (the true title of 'Stop all the clocks'), even though the latter had become what he calls 'my personal epitaph' because it was used in the eulogy at his character's funeral in the film that brought Auden's lines to a new worldwide audience.
We will be returning to Housman in a later post, but for now I'll just intrigue you by saying that the author of 'To an Athlete Dying Young' actually tried to commit suicide......by running!
Auden's verse script for 'Runner' made its way into his Collected Poems. As Roger Robinson has noted, the last nine lines of the poem were to be recycled when Auden collaborated with famed cellist Pablo Casals in composing a United Nations hymn in 1971.
Auden spoke about how generous Casals had been towards his occasional suggestions that the composer had placed musical emphasis on the wrong syllable, perhaps because of the metrical demands of the poem's rhythm, but maybe simply because English was not Casal's first language.
In grafting the final verse from 'Runner' on to this anthem, Auden turns the vitality and aspirational qualities of a runner into a United Nations' vision of global harmony by addressing the fulfilling of potential (what James Joyce liked to call 'entelechy'):
'......making the flowing of Time a growing,
till what it could be
at last it is,
where Fate is Freedom, Grace and Surprise.'
Auden worked with many other modern classical composers, including Benjamin Britten (below right, with Auden), Hans Werner Henze and Igor Stravinsky, for whom he wrote the opera libretto for The Rake's Progress. He also wrote lyrics for cabaret songs in Berlin and made propaganda broadcasts for the Republicans in Spain during the civil war there.
His documentary work with the General Post Office film unit included a poem for its famous 1936 'Night Mail' short, now considered a classic of its genre. Written to Britten's music and spoken to the rhythmic knocking of the train's wheels passing over the rail joints at varying speeds, the lines of verse were composed by Auden using a stopwatch in order to synchronise with the film.
In fact, Auden's output seems to be full of timepieces and references to time passing, in 'As I Walked Out One Evening', for instance, where
'...all the clocks in the city began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you, you cannot conquer Time."
I am reminded here of the Chariots of Fire scene in which the runners attempt to complete a run around a courtyard while the clock is still striking twelve. By the end of this poem too, the chiming has ceased, but 'the deep river ran on' through the city.
In one sense, the camera does indeed conquer time, but it is not only the camera that 'does not lie' in 'Runner': 'The cold stopwatch tells the truth', says the narrator, who goes on to portray running 'round an endless track' as an example of creaturely movement which
'delights the eye by its symmetry
as it changes places,
blessing the unchangeable absolute rest
of the space all share.'
The poem's opening lines about the camera not being able to capture the inner life of a runner led me to hope that this would now be illuminated instead by a few piercing poetic insights, but they are nowhere to be found in the subsequent verse (at least not here - fortunately there are plenty of writers and poets, often runners themselves, who have understoood and articulated it better, many of whom will be featuring here soon.)
Bruce Kidd, by the way, had a running gait that was anything but symmetrical, although the eccentric arm-swing you can see in this film somehow propelled him to a gold medal in the Six Miles event at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.
He is still enjoying a glittering academic career and is the author of many books about the politics of sport, which somewhat belies the lines in the poem about excellence: 'to one is assigned a ready wit, to another swiftness of eye or foot.' While most of us have neither, Kidd plainly had both.
One of Auden's lines in this film has given me special comfort: 'Fate forbids mortals to be at their best always'. So now I can scrub all my usual post-race excuses and just point to my three Greek friends, the Fates (me being a Muse n' all) - the spinner, the measurer and the cutter of the thread of life, of the course of events and of our allotted Time**.
It is they who stop my stopwatch, the race clock, even my body clock......indeed, they stop all the clocks, and the camera. It's all their fault, and neither my race photographs nor my chip time can be blamed on me.
Unless they're good.
Here is a link to the film: https://www.nfb.ca/film/runner/
* Poems that make Grown Men Cry' (2014), ed. Anthony and Ben Holden, Simon and Schuster
** The three Fates of Greek mythology were Clotho, the spinner of the thread (hence the word 'cloth'), Lachesis the measurer, and Atropos the cutter. It is ironic that the modern drug atropine is often used in cardiac resuscitation to extend life - the drug derives from atropa belladonna, the poisonous deadly nightshade plant, and the Greek 'atropos' means 'not to be turned away', i.e., this is where things stop. As atropine courses through a patient in cardiac arrest, it is a pharmacological reminder to the heart to pick up the pace and remember the old Nike running mantra: 'There is no finish line'.
The Middle English word for fate, by the way, was 'wyrd', hence 'weird', after the three supernatural fates of German mythology, the 'weird sisters' who controlled destiny (as in Shakespeare's drama, 'Macbeth', for instance).
'O Sinnerman, where you gonna run to now...'
I once had a Christmas cracker joke that asked 'Who was the fastest runner ever?' There were gratifying groans as I read out the answer: 'Adam, because he was first in the human race.' I briefly tried to imagine this navel-less man running alone through the Garden of Eden, but also it set me wondering whether there were any references at all to running in the Bible.
I could only remember that in Gethsemane the apostles did run when perhaps they shouldn't have done, and that little Isaac, when God said to Abraham 'Kill me a son'*, didn't run when perhaps he should have done.
Surprisingly, an online biblical concordance search finds exactly 100 allusions to running in its particular canon, although much of this running is done by tears, blood and sores, collectively known as running 'issues', as well as by rivers, chariots, cups running over and wine running out.
So did those feet in ancient times run upon any mountains green? Well, it looks as though Jesus was too cool to run, although one can imagine him running from stall to stall as he upended the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (below, in Giordano's painting). His fans, however, were forever running up to him, and even Mary Magdalene 'ran with fear and great joy' to tell his disciples about his empty tomb.
But it is St. Paul who seems to enjoy the running and racing metaphors the most. In one of his letters, for instance, he likens the road to salvation to a race to the finishing line, a kind of spiritual Tough Mudder where the obstacles are sins rather than quagmires. It is worth quoting 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 in full:
'You know well enough that when men run in a race, the race is for all, but the prize for one. Run then for victory. Every athlete must keep all his appetites under control, and he does it to win a crown that fades, whereas ours is imperishable. So I do not run the course like a man in doubt of his goal.......I buffet my own body and make it my slave.'
Paul, whose home town of Tarsus had an athletics stadium, would have been aware of the famous Isthmian Games, which were still being held at Corinth at that time, so he may have tailored his metaphors for his audience.
Motivational sports posters, especially in the US, tend only to quote the first two sentences here, which is rather missing Paul's point, not to mention it undermining the spirit of running as a source of inner strength and self-discipline irrespective of the achievements of others.
If religion helps to maintain a meaningful world for its adherents by providing some kind of validation and understanding of 'experiences that are highly resistant to attempts to render them meaningful'** - pain, suffering and death, for example - then I would doubt that crossing the finish line before someone else did would contribute significantly to that.
Other Pauline coaching tips include 'Let us run with patience the race that is set before us', as he told the Hebrews, while, in urging his Galatian converts to abandon the practice of circumcision, he wrote 'you have run well, but who has hindered you in obeying the truth?' If that didn't persuade the young boys of Galatia to join the local Christian running club as fast as possible, at least until their church had fallen into line with Paul's 'save the foreskin' campaign, then nothing would.
The Old Testament prophet Daniel, the man who interpreted the original 'writing on the wall' at King Balthasar's feast and who survived the original 'lions' den', quoted God as predicting that the apocalypse would be preceded by a time in which 'many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased' (see Running Quotes for more on this). Given the rise in the number of runners and running publications over the last 50 years, does this mean the end is nigh? Or do you think our Dan simply misheard?
Here is Rembrandt's painting of the holy blog that Daniel was called to interpret. I'm assured by biblical scholars that it has nothing to do with running whatsoever. I just wanted to show English football fans that they can move on now, as it can be clearly seen here that the hand of God bears no resemblance to that of Diego Maradona.
Any biblical racing is mostly confined to deathly pursuits, but a story in 2 Samuel 18 has two of King David's messengers racing each other across the plains to be the first to deliver news of his rebellious son's death to him (one being a more sensitive bearer of bad tidings than the other, apparently).
One delightful snippet included here is the detail that, as the runners approached, a guard on the city wall could recognise each of them at a distance by their running styles. Even non-Christians runners would attest to the truth of at least these biblical words.
Many of you, of course, will actually have been reading the Bible while running a marathon, unless you were winning. A favourite biblical quote for runners' T-shirts is Isaiah 40:31: 'They will run, and not grow weary', but, again, the evidence for the prophet's assertion is scant, which must be a challenge for biblical literalists.
But my favourite metaphorical flourish is from David's Psalm 19, a song which equates the joy of running a race to the ecstasy of a bridegroom emerging from his bedchamber. Whether the bride also experienced such ecstasy is unknown, and unexplored.
Now, I love running as much as the next person, but any credible comparison between a wedding night with your true love and hitting the wall in a marathon would surely need a double-blind study, which I would be happy to volunteer for, but which I have noticed are in short supply within biblical discourse. Mind you, doing those two things consecutively would make for a very challenging biathlon and a very entertaining post-race 'how was it for you?' chat. Difficult to train four times a week for it, though.
We have already explored the running opportunities available in Hell in a previous post, but heaven wouldn't be heaven without at least a 5k Run for Life. God has specifically said that there is 'a time to every person under heaven', and I try to make mine a PB, but if there isn't a race organised within the pearly gates, and I can find no evidence that there is, I shall embrace my inner sinnerman and thus disqualify myself from entry through its hallowed portals as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, I am guided by the old African proverb that encourages action in response to any spiritual or contemplative wanderings: 'When you pray, move your feet'.
'Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple' by Luca Giordano, c.1675, oil on canvas, 198 cm x 261 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
'Belshazzar's Feast' by Rembrandt van Rijn, c.1637, 168 cm x 209 cm, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
'Sinnerman' is the title of a traditional African-American spiritual song about the folly of attempting to hide and evade the wrath of God. A sinner can try to run to the river, run to the rock, run to the sea or even run to the Lord, but it's too late - a sinnerman can only run to the devil. It was made famous by the mesmerising version of Nina Simone.
* St. Bob's version in Highway 61 Revisited, which also happens to end with God's exhortation to either obey him or run: 'God said to Abraham kill me a son, Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on', God said no, Abe said 'What?', God say 'You can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me comin', you better run....'.
Dylan's father name was Abraham, and H61 used to run from his home town all the way down the United States to the home of the blues, Memphis.
It seems Satan also found his way to Highway 61, as along its route is the famous crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his blues skills, thus spawning his song, 'Crossroads Blues', not to mention Cream's 'Crossroads'.
** from 'The Sacred Canopy' (1990) by Peter Berger, Anchor Books