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       a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner

Running quotes

Because quotes can be read literally or metaphorically, in isolation or in context, and because most artists are more than delighted for their work to send you sailing off along tributaries unimagined by them, The Running Muse needs no excuse to include quotes here that sometimes have the most tenuous connection to actual running, but the hope is that the words resonate to some degree within the life of a runner.

'If I'm free, it's because I'm always running.'

Now I don't suppose for one minute that the Jimi Hendrix experience extended to running fartleks around Soho, but he would have done some gruelling training runs when he was a paratrooper in the US.

This quote, uttered in the context of a refusal to settle into any musical formula for very long or to stagnate his life within social norms, is from an interview in the Times in the UK a fortnight before his death in September 1970.

Jimi Hendrix, onstage and in the military

'Go jogging? What, and get hit by a meteor?'

This is the worst, or maybe the best, excuse I've heard for not going out running, by the American humourist, Robert Benchley, a man who actually won a 1935 Oscar for a short film called 'How to Sleep'!


A more common excuse is to be found in the first paragraph of Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre', where the young Jane speaks of her delight at the penetrating rain that meant 'outdoor exercise was now out of the question. I was glad of it.'


And that was just walking.

'A coward: one who, in a perilous emergency, thinks with his legs'

This is one of American satirist Ambrose Bierce's entries in his laugh-out-loud book of satirical definitions, 'The Devil's Dictionary'. He is a darker and more profound (and, dare I say, wittier) writer than his contemporary purveyor of aphorisms, Oscar Wilde, of whom he was a fierce critic - one of his magazine articles berated 'the spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jellyfish'.

Robert Benchley in How to Sleep (1935)
Ambrose Bierce

'Mens sana in corpore sano'

Circa 100 AD, the satirical poet Juvenal (seen here in a 15th century woodcut from Nuremberg) urged his fellow Romans to pray for 'a sound mind in a sound body', one of many of his phrases which have come down to us today. In the nineteenth century, this one became a classical inspiration for the ethos of the Prussian army, the English public schools and Baron de Coubertin's vision of a modern Olympic movement that included the arts.


The 17th century English philosopher John Locke wrote that 'a sound mind in a sound body is a short but full description of a happy state in this world.'


The 'Hunger Games' trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins makes full use of another of Juvenal's quotes lamenting the fact that most people are only interested in 'panem et circenses' ('bread and circuses') - the totalitarian state is called Panem and organises competitive death-struggles as entertainment, with food as the prize.


The ASICS sportswear company's name is an acronym for the similar 'anima sana in corpore sano', a healthy soul in a healthy body.


'This shit is not for me -

                   I don't care how enlightening it is.'

Legendary guitarist Carlos Santana took to running when, with his wife Deborah, he joined Sri Chinmoy's self-transcendence meditation group, for whom running and exercise is a path to 'overcoming the limits of your individual self'. They still organise the world's longest annual footrace, the Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race.


According to one biographer, the Santanas became vegetarians, gave up drugs and alcohol and started running marathons. Deborah ran at least one ultra-marathon of 47 miles, but Carlos became disillusioned, first with the running, and then by the restrictive, authoritarian style of the group's mentality at that time. Both eventually left after almost a decade.


His band, Santana, had come to prominence at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, and it was during his Chinmoy period a few years later that they released an album called Marathon (including tracks called 'Marathon' and 'Runnin'', both instrumentals which didn't exactly garner the greatest reviews).  


As for his quote, I've often come close to saying much the same thing at around the 18-mile mark.

Santana's 'Marathon' album cover

'Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?'

This is from Mary Oliver's poem, 'Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?', a typical interior monologue on nature and solitude from a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes on long walks through the woods and wetlands of New England, where she leaves pencils in trees in case she forgets her own.


'Our law prevents us from killing any man who lives the Run. But we have no law to help him live.'

Samuel Fuller's western tells the fictional story of O'Meara, a Confederate who fired the last bullet of the American Civil War and joined the Sioux tribe in order to continue battling the Yankees.


In amongst all the usual 1950's horse-opera mayhem, he has to survive a 'run of the arrow', a run for his life in which he is given a head start, the location of which is determined by the firing of an arrow.


In his first lead role, Rod Steiger, already struggling with his stage Irish accent, sprained his ankle on set just before the filming of the actual 'Run', which is why most of it consists of close-ups of the running feet of his stand-in.

His character 'outlives the Run' and he later becomes an honorary Sioux, marrying Yellow Moccasin (voiced by Angie Dickinson but acted by Sarita Montiel, bizarrely).

Run of the Arrow (1957) film poster

'We should sometimes increase the motion of the machine, to unclog the wheels of life.'

This is the lesson learned by the curmudgeonly Squire Bramble in Tobias Smollett's 18th century novel about a poet living on his wits, 'Humphry Clinker'.


Smollett's stories are always described as 'picaresque' adventures, i.e., full of rascals and rogues, and Clinker is no exception - he undertakes to run a footrace against his publisher for a bet, borrowing his corpulent opponent's expensive boots as a handicap. Of course, he absconds half way through the run with his prize.


The quote is a favourite of the author of 'Running in Literature', Roger Robinson, who enjoys it as 'a marvellous affirmation of what all runners believe'.


'Many shall run to and fro,

            and knowledge shall be increased.'

This mysterious quote is not from Runner's World but from the Bible's Book of Daniel 12:4, and what's more it's God speaking here. The prophet Daniel, seen right in the lions' den in a print by Gustave Dore, has been given visions of the 'end of days' on earth, all of which he found totally incomprehensible, but he was being told to keep them secret anyway.


To biblical literalists, the words suggest that the enormous increase in world travel and the rise of the sciences are heralding the imminent end of the world.


To running literalists, the quote is just obviously true. And there is no finishing line.

'Sure, determined, moving to an inner rhythm measuring herself against herself....'

'Joan Benoit' by Italian-American poet Rina Ferrarelli is a title that refers to the American winner of the first ever women's Olympic marathon in 1984.


The poem describes how she surged ahead in only the third mile, 'not the eighteenth as expected', how she just kept going while all the 'experts claimed she couldn't possibly keep to the end', and how at the end she was barely out of breath.


She finished hundreds of metres ahead of the rest of the field, including the legendary Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen and Rosa Mota.


Now known as Joan Benoit Samuelson, she held the marathon world record for a time (2:22:43), and 26 years later ran the Chicago Marathon in 2:47:50.


Hers is one of the voices you can hear congratulating you on the Nike+ iPod system.


That 'inner rhythm measuring herself against herself' is exactly what runners try to do, it seems to me - measure the actuality against the goal, the body against the mind.



'Instead of feeling how the foot strikes the hill, the runner feels how the hill presses back up against the foot.'

I first came across the writings of Peter Nabokov, an anthropologist at UCLA, in Thor Gotass's 'Running: A Global History' (see recommended books).


The above maxim was part of the world view of the Yorok, a Californian Native American tribe for whom a certain kind of running brought spiritual insight and self-discipline. For them, 'energy belongs to the world, not to the runner', and their running must 'become a part of the flow of nature'.


They achieved this through their 'gliding, utterly effortless style' as they flowed easily over bushes and 'developed a close relationship with the trails'.


Visualisation techniques were important to them, and they would often train by running down steep gradients blindfolded or in pitch darkness, sensing 'the air as a kind of rope they could pull themselves along by means of breathing techniques and arm movements.'

Daniel in the Lion's Den, illustration by Gustave Doré
Rina_Ferrarelli_2008 photo
Indian Running by Peter Nabokov

'Here is your vicious, central shape

              that has no need of cheer or tape.'

Francis Webb was an Australian poet and had been a champion runner at Sydney University. His 1969 poem, 'This Runner', uses running metaphors to describe the rage and resentment of a person on their 'final lap', a stripping down to their essential being in the face of waning powers.  


He had suffered from schizophrenia, had made at least one suicide attempt and had been in and out of asylums for many years, including in the UK.


The eminent British literary critic, Herbert Read, called him 'one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the century'.


As a quote about running, albeit out of the original context, it reflects the sense that some lone runners have of doing something primitive and self-reliant - no equipment, just you and the elements, the real you, striving in that space underneath the face you present to the world.

Francis Webb

'First day of Hurricane Sandy. Five miles easy.......I can't hold on to my thoughts in this wind.'

Thomas Gardner's running diary is not your average catalogue of times and distances and gradients and weather conditions. His weekly chronicle of early morning runs from his home in 2012 not only contains meditations on his life and on his surroundings as he moves through both of them, but also includes many references to literature and matters of the spirit, most of them relating to contemporary writers and modern poets (perhaps unsurprisingy, as he is a professor of English).


It has the feel of Thoreau about it, as if he had run instead of walked around the Walden Pond woods and recorded his impressions in his cabin log (in his log cabin).


This entry from October 25th 2012 is a part of Gardner's account of his run out into Hurricane Sandy, the second most destructive hurricane in American history. It is such an immediate, primitive experience in such a turbulent environment that he can't even think straight, let alone meditate. He just tells himself to 'quit thinking' and carries on.......


The diary was published as Poverty Creek Journal in 2014 by Tupelo Press.


The Running Muse

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