I take one, two, three steps forward. By the sixth I am jogging slowly. At about the tenth my feet lift without hesitation off the ground and I rise rapidly into the air. My legs hang uselessly off the edge of the low-slung backpack that has become a seat lifting me up. Above me, the lines from my canopy pull me as surely as a corkscrew lifts a cork up out of a bottle. Already I am fifteen metres off the ground and still climbing. I am paragliding – winched by a long rope from a standing start in a flat English field on a cub pilot ‘taster’.
This scene comes back to me repeatedly now that I face the possibility that I will not be able to run again, or at least not as I have been accustomed to do, striding on my own legs over hills and valleys and through grassland, woods and streams. An intermittent but severe pain in my right knee is probably osteoarthritis, and I have been strongly advised to stop. I am no Hawkeye as played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Michael Mann’s film The Last of the Mohicans, but I am not a bad runner: I have (or had) pace and endurance. Becoming old and crippled was not part of the plan.
If, like most sane people, you can’t see why on Earth someone would enjoy running over rough terrain in the first place then what has happened to me may not seem like a big deal. Sure, you might say, it’s bad news but that’s ageing for you (I am forty-eight) and really, there are better ways to enjoy yourself. You may be right, but there is so much I will miss. Let me try to explain.
At junior school no team game would have me. I was not even fast so ‘track’ was out of the question. Cross-country running – low-status, not even really a sport – required only stubbornness, and that I had. Later, as a teenager and young adult in, first, the English fells and Scottish hills and, later, in bigger mountains, I became an enthusiastic trekker, often ready to drop my pack and run up the odd slope just for sake of it. Sometimes I wouldn’t even drop the pack. Then, in Canada at the age of twenty, I ran down a big mountain with a heavy pack on my back, yawping wildly all the way. This was a bad idea. I messed up both knees and could hardly walk for a month. The pain persisted on and off for years but became ever less frequent until finally it was gone altogether.
The only other injury that set me back occurred when, aged twenty-eight, I was sharing tea on the balcony of a house high in the mountains of the Laz region of north-eastern Turkey. The branch of a pear tree opposite suddenly cracked and fell to the ground – apparently under the sheer weight of fruit, for there was no wind. In great excitement I ran, barefoot, downstairs and crashed into a stone threshold with my right big toe. The pain was excruciating, but I was able to walk, and back in England some weeks later the doctors told me the toe was not broken. It did take on a slightly odd shape, something like the potato variety known as the Pink Fir Apple, but it works fine.
Apart from these and a few other incidents, however, I have, for nigh on thirty years, really used my legs. For sure, runner’s high – the feeling of euphoria caused by the release of endorphins and/or endocannabinoids during and after demanding exertion – has been an important factor, as has the sheer sense of power and accomplishment that comes from achieving a long run. But running has seemed to me like a portal to more than that. I have delighted for a long time in the skill needed to keep one’s balance while moving fast over uneven ground. Reading what is coming towards you at speed – planing how big a stride to make, whether to stop or change direction, to vault over something such as a rock or stream – takes complete concentration, and action becomes meditation. I have learned to flow across landscape. Every step is a short flight – sometimes not so short if one is running down a steep slope. Every step brings a risk of falling.
Through running I have learned how to feel the land in a particular way. This is true in the immediate sense that strides across the ground vibrate up through one’s legs like a second heart beat shared with the Earth, varying in strength and quality according to the springiness, obduracy or other qualities of the soil or rock. Surface features such as a cracking stick, squelching moss or grinding pebbles add over-notes to the rhythm. The breeze, too, has a unique own quality when you run: you are its co-creator. It is also true in the way one views and feels the forms and shapes of the land: comprehended first with a hungry but somewhat abstract eye as a distant object, and then experienced in detail and sometimes punishing difficulty. Both perspectives – the overall arc of one’s intended track, and the ground-level specifics – are stitched together by running and coexist in the brain which has not had time to forget or energy to wander. Cross-terrain running is a way of being close, almost within geology in all its deep-time mystery. It feels like dancing.
Though I am happy enough running on inhabited land, I particularly like those places where people spend less time and where, as a result, the land is more alive in its own way rather than as a reflection of us. I identify to some degree with the Gilyak people of Sakhalin Island, of whom Anton Chekov wrote:
How hard it is for them to understand us may be seen merely from the fact that up till the present day they still do not fully understand the purpose of roads. Even where a road has already been laid, they will still journey through the taiga. One often sees them, their families and their dogs, picking their way in Indian file across a quagmire right by the roadway.
Often, a road is the least interesting path to follow.
The endurance-running hypothesis holds that long-distance running played an important part in our evolution. Early humans, it’s suggested, evolved the ability to run long distances, often in the hot sun, as a way to outcompete other predators and scavengers on the African savanna. In this way, co-operating in small groups, humans could either chase quadrupeds to exhaustion or get quickly to the carcasses of fresh kills made by other animals that would have retired to the shade in the heat of the day. For many hundreds of thousands of years before the development of effective spears and other distance weapons, it’s suggested, humans thrived, and developed the conceptual skills required for activities such as tracking, because we were born to run.
Advocates of the hypothesis press several uniquely evolved features of human morphology physiology in support of it. Notably, the large tendons in our legs store energy like springs when we run and springy Achilles heels, greatly improving the efficiency of our gait. (Earlier species, such as the proto-human Australopithecus may have had Achilles and other tendons, but their legs were shorter and much less powerful. Our living Great Ape cousins are hopeless runners.) We also have an effective cooling system in the sweat glands which, unlike in other mammals, are spread widely over our bodies. Each gluteus on our bottom is so maximus because this helps us to run well, balancing us rather as a tail does in the case of every other running biped, and contracting to prevent our bodies from falling forwards as each foot strikes the ground. If you like the look of so-and-so’s bottom, perhaps you should thank a running ancestor. Other features (on a list of about twenty-six) supposedly include short toes that do not get in the way and the nuchal ligament which stabilizes the head when it is in rapid motion.
The diagnosis of osteoarthritis came when I had it least in mind. I had been counting on a particularly ambitious programme of running in remarkable landscapes this spring for the consolation, sustenance and joy it would bring as I tried to make my way through what feels like a more than usually difficult phase of life.
I am not running now but I haven’t yet found the courage to say goodbye to it. I hope that when I have to I will. Listening to a lot of J.S. Bach may help. And perhaps paragliding, which puts very little strain on the body and is not dangerous so long as one makes good judgements, will be among the options that remain. At least then the shadow of my limbs will move across the landscape as I learn to read the complex and invisible forces that govern movement in the air.
Photograph by Alexander Cahlenstein