Run Wild, By Boff Whalley

From anarchist pop star to free runner: a musical maverick celebrates sport without sponsors
  • @cmaume

Having run a couple of marathons, back when they were still a novelty, and before some twisted sadist forced the words "fun" and "run" into an unnatural union, I can attest that they are pure pain. That endorphin thing never happened to me; I never felt good, never felt light-footed. It was all about getting to the finish, preferably in a time that wasn't a total embarrassment. Boff Whalley would be horrified.

Whalley spent 30 years in the anarchist band Chumbawamba until they called it a day earlier this month. The band, they said in their farewell statement, "was our vehicle for pointing at the naked emperors". For the purposes of this inspirational book, the unclothed monarch is the cast-of-thousands city marathon, 26 miles and 385 yards of tarmac and asphalt - "drinks stations, digital timing and computerised results"; a "cultural colossus", a "corporate leviathan".

Whalley's passion is for fells and forests, streams and screes and snowdrifts. He even likes running in the rain. He simply can't understand the impulse to be herded, "our willingness to collaborate in our own confinement". He's the runner's Thoreau, anxious to point out that the city marathon "dislocates us from the earth we're running on".

He craves "the utterly human quest for the wild, natural, joyful rub of life's friction" – and he's not talking about runner's nipple. Running is only a metaphor for life, he says, if that metaphor incorporates the detours, the winding ways, the getting lost and finding your way again, having had a far better time than on the straight and narrow.

Perhaps the key passage is about how all our naturally exuberant playfulness has been educated out of us. Run Wild is essentially a passionate plea for that insidious process to be resisted at every turn. Raised as a Mormon, Whalley is no stranger to proselytising – he recalls days spent tramping door to door with his family round his native Burnley attempting to bring the lapsed back into the fold. Now, he's not afraid to indulge in a spot of tub-thumping as he tries to drag the running community off the streets and back to nature.

The book is beset by a certain self-righteousness. He chides the novelist Haruki Murakami, who in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running admitted to listening to music on his headphones.

By the end, I confess I felt slightly preached-to. But that probably says more about me than about this heartfelt book, which is, in the end, a joyful celebration of life.