Running Free by Richard Askwith, book review: Are hi-tech shoes and high-price gizmos blinding us to the real joys of running?


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The Independent Culture

We're months from the main thrust of marathon season in the UK and as thousands of runners across the country prepare to cross finish lines and reach life goals, the running industry prepares to harvest a bumper crop from those looking to excel, avoid injury or just look good on the road. Because it is an industry, as the exemplary research in Richard Askwith's Running Free makes so very clear.

Askwith is as hard on himself as he is on readers about falling for the seductive nature of the industry. But he makes no bones about what is going on: the simple act of running, as instinctive to us as eating or having sex, has now become an act of surrender, not just to the idea of constantly "bettering oneself" with ever more impressive times and distances, but to consumerism itself. The clothing, the high performance foods, the endless electronics for recording pace, route and heart rate – even the events themselves, including the comprehensively sponsored local park run and the branding monster that is the Tough Mudder – are now all part of a slickly functioning juggernaut designed to extract as much cash from us as possible.

The irony of needing a book published by a sprawling multinational to tell us this is acute. Indeed, Askwith has already had some success in the running industry himself with his previous fell-running memoir, Feet in the Clouds: he is as much a part of the industry as he is fretful about it. But his writing, as well as his insight and indisputable passion for running, make for a worthy antidote to this uncomfortable truth. He has tried every fad, from mid-thirties macho urban running to the Gloucestershire cheese rolling race, and is now a committed rural barefoot runner, enlivened daily by exploring his local countryside with his dog Nutmeg and little else but a whistle and his thoughts.

His analysis of the "gamification" of the industry, our surreal habit of driving to the gym to run on a stationary machine, and the dangers of overly cushioned running shoes on rugged countryside terrain, is perceptive and empathetic.

But there is a limited amount here to cheer the runner who finds themselves living in an urban environment. While seeing the seasons change as you gallop by in a pair of Vibrams sounds delightful, such a rural idyll on one's doorstep is a rarity, not the norm. It is perhaps best to read this book focusing less on Askwith's location and more on his insights regarding untethering ourselves from goals and electronics – because these are indeed a much needed breath of fresh air.

Alexandra Heminsley is the author of 'Running Like a Girl' (Windmill Books)