Phew – I’m glad I’m not an endurance athlete. All that suffering and what do you get? A pacemaker, that’s what. A British Heart Foundation study has revealed that exercise causes mice to undergo molecular changes in the section of the heart that regulates the pump – implying that athletes have a greater risk of suffering cardiac arrhythmias as they get older.
Crowing couch potatoes, beware, however: Professor Mark Boyett, who led the study, advised that “although endurance exercise training can have harmful effects on the heart, it is more than outweighed by the beneficial effects.” In fact whether exercise is beneficial or harmful, or just plain mad, or a bit of all three, is largely irrelevant: very few of us actually undertake serious exercise for the good of our health. It’s all about feeling good about ourselves, which isn’t the same thing at all.
I ran a couple of marathons back in the 1980s, and a desire for fitness wasn’t on my list of priorities. When my best friend rang me up one day and told me he’d put his name down for the Newcastle Marathon in six weeks’ time – and, oh yes, forgot to mention, he’d put my name down, too – I was appalled. But the challenge was irresistible. I was young enough not to have to worry about how fit I was, but I was ready to discover if I could actually do this insane thing, to go from 0-26 miles in a month and a half.
It certainly wasn’t about enjoyment. I can safely say that during the entire time I trained for either of my marathons, there wasn’t a single second when I felt anything other than pain. If my endorphins ever kicked in, they kept damned quiet about it. It was only ever about getting to the end. I only got through it by making a pact with myself: barring injury, at no point, in training or during the event itself, was I going to stop. It was one foot in front of the other, again and again, until the challenge had been met and I could call it a day.
The pleasure came from completion, nothing else. The novelist Haruki Murakami is a veteran long-distance runner who in an interview to publicise his jogging memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, remarked about the marathon, “It is an inevitable torment which I deliberately take on myself.”
In later life the friend who put me down for the Newcastle Marathon took up cycling, and not in a good way (at least not in a good way as viewed from my sofa). He engages in bouts of utter madness like L’Etape, whose participants negotiate one of the stages of that year’s Tour de France, usually a nasty one in the mountains. For him, he says, it’s about doing something which at his time of life he shouldn’t be capable of. It’s the buzz of achievement, the buzz of having done it.
The former Chumbawumba guitarist Boff Whalley – in his terrific 2012 book Run Wild - declares that we shouldn’t be running marathons at all – at least not in urban surroundings, where we damage our knee ligaments by tramping for miles on unforgiving asphalt. For him it’s not about rising to any particular challenge, but about running as living in the world more fully, running as an activity to send the soul soaring.
Whalley is the Thoreau of running. City marathons, he says, demonstrate “our willingness to collaborate in our own confinement”. He craves instead “the utterly human quest for the wild, natural, joyful rub of life’s friction.”
Yet, wild or city-bound, it is Murakami who best pins down precisely why we put ourselves through torment: “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest... Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.”
Cash for challenging times
You may not have heard of Laila Indira Alva, but she is proof that not all rich people are scum. When Raghuram Rajan took over at the Reserve Bank of India during a currency crisis last year, the 10-year-old, who lives in a wealthy suburb of Delhi, sent him a $20 bill she’d saved from a family holiday, writing, “The country needs it more than I do.” She added, in a letter that’s just been published in her school magazine, “please bring in some new ideas that will improve our country. I want people to come to India and not to think that it’s corrupt and a dump!”
Dr Rajan politely returned it, despite the “challenging time” the country was facing, “with the assurance that we have adequate foreign reserves to manage the situation.” It’s a great idea, though – could Take That fans perhaps be persuaded to do something similar to tide the lads over during their challenging time?