My knee was banjaxed, so I went for a run
Opinion: Many Irish now embrace the religion of running and refuse to be moderate with it
‘It is difficult to stop running even when it is patently bad for various bits of you.’ Photograph: Getty Images
In October 1978, an article in the current affairs magazine Magill referred to a new Irish habit: “Huge numbers of adults of all shapes and sizes are to be seen doing it in public, with no trace of embarrassment, confident they are part of one of the great mass movements of the 1970s. The phenomenon of jogging is upon us.” This was the Irish manifestation of what was happening internationally and the Dublin city marathon soon followed. I remember my own parents’ preparations for running the Dublin marathon in 1981; my father asked me to stand outside the house and hold a plastic cup of water so he could practise running by and grabbing the water to make sure he would be able to drink without stopping during the marathon.
That seemed slightly nerdy, but such feelings were far outweighed by pride after my parents’ successful marathon completions. My mother ran a second marathon a few years later and it took her a long time to forgive me, after I stood in the Phoenix Park at a difficult stage of the race and shouted to her “Ma, can you not go any faster?” It was only when I started running that I realised how cruel that question was. At that moment in the Phoenix Park, quite justifiably, my mother hated me.
Irish running in the 1980s coincided with economic recession, and a few decades later in austerity Ireland, it is more popular than ever, but many are now taking their exertion to so-called “ultra” levels. It is hardly surprising that the ultra runs – up Croagh Patrick, or around the Ring of Kerry, or in full fire fighting garb, or a marathon a day for a year– are embraced in Ireland, where there is little appetite for moderation, but what are the long-term consequences likely to be?
My eldest daughter is now the age I was when my parents were marathon runners, and though I do not do marathons, I have been running far too long on concrete, which led to her interest in a letter I was reading that had just arrived to the house, from an orthopaedic surgeon. It was full of mystifying language – “tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus…osteochondral lesion of the medial femoral condyle” – but I was aware it did not amount to good news. “What’s in that letter”? my daughter demanded to know. “It says my knee is banjaxed”, I responded. “Is banjaxed the same as the F word”? she further inquired. “Indeed it is” I replied. I then strapped up the knee and went for a run to deal with the stress of it all.
That is another of the problems with this running phenomenon. It is difficult to stop even when it is patently bad for various bits of you. This is not just about physical addiction; it is also about mental well being. Back in 1977, when the American James Fixx wrote The complete book of running, which became a bestseller and is still useful, he cited the example of a runner who went to his doctor with a back problem, an injury that hurt most after running. Understandably, the doctor recommended his patient stop running. The patient had been running for 25 years and replied, “You don’t understand. I don’t consider myself well unless I’m able to run.” The doctor was then determined to find a solution.
Paradoxically, those who need to run to feel well, too often engage in such extremes that they do serious damage, but that is nothing new, and running also attracts a type of personality prone to excesses in other areas. The Norwegian writer Thor Gotaas’s Running: A Global History, published in English in 2009, is full of brilliant runners who were also excessive boozers and other substance abusers, their approach to a “balanced” lifestyle. But such “balance” caught up with many, including Olympic legend Jesse Owens, a heavy smoker who could still run 100 yards in 9 seconds at the age of 42 but could not win against lung cancer.
Gotaas also highlights that long distances, training programmes, competitiveness, experimentation and dietary rules are nothing new when it comes to running; beef chops, bread and beer were deemed to be the ideal pre-race meal in the 19th century. Perhaps what is striking about the modern era is the sense of the elevation of the status of running, captured in the assertion of Bob Anderson, founder of Runner’s World magazine. When asked what his religion was he replied, “I am a runner.”
Many Irish now embrace this religion and refuse to be moderate with it. I’ve been assured that the solution to the knee problem – my mid life crisis – is to take up cycling because you can be relentless without putting the same pressure on your joints that running does, but for me, becoming a MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra) seems like an awesome admission of defeat.