Where runners fear to tread
For world leaders, the treadmill is a pathway to power, but it can leave the rest of us feeling like, well, being on a treadmill, writes DAVID McKECHNIE
THE TREADMILL. A mechanism that sweetly entertains hamsters and their owners, it is also a divisive device alleged to breed resentment and boredom. A controlled environment that helps runners meet punishing targets, at the same time it is a claustrophobic alternative to the freedoms of running outdoors. The treadmill’s relationship with humans is not as straightforward as its functionality – many runners are more suspicious of it than the salad bar at McDonald’s.
Beyond the understanding that they are going nowhere fast, the biggest challenge treadmill users face is what to look at. If outdoor running offers a cinematic experience akin to what goes on in the mind of a great songwriter like, say, Chris de Burgh, a treadmill’s reductive field of vision rarely goes beyond a blank wall, a mirror, or a TV screen if you’re lucky. The discrepancy between sight and body stimulation is deeply discomfiting: while the eyeballs read the text of the Lisbon Treaty, the body parties at Hugh Hefner’s.
Running facing a mirror might be the best solution if the technology employed at fairgrounds could be manipulated to ensure your reflection always looked like Scarlett Johansson . This would be an initiative popular among both men and women. My gym in Smithfield has individual TV screens where you can watch Sky News stories repeatedly roll around, and on weekends catch the football. Seeing little men exercising much harder than you is smugly satisfying and makes the time pass quickly.
In essence, treadmill exercise is a straightforward tale of two rubber bands: you run on the one beneath your feet partly in hope that the one around your waist becomes a little looser. But sometimes this simple narrative widens out to encompass users of neighbouring treadmills, effectively moving from one of man versus machine to one of man versus poor, sweating fool on the machine next to him. Engaging with an imagined challenger also gives the eyes something to do – namely, sneaking glances at the speed they’re doing and watching out for signs of weakness.
When this situation goes awry it can leave you feeling humiliated and angry. At my gym recently, I was engaged in inelegant pre-run stretching on a treadmill, in a room of almost entirely empty treadmills, when a guy climbed on the one right beside me and started stretching too. He looked like he could run. “Okay then,” I grimaced.
It was 4.30pm on a Saturday. Little men from Manchester would be playing little men from Fulham on the TV screens in front of us for 20 minutes more. I began running, slowly at first, watching the football. My neighbour began walking mid-pace, watching the football. Minutes passed. I ran faster, faster. Big drops of sweat squeezed through the pores on my head and dropped on the machine. My unruffled neighbour walked on and on, and then it dawned on me that he was not about to run at all. I felt foolish for wanting to run against him, and for sweating and panting, and deeply angry that he was not intending to exercise properly, and was content to impose this humiliation on me.
“Why don’t you do some exercise when you come to the f****** gym, you f****** lazy b*****?” This is what I wanted to shout.
Is it any wonder that the power and virility of world leaders – especially American ones – is often communicated using treadmill experience as a subtle code? George W Bush insisted on having one in his room whenever he travelled; in between times he worked out on Air Force One. At a G8 summit at Camp David last May, Barack Obama and David Cameron famously held a “treadmill summit” one morning, doing “the kind of workout where you can still have a substantive conversation”, a source told the Daily Mail. Officials at No 10 refused to say which of the leaders ran faster.
And why would they? Nobody wants to lose face on a treadmill the way that Bill Murray does in Lost in Translation (left). In the scene, set in a hotel gym high above Tokyo, Murray’s character Bob Harris can understand neither the machine’s Japanese symbols nor the female voice that instructs him, and so his legs and arms spin hilariously out of control until all he can do is shout, “Help!” Here, clearly, the treadmill becomes a metaphor for Harris’s wider dissatisfaction, alienation and inability to make himself understood.
Actually, hold on: wasn’t he using a cross-trainer?