Ian O’Riordan: Running is the music and everything else is noise
I discovered an irresistible urge to get back to the Aran Islands and retrace my old footsteps along An Trá Mór
Inis Mor, Aran Islands: It still amazes me how most people who land on Inis Mór end up heading west and out towards Dún Aonghasa, when perhaps the more tranquil side is the east, out past Killeany and Iararine, where you will also find An Trá Mór
There was a late switch to the GAA markings in here last weekend, so I found myself driving out of Tuam on Sunday evening as the brightly inflamed sky and vast sunlight was splitting shadows between the fragments of trees and stone walls, with the rare promise of more to come on Monday.
Something and everything about being in the West of Ireland in that moment created an irresistible urge to get back over to the Aran Islands, and retrace some old footprints left running across the silver sand. Sometimes in that same kind of moment you have to take the chance on all that you can’t leave behind, if only one day.
Jack Kerouac never owned a car his entire life. As a matter of fact he never once held a driver’s licence. Still he made a life and a literary career out of moments of spontaneous travel and then writing about them in his own style of spontaneous prose, which at least occasionally demand a sort of modern rematch.
It’s also the sort of escapism which works best when some of that negativity around sport, seemingly so prevalent right now, is beginning to drag you down.
When it’s fast approaching the longest day already and you still haven’t run barefoot down along a sandy beach anywhere this year, either east or west coast, it’s also a natural necessity.
Truth is the lockdown is only partly to blame. Of all the vast number of pages and passages written about the so-called essence of running there is still one that possibly stands out more than any other, and the best thing about that is it never grows old; it just requires some reminding.
Roger Bannister only ran a handful of races after he became the first man in history to run the mile in less than four minutes in May of 1954; that August, he won the British Empire Games mile in Vancouver, billed as The Miracle Mile, as he also beat the more fancied Australian John Landy, then the only other man to run sub-four. Three weeks later Bannister won the European Championships 1,500m, then promptly retired to pursue his medical career in neurology.
A year later he penned his autobiography, The Four-Minute Mile, and begins by retracing his first sense of being born to run and subsequent steps into distance running history: “I remember a moment I stood barefoot on firm dry sand by the sea. The air had a special quality as if it had a life of its own. The sound of breakers on the shores shut out all others. I looked up at the clouds, like great white-sailed galleons, chasing proudly inland. I looked down at the regular ripples on the sand, and could not absorb so much beauty . . .
“In this supreme moment I leapt in sheer joy. I was startled, and frightened, by the tremendous excitement that so few steps could create. I glanced around uneasily to see if anyone was watching. A few more steps – self-consciously now and firmly gripping the original excitement. The earth seemed almost to move with me. I was running now, and a fresh rhythm entered my body. No longer conscious of my movement I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed. From intense moments like this, love of running can grow . . .”
An overnight on Coral Strand, and Monday turned out to be one of the hottest days on the island so far this year. It still amazes me how most people who land on Inis Mór end up heading west and out towards Dún Aonghasa, when perhaps the more tranquil side is the east, out past Killeany and Iararine, where we spent every summer of our youth in the house my grandparents built on the piece of land known locally as the site of Éanna.
It’s also here you’ll find An Trá Mór, among the finest beaches anywhere in the world to rediscover that sheer joy of being born to run just like Bannister, in part because chances are you will have it all to yourself.
It was also this exact time of year, 32 years ago to be exact, since last leaving footsteps across every grain of that sand, back when running was something done without any great need, only the simple want.
John Moriarty wrote about finding some Dreamtime on Aran, the title of his first book, and a direct reference to the Australian Aboriginal word, or The Dreaming, essentially their way of dreaming up what became the very essence of their existence and culture.
This remains an astonishing read, which has nothing whatsoever to do with running, and still its dreamlike content somehow came to mind with that shared Bannister experience and what Moriarty saw as “dropping our purely biological understanding of ourselves there on the shore”.
I wanted to call my first book Running Is A Mental Disorder, only Con Houlihan wasn’t so sure, and he was publishing it after all: he decided on Miles to Run, Promises to Keep, even though many chapters end up describing running as a mad pursuit, and maybe at times it was.
Most runners have always taken the madness side of it as a compliment too. Same as that Allen Ginsberg line, who said he’d seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness: runners have always read that differently, that the best minds are broadened by madness.
Or as Charles Bukowski, voice of the mad man, once wrote: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
Whatever about that madness side, any pursuit of running now is not out of want and increasingly the need, and disordering the mind in purely desirable ways.
“To be the best, one does not necessarily have to be mad, but definitely it helps,” declared Percy Cerutty, trainer of several Australian Olympic medal winners, including 1960 1,500m champion Herb Elliott, and who also championed the importance of proper running style, and indeed breathing.
John Millington Synge often wrote about the beauty he found on Aran being a “splendour that was almost a grief on the mind”, perhaps later influencing what Seamus Heaney found in parts of Wicklow, and the poetry he wrote, where “nature is suffused with foreboding”.
Jack B Yeats later wrote of his travels with Synge: “If he had lived in the days of piracy he would have been the fiddler in a pirate-schooner, him they call ‘the music’. ‘The music’ looked on at everything with dancing eyes but drew no sword, and when the schooner was taken and the pirates hung at Cape Corso Castle or the Island of Saint Christopher’s, ‘the music’ was spared because he was ‘the music’.”
That perhaps being like the same Bannister moment of reminder that running is the music and everything else is noise.