These are the images and text of the Pecha Kucha (?) talk that I gave at EPIC 2016 in Minneapolis. Given the format constraints (each slide is visible for only 20 seconds before moving on to the next) the text is sparse. I hope I manage to convey some of what I think about when I’m running or, more accurately, what thinking when running is all about for me.
I’m back from a run. A run from my house that takes me on a circuit of 4 miles. I call it my ‘lazy run’. Lazy because it doesn’t take long – a little over 30 minutes and because it’s deeply unimaginative. The route is unchanging. Sometimes I do it in reverse. A quick run snuck in a mass of other things I have to do.
I love running. But that has not always been the case. I started running in 2005 when I saw some trainers hanging off the bag of John Sherry who hired me at Intel and I thought I should be a runner. The last thing I did before relocating to Dublin was buy some running shoes. Three months later I struggled over the line in a half marathon in the west of Ireland.
I know I don’t look like a runner. I’ve done a handful of halfs and the London marathon, but mostly it’s just about going running. My ‘lazy run’, running to work, a long run at the weekend, Parkrun with my daughter and running wherever I am for fieldwork. I have no ambition to be an athlete and I’m certainly not built for it.
All of which begs the question: Why do I run? To hold the middle age spread at bay. Make amends for the odd cigarette. To feel fit and healthy in mind and body? Yes, all this is true. Ask a mountaineer why they climb and they retort “because it’s there”. Is it pretentious to say “I run because I can”?
Perhaps it’s just not the pretension but the thinness of that response that makes it so unsatisfying. Asking why we run assumes the need for instrumental reasons: losing weight or staying fit. Do we need to propose a reason for running? If so, I run because I have to and because of what it does to my mind.
There’s no shortage of books on running which explore its mental and emotional landscapes. Some head for the philosophical hills, some stay on the flatlands, others stick to familiar tracks or trails. Whichever route they head in all grapple with the problem that running is both banal and often boring and it can lead to near transcendental experiences.
While most books about running make references to pain and injuries they all speak to the mental and emotional sides aspects: boredom, elation, relief. Running is not necessarily about florid and deep thoughts. Murakami speaks of “running into the void”. The surprise of his book is the absence of insight into thinking when running.
Running is a means “to engage in a sustained way with the deep strangeness that is the human mind”. My experience is that running helps me think – it’s time spent time with my mind devoid of digital and other distractions. Pushing more deeply I find it difficult to articulate what sort of thinking I do when I run and what form that thinking takes.
I wonder if it’s necessary to distinguish between thinking and thoughts. Thinking implies something conscious, controlled or considered. Sometimes I head out on a run having consciously decided there is some thinking to be done. On those days I tend not to think much. It’s like going shopping determined to spend money. You always come home empty handed.
But whatever thinking I hope might happen I always have thoughts. These thoughts occur without me consciously thinking. Some talk of running as an “open space where thoughts come to play”. Thoughts vary across the duration of the run: thinking and conscious thought gives way first to thoughts and then to nothing.
But running thoughts are a tease. They flutter. Try catching a butterfly. Recalling them after the fact is like trying to summon a disobedient dog. With no pen to hand thinking when running is like a lucid dream. A reverie that’s hard to capture. Murakami refers to these thoughts as “clouds in the sky”
Picture a run along the banks of the Sacramento river. Men fishing. Dog walkers. Freeway bridges loom. The thunder of cars above. An 8 mile run – out and back. Running during bouts of fieldwork creates spaces for decompression and the re-composition of idle thoughts and observations. Running during research is my “post-fieldwork fieldwork”.
I’m back on the Thames Path. Running from London Bridge towards Greenwich. What feels like a straight line is a weaving along the somnolent ‘S’ of the river. Looming landmarks are ahead, then magically get re-positioned. Perspective shifts as the landscape reveals then obscures. Thoughts are revolved. Re-examined.
Running releases cognition from captivity. Thoughts become reunited and it feels like I’m re-joining a conversation I been having since California. Picking up a thread thinking I’ve extended or enhanced it and then I lose that thought. Further into the run the mind empties. The mundane moves in.
Two British film makers capitalised on the sense that running frees cognition from captivity, that running lubricates and liberates. The Runners, is a captivating probe into the minds and lives of runners they apprehended in a London park.
What is about running that make it such a liberating experience for ideas? Is it the scenery, the sense of freedom, the equilibrium struck between the physical and the mental? Research suggests running increases oxygen to the hippocampus which generates cognitive spurts. But such mechanistic thinking seems to miss more than it reveals.
Unsatisfying scientism meets mysticism. Some compare the brain function of meditating Tibetan monks and runners. Runners and monks in transcendental states share brains in a lower power state. Tiredness means the brain lets go of it obsession with executive function which leads to emptiness and new insight.
We [ethnographers, strategists, consultants – people at EPIC] work with our minds more than our bodies,. The work of sense making and pattern recognition is cognitive. When we run we have the opportunity to release ourselves from the enslavement of the deeply ingrained associations that pattern our thinking. Isn’t that at the heart of the ethnographic enterprise?
Back on the ‘lazy run one Sunday. Maybe I should be running a different route. Then again sometimes it’s the familiar route rather than the new one that inspires us. In our work we are often running over the same old ground but expected to find new ways of looking at things
But seeing the familiar with fresh eyes is what we do. Melodically moving, getting tired and loosening the associations which pattern how I think is at the heart of what running does for me. Might I suggest you too go for a run?