When I started to write Why We Run, Richard Askwith’s Feet in the Clouds was the only book on long distance running available in the UK. To learn how to run for a very long time required heading out of the front door and not turning back. To learn how to write about it required a different method of training altogether.
I read a great deal of books on exploration and moutaineering and would wake early in the morning and read of Mallory’s last expedition up Everest in the 1920s before getting on my bike to work where I would stare out of the window dreaming about what it must have been like to endure their hardship and the exhilaration of getting closer to the top of the world.
But the one book that I returned to again and again for inspiration was Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Scott’s tragic expedition to the South Pole that I returned to again and again. In The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry documented not only the horrors of the -40 degree temperatures they endured in the name of science and national pride as they raced the Norwegians to the South Pole, flag in hand, but he also dug underneath the platitudinous motivations for going in the first place to reveal the psychological make up of these men and why they really did it.
After 600 teeth-shattering pages, he concluded simply: ‘if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothin; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘Whay is the use?’
I learnt this lesson early on in my attempt to take on the Spartathlon, and got used to the expressions of incomprehension from people I told. It took me a long time to work out why I was doing it at all, and I could not explain the motivations to them fully. Now I think I can. Running is a profoundly personal experience, one that goes to the heart of being human. Running these kinds of distances is something that is available to all of us, that is the beauty of its simplicity. The story of Why We Run is an attempt to put those motivations into words. And yet, I know that at the end of the day to know, to really know, why we do it at all requires each of us to take to the open road ourselves and see what Cherry saw with his own eyes and in so doing make our own.