Why We Run, by Robin Harvie

Why We Run: A Story of Obsession

by Robin Harvie

(2012, John Murray Publishers: London, 304 pages)

This book made me wonder if there is perhaps a large intersection of ultra-runners and deep thinkers.

It would be hard to know if there were a cause and effect here… whether the number of hours spent running such distances is likely to lead to profound contemplation, or whether the discipline of ultra-running itself is likely to appeal particularly to deep-thinking types.

Or both.

Anyway, certainly in the case of Robin Harvie we find a candidate for having both feet firmly planted in that crossover.

Harvie’s is a philosophical journey as much as a physical one. His writing reveals an intellectual mindset, and is liberally scattered with references to great writers and thinkers, from Burke to Cousteau, Kant to Nietzsche, Coleridge to Eliot, and many more.

The book is loosely structured around Harvie’s attempt to run the Spartathlon, a 152-mile ultra that follows the route from Athens to Sparta presumed to have been run by Pheidippides in 490 BC. This Greek foot messenger is famously the inspiration for the modern marathon. According to ancient legend and accounts from various sources, including Herodotus’ Histories, Pheidippides was sent by the Greek generals to Sparta to appeal for help against the onslaught of a 25,000-strong army of Persians led by Darius, who aimed to conquer Athens. He is said to have run the 152-mile distance in around two days, only to find the Spartans unwilling to help. He then ran back to the generals on the battlefield at Marathon, and (the details are vague and differ between accounts) possibly back to Athens to bring news of the astonishing and decisive victory of the tiny Athenian army over the mighty Persians—at which point, after perhaps 300 miles, Pheidippides collapsed and died. Regardless of the inexactness of the story itself, Pheidippides’ legend is engraved amongst the most hallowed fables of distance running forever.

In the early 1980s, a British RAF officer, John Foden, took a team to Athens in an attempt to recreate Pheidippides’ journey to test whether it was possible. Three runners from Foden’s team, including Foden himself, completed the challenge. Since then, the Spartathlon has become an annual footrace, and it was to this mission that Harvie was drawn.

Much of the book is spent exploring underlying motivations and the currents of life. Harvie dwells on flows – his many long runs along the banks of the Thames lead to introspections on the significance of the river, and of the passage of water and time. He writes of relationships, ageing, and family. Harvie spends time rediscovering some of his family history, and searches for connections to himself.

A crucial part of Harvie’s motivation is to find a way to deal with the grief of his wife and mother-in-law following the sudden death of his father-in-law. He finds this through ultra-running, somehow rationalising that putting himself through physical pain could help to balance his wife’s emotional grief. He acknowledges the irony of this, in that it took him away from his wife for long hours at a time, in a period when she probably most needed him with her. (It doesn’t make much sense to me – but perhaps I’m not running far enough!)

Personally I enjoyed the account of the Spartathlon itself more than the more philosophical parts of the book, probably because I found this easier to relate to. The event is an epic adventure for all concerned, and a good insight into what becomes of the mind and body at their limits.

In his book title, Harvie seems to be making the bold suggestion that he will provide us with all-encompassing answers to the question: “Why do we run?” He certainly explores many reasons and motivations for his own running, and he may have drawn a detailed picture to answer “Why do I, Robin Harvie, run?” But I’m not convinced he’s answered it for me. You’ll need to read it yourself if you want to make up your own mind.


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