The Ghost in the Machine: What Running Taught Me About Body and Mind

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I started running as a pastime when I was sixteen. The inspiration came one day at school as we underwent the dreaded annual cross-country race. Of sixty or so boys in the year, at least a dozen found a way of absenting themselves. A few of the more athletic types disappeared into the distance while the rest of us plodded round slowly. Some part walked, part ran, and eventually we got to the end. I was passed on the home strait by one of the more rotund boys in our year and as I crossed the line, I was handed a ticket marked “43″. Somehow, in spite having been sports mad my entire life, I was one of the back markers.

As we entered the fifth form, we were able to choose from a more diverse set of activities for our winter games option. In addition to the usual football and hockey (I was a footballer), we could choose rugby and even golf. With a somewhat masochistic view towards self-improvement, I plumped for a strange option which involved spending 30 minutes doing fitness training with the rugby team, then going on a cross-country run for 40 minutes or so while they played rugby, then rejoining them in the swimming pool to warm down for 30 mins. It was not a popular option. Across three school years, only five of us chose it.

I was starting to find though that running was giving me a real kick. Although it was not exactly fun – I have always found it physically demanding – I started to discover that the sense of achievement and general well-being I derived afterwards, made the whole thing very rewarding. I had taken to running at home during the summer months as well. It was a flat route of around 3.5 miles, and during the school holidays, I would try to get out every three or four days based on how I was feeling. I started to patiently record my times, and found the race against my personal best was motivation to keep me pushing.

I have never been a graceful or athletic runner. Pillar-box mouthed, I plod the streets, a bag of bones. Yet, it was during this time I first started to make the connection between the body and the mind. I suppose even back then, I felt mentally quite fragile. I was notoriously temperamental at home, and while the outside world perceived me as relaxed and confident, inside I was constantly fighting a battle between idealism and the sense of wanting to live a positive life that lived up to my goals, values and ambitions versus feeling low and believing I was lazy and ineffectual.

Running took me to a different place. I never quite understood how other people sometimes said they found it boring, since for me the physical struggle was always tough going, but psychologically it seemed to take me to a place where my thoughts felt refined and pure and I felt almost philosophical, as I found my mind wandering to and fro across the materials of existence. I’ve never since quite managed to recapture that feeling of being an eighteen year old, and the sense of awe and optimism that comes with it.

In my twenties and thirties, more often than not, I was living a physically unhealthy life, and my state of mind was often bumping against the floor. I had taken a number of knocks along life’s path, and struggled to find my way through daily existence. Yet occasionally, running would resurface. I went to Chile with a youth development charity when I was twenty-five and spent what little free time we had running with one of our medical staff. I started working in IT, and found a colleague prepared to come running with me at lunchtimes. Then in 2012, I signed up with Oxfam to run the London Marathon.

That was something else altogether. Having previously only every covered less than 5 miles in one outing, to start notching up little milestones during training was incredible. My preparation was severely hampered after a ten mile run one freezing morning in January when I pulled my groin, and by the time the race came round I was only just ramping up my distances again, while others were tapering down. On the day itself, I got to half distance feeling strong, but the last 11 miles was brutal. I couldn’t keep running all the way, and eventually limped home in 5h 51m 27s. Yet all the same, I felt hugely proud. I still have the time etched on a magnet on my fridge and the £2,799 I raised for the charity still sits proudly on my CV.

The key thing I learned while running though, is a philosophy I sometime summarise as “Where the body goes, the mind follows.”

Sometimes, when you are running, the demons in your mind are whispering your own frailties in your ear. You feel as if you are not trying hard enough, yet you feel too mentally weak to push harder. Sometimes you feel the opposite, and the challenge is to rein it in. In fact, often it comes before the run itself. There are days when you can feel a sense of excitement and anticipation for a run. Other days, you change into your kit with a heavy heart like a man digging his own grave. But the point is this:

The mind is like a kite. While it soars and moves across currents, darting this way and that, it seems independent and we credit it with its own animus, the ghost in the machine that is capable of commanding our flesh. Yet I feel it is the opposite. For me, it is the unwitting slave of the body. Our bodies have no independent voice to communicate with, and we think of them as mute. Yet the body creates our emotions, feelings and even the broad tenor of our thoughts, which the mind simply shapes and filters according to experience and wit.

I am not always great at taking care of my physical well-being, and that is what it is, but for me at any rate, running helped me to discover that well-being starts with each sinew and only emerges palpably in the mind.

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