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The Art of Running: Learning to Run Like a Greek

I spend a lot of time thinking about running and, in particular, reflecting on how much this sport can teach us about ourselves and how we live our lives outside the precious few hours we spend actively running each week. It sometimes feels like a lonely train of thought. Many people run, but I think running often remains a discrete activity in someone’s day, rather than something that expands and frames their view of the world. 


Luckily, for readers and runners everywhere, Andrea Marcolongo's new book takes on an expansive and philosophical view of running. Her book, The Art of Running: Learning to Run like a Greek, came out last month. Reading it felt like seeing a mirror of many of my own thoughts and feelings, and an exploration of ideas I hadn’t yet even considered. Marcolongo frames the book around the journey to run her first marathon, following the route of the original marathon (Marathon to Athens, Greece). This loose frame provides space for reflections on the reasons why we run, certain chapters in the history of running, what running can teach you, and more. 


The cover of Andrea Marcolongo's book The Art of Running

Marcolongo says that running allows her to feel alive, an important counterbalance to her “terror of aging.” At 35, I’ve only just started to have some sense of what aging really means for me and my closest loved ones; I don’t think the terror of aging is really upon me. I do, however, deeply connect with the author when she notes that “after a run…we are, if not better, at least freer versions of ourselves” and that running provides a “biological and emotional sense of wholeness.” My usual glib response to the question of why I love running is that it makes me feel human - similar to Marcolongo’s response. Running makes me aware of each component in my body and of the effort I put in both physically and mentally. It’s an amazing thing to go through a training block and feel fitness building until I feel like I could really fly. It’s equally humbling to take a break and return to running with the need to rebuild, struggling through runs that would have been a breeze just a few weeks prior. I like this cyclical nature of the sport, how we can rise from the ashes and create something new each training block. It’s not so different from how I view aging and life - we each get a training block to do our best with until it meets its natural end. 


Given this view, I do sometimes get bogged down trying to understand if I’m truly using my “training block” wisely, spending my time on the important things rather than the little things. When I entered “grown up” life in my early 20’s, I would sometimes feel a sense of panic at how much time in the week was dedicated to work, rather than say friends and family. Close to 15 years later, I’ve learned that the sense of freedom Marcolongo notices after finishing a run is one of the key things that allows me to take on a full day of professional and personal obligations without feeling overwhelmed by them. To start the day by stepping “outside the bounds of civilization” gives me the openness and clarity needed to take on responsibilities that only seem to grow each year (maybe this is my own version of the “terror of aging”). Or, to use Marcolongo’s more elegant summary: “Running is the best method for making peace with life that I’ve ever known.”


Many modern runners approach the sport by setting time or distance goals and working towards them, so it makes sense that Marcolongo reflects on motivation, expectations, and progress. “One of the great lessons that running has taught me is to stop laboring under the illusion that I ought to correct myself or others as if personal progress were constant.” This sentiment will feel only too real to the runner working her way back from injury or to the new parent who can’t build consistency due to her kiddo waking up throughout the night for weeks on end. This quote, which follows a discussion of super shoes and running technology, appears to largely reference progress defined by time and personal records. However, there are many ways to progress in running beyond just time or distance. Marcolongo offers up at least two more: physical self awareness (“Running has awarded me an accelerated degree in bodily intuition, thorough knowledge of all my vital functions - physical and physic - and how they vary from context to context.”) and uninterrupted time for reflection (“Running is the most contemplative activity there is. Once upon a time people considered it a mystical form of pilgrimage.” ). Finally, when it comes to expectations and belief, “we have to learn how to place that crumb of faith in ourselves.” In my own experience running I’ve felt the painful difference between going into a race with doubts versus going in with supreme self-confidence. The latter doesn’t mean you might not blow up spectacularly, but you didn’t cut yourself off at the knees before the race even started. It also points to the power of intrinsic goals over extrinsic ones. 


There are two additional points of interest for me in Marcolongo’s book. First, she notes the lack of women writers in the running space - something which is changing but, I would venture to say, only in the last year or two. Unfortunately and for too long, it was true that “there are very few books that talk about running or in which the main character moves her legs when she’s not in a hurry. And of these almost all are written by men.” I’ve written about a few excellent books on running by women, including Sabrina Little’s The Examined Run and memoirs by Deena, Des, Lauren, and Kara, but I do think that women writers in this space have tended towards autobiography, rather than more sweeping historical or technical scopes. Fingers crossed for this to continue changing!


Second, as we see in the title, Marcolongo’s book isn’t just about her relationship to running, but her relationship to running via ancient Greek history and language. As someone who has also invested a lot of time and energy throughout her life learning the history and language of another land (France), this component of the book really connected me to the work. As she explains how athletics fit into the lives of ancient Greeks, breaks down the etymology of words to dive deeper into their meaning, or explains how her long emotional connection to ancient Greek brings additional meaning to her marathon journey, Marcolongo brings the two driving interests in her life together in a unique and insightful way. I’ve not made the same connection between my love of French and my love of running, but this book has inspired me to look for the intersection between the two.


The Art of Running was a fantastic read and I can’t recommend it highly enough for all readers, but especially for those who believe that  “running has taught me so many things that I often wonder what I knew about myself before I picked it up.”

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