I was one of those kids that really liked school. I wouldn’t go so far to say they were the best years of my life and all that, but I was blessed with wonderful teachers and interesting subjects and I just loved the formal process of learning. It was obvious that once, I’d finished school I’d want to continue with studies, so I headed off to university to carry on where A levels left off.
I chose Geography because it was diverse and I didn’t like being pinned to a particular genre of study. The course was fundamentally split between human geography – the study of people and physical geography – the study of ecosystems. Although the physical geography was interesting I was compelled by the human element.
Of course one of the obvious attractions of Geography was the faculties predilection for field trips. When it came to our field trips, the humans and physicals separated. Physicals headed to Mallorca to study sand ecosystems and we headed to the Netherlands to study integrated transport in an urban environment. It sounds like we got the raw deal (and certainly there was a LOT of gloating when Mallorca was mentioned as a destination) but I think that actually, the Netherlands turned out to be a result. We got to explore Utrecht, Rotterdam and Amsterdam and all of the tourist attractions available there and play on bicycles while we explored the cities. We had a wonderful time with lots of giggles and learned a lot.
One of the stand out lessons was regarding the use of space and humans interaction with place. We were sent out to a suburb of Utrecht and urged to take a seat on a bench in a local park. While there, for a minimum of 10 minutes we were to use all of our sense to map the surrounding environment and its ways of being used.
We mapped out the landscape through political influence, urban development and redevelopment, housing policy, transport infrastructure and most importantly the relationship local people had with the space. It opened up my eyes to the information available if we just took the time to stop and look, really look.
Since that time I have been intrigued with people and our sense of place. Of what place means to us, our relationship with it, how it identifies us, how it pulls our memories and tugs at our emotions. Why, when we go to the place where we grew up with our loved one for the first time we insist on the memory tour entitled ‘this is where…’.
In the last few years I have done most of my exploring on foot. Although I like to vary my routes, invariably I would run the same few over again. Sometimes clockwise, sometimes anticlockwise to vary the view (and goodness it’s amazing how the scenery and topography can change just by running a route in reverse). I liked to think of the lines being drawn on a map, over and over again. As I got more familiar with the landscape, I started to map a memory trail.
I was amazed at how this memory trail would then make me feel each time I ran it. The time I stopped for a ‘stretch’ at the top of the hill that then became an ingrained habit. The trails that would make me feel safe, the one that felt like the woods were haunted and ever since I would try to avoid – or at the very least pick up my pace. The corner where I had a post split conversation with my ex that would forever induce a feeling of sadness.
The phenomenon can be utilised for a positive benefit. Running is as much a mental sport as physical. Over the last ten years or so, I guided an annual run for London Marathon entrants running for the Children’s Trust in Tadworth. Usually held a week or two before the event proper, the aim was to recreate a positive memory trail in the last few miles of the race, traditionally when it the starts to get really tough.
London is undoubtedly one of the most iconic marathon in the world. It follows an interesting course but invariably all of its great landmarks are encountered in the last few miles of the run, when the pain and fatigue had accumulated enough to slump shoulders and cast eyes downwards to the road ahead. The plan here then was to enjoy the landmarks while fresh and hopefully help runners feel a little better on race day.
We would start from London Bridge, cross the river at Tower Bridge and pick up the route at around 22 miles. We ran the route slowly with frequent stops for a chat, the odd anecdote and to visualise feeling strong and in control at these points. Occasionally I would ask them to attach a song (that they loved and never failed to uplift them) to a landmark they would pass en route, in the hopes it would reawaken that feeling as they passed on race day.
Visualisation is an efficient way to build up a link with your route and is a very strong (and under-utilised tool) tool to pop in your running kitbag when you are training for a big event. However, it does not substitute mapping out the environment yourself by actually being there. I have run London six times in the last fifteen years and each run builds upon the memories left by the previous attempt. Creating subtly different layers to make it multi-dimensional experience. It helps that despite the route being the same, no marathon experience is ever the same and so the trail left behind adds texture in a subtle yet tangible way.
As long as the pathway markers left behind are positive rather than that of a breadcrumb trail left by Hansel and Gretel, this mapping can also make each run easier. Although, even if you did have a bad experience, as long as we are willing to question and learn from the experience it can be a valuable lesson for next time. Jessie Zapotechne in a recent online edition of Huck Magazine explains this phenomenon rather well:
‘There’s a topographical awareness that happens when you run distance through the city. Running not only creates a deep engagement with a sense of place, but also with ones self’.
Zapotechne is talking about her experiences of running in New York but this could just as well be applied to London or even a rural area if that’s where you run regularly.
For example, I have also run Beachy Head marathon six times and like London, each time has been very different. Even if the topography here remains the same, the weather invariably makes it a different experience each time. Nevertheless, I know the route well enough now to be able to recreate it in my memory.
The map of this route is enriched with the ghosts of the people I have run or had conversations with. The feeling of the changing surface under my feet, the shoes I have run in, the views (or in the case of the heavy fog year) the smells of the earth around me. Memories of being too hot, or freezing cold.
All of these sensations accompanied by an internal dialogue plotting the experiences of my life at the time of each of the runs and particularly how my life was changing across them. Beachy Head marathon inexorably links my old life and new. In that time of turmoil each run helped to slough off the mental health illness that threatened to overwhelm me, generating the strength to keep going. The challenge of this topography was reflected in the struggle of shedding of the person I had become. Being outdoors in this tough environment with time to think and feel, like a phoenix reborn, I came alive again.
When I hear people talk about the benefits of running, my thoughts nearly always turn to physical fitness. To an improved cardio vascular system, lower risk of co-morbidities like diabetes, obesity, or maybe better body image. But we’re missing a trick. Running, and particularly our relationship with where we run can create a place in which we can lose ourselves, and in which we can find ourselves again.