Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human by Vybarr Cregan-Reid (Ebury Press, 2016)

Introduced by Oliver Balch

The 1980s children’s television show Why Don’t You? had one of the most stunningly honest slogans in television history. Turn off your TV sets, viewers were told, and ‘do something less boring instead’. The same injunction could apply to books about running. Running is something you should be out there doing, not something you sit in a chair reading about.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid is far too smart a writer to let this pass him by. He’s far too honest as well. From the off, we learn that he’s not an especially good runner, that he struggles with his weight and that he occasionally bunks off work. He’s much like the majority of us, in other words. At one stage, he even concedes that analysing running is to miss the real point of it. To write about it is to turn an opportunity to escape into an object of work: it is to transform the beatific ‘nothinks’ emptiness of running into something that demands thinking.


The central thesis of Footnotes is that when we run we are fully human. This isn’t a book about technique or speed or even exercise. At its heart, it’s about the transformational potential of running: how something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile can release our true selves and take us to what Virginia Woolf called those fleeting ‘moments of being’.

Cregan-Reid certainly isn’t the first running enthusiast to make the case for the physiological and psychological benefits of getting out into nature and working up a sweat. Yet few before have done it so artfully or completely. Drawing on the worlds of literature and science in tandem, he introduces new ways of seeing old writers – Oscar Wilde’s terror of the treadmill, for instance, or the ‘haptic intelligence’ of Thomas Hardy – and brings fringe fields of research into the light (forest bathing: any guesses?).

Cregan-Reid’s pen does much of the running for us. It, like him, rarely sits still. One minute he is flitting along the boulevard du Montparnasse, the next he’s staring up at the ‘sheer heedlessness’ of the Cumbrian mountains. More often than not, he takes a fellow writer in tow. These delightful, bare-footed vignettes (for the author is a committed ‘terra-runner’) not only reveal Cregan-Reid’s passion for his subject, but also his deftness as a nature writer. He captures the visceral experience of bare feet ‘smooching the concrete’. In general, he’s less one for views than for what’s passing underfoot: chalky cobbles protrude ‘like femoral heads’.

Just sometimes, Cregan-Reid strays into the kind of zealotry that he is quick to deride in others. Does all of what makes us human really come to us from movement? Do runners really give back to the natural world in the same way that they take from it? My own experience of running, positive though it is, leaves me a little cautious. Yet do I know what he means when he talks of looking at pictures of a landscape and instinctively imagining running though it? Of course. Do I also baulk at running machines? Naturally.

One of the charms of Footnotes is Cregan-Reid’s wit. As with any book on running, it’s impossible to escape at least some talk of medial ankle rolling or underpronation. A dash of humour helps ride out these obligatory passages. At one point, he describes watching a slow-motion replay of his running style: ‘I had managed to create the effect of a drunken tripod … it was horrific.’ Very occasionally his love of witty wordplay – ‘green with empathy’, ‘psycho-jography’, ‘50 shades of Jude’ – gets the better of him.

Footnotes puts forward an impassioned and energetic case for the mechanics behind the joy of running. It might even see you getting out of your chair and doing something more interesting instead.

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This review first appeared in the Literary Review.

Tomorrow at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend:



Sunday 27 November 2016, 12.30pmVenue: ST MARY’S CHURCH, Hay-on-Wye

Click here to buy tickets

Running is more than a sport; it’s more than just exercise, and it can tell us more about the way we live now than you could possibly imagine. Running is the poetry of motion. It can make us more intelligent, more empathetic, and is more effective at dealing with symptoms of anxiety and depression than any drug available in the world. Cregan-Reid is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Kent. Balch is author of Under the Tump and a keen runner.



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