“Green with Empathy”: A Review

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Diane McManus
Adjunct faculty, English, Community College of Philadelphia


Vybarr Cregan-Reid
Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human
334 pages, hardcover.
London: Ebury Press 2016
ISBN 978-0-091-96019-3

Vybarr Cregan-Reid explores his experience as a runner, intertwining it with both the physical landscapes he traverses as a runner and the interior landscapes he encounters as a literary scholar and researcher. His book takes in personal story, scientific studies, and literary references, as he seeks to understand how runners change and are changed by the world they inhabit—and how vital it is for body and psyche to live in green spaces, which free us from artificial measurements of our value as people.

Early in the process, he is set free from anxieties and a relationship. Running transforms his body, but also his mind; however, it is not without its pitfalls. Beset by injuries, he discovers barefoot running, and his first experience—both joyful and painful—piqued his curiosity, led to research on the effect of shoes, and convinced him, for the most part, to abandon his shoes, although not entirely. We are treated to a history of shoes and the changing biomechanics—but also to a literary history. The footprint in Robinson Crusoe, the heath dwellers of Hardy’s Return of the Native who, like runners “can osmotically absorb information from the ground” (31).

Most striking for me was his account of Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley’s documentary about running in a section titled “The World at Our Feet: How the Places We Run Change Us, and How We Change Them. ”Cregan-Reid emphasizes the importance of time in green spaces outdoors, away from computers and screens. While running indoors might have physiological benefits, “running regularly in natural surroundings,” as he playfully puts it, “may make you green with empathy” (184). He cites a review showing that “’participants immersed in natural environments reported higher valuing of intrinsic aspirations, whereas those immersed in non-natural environments reported increased valuing of extrinsic aspirations and no change of intrinsic aspirations’” (186). He further defines intrinsic aspirations as “the desire for growth, happiness or connectedness,” while extrinsic aspirations center around “fame, money, respect” (186).

Runners can lose sight of the enjoyment of their sport if they become too focused on extrinsic motivation, as Cregan-Reid witnessed in a documentary about runners who were interviewed while running and who would “open up and confess to some unbelievably frank truths about their lives” (186). For example, a runner in his sixties expresses disappointment in his times, even though to Cregan-Reid he was “beautiful,” “with long white hair streaming behind him as he jogged in the sunshine. He was rocketing along. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone of his age going close to such a pace” (186). The man reported feeling “terrible” about his performance. Yet Cregan-Reid “wanted to shout at the screen and tell him how fantastic he was. What he was doing was beautiful, and that was something that the filmmakers could obviously see too” (186). “Extrinsic motivation in runners,” says Cregan-Reid, “can chase away the very enjoyment and fulfillment that running is supposed to provide” (186).

His project, then, is to bring runners into the spaces, mental and physical, that he inhabits while illustrating both through scientific studies and through literature and art, how these spaces shape and are shaped by human footprints.

And while his focus is on running, he is right to say that “this is not just a book about running, and it is not only for runners” (xiv), although his personal journey takes place on the run, through fields, woods, suburban developments, school playgrounds, and forbidden territory laced with No Trespassing signs. And it is through running that he discovers how he and other runners interact with, are changed by, and change the environment. “I wanted,” he observes, “to find out why it is that we seek out views, or natural environments, or try to get away from our screens and give in to the delicate seduction of the mossy path—a seduction that I could never quite escape. Footnotes recounts these adventures and stories, and the discoveries that I made out on my runs; it also describes where these runs took me, what running can teach us, and how we can transform ourselves through it” (xvii).

While running indoors might have physiological benefits, “running regularly in natural surroundings,” as he playfully puts it, “may make you green with empathy.”

I think of the sixty-ish runner cited in the book and of my experience not only as a runner but as an open water swimmer, literally “immersed” in nature, unshod and free. Besides finding integrity and wholeness in the natural world, we also inhabit one which “errs on the side of the extrinsic, encouraging us to care about our hair, skin, weight, promotion, or how many Twitter followers we have” (186). We learn too quickly how pervasive these judgments can be.

Running—even running barefoot—isn’t a cure-all and it has its shadow side. As the technology, shoes, and clothing become increasingly sophisticated and expensive, the sport also becomes less accessible to those with low incomes:

If you live in those places where people don’t run, and you are poor, what are you going to do? Take a train to a place where you can run? But you’re poor. Join a gym? But you’re poor. Buy some mace? But you’re poor. Buy a magazine to learn about how and where to run? But you’re poor. Instead, you could spend less than half the cover price on a soda and a bag of doughnuts (290).

He counters, however, that “Running is too important for our bodies and minds, for our sense of identity and self-worth, for our health and wellbeing, and for the environment to be the preserve of a select few” (291). We can, he argues, dispense with many of the high-tech gadgetry—GPS watches, expensive shoes, or fitness monitoring software. Instead, “we are already carrying the technologies we need with us, it’s just that the batteries may need a little recharge” (291).

While surrendering these devices may reduce the expenses runners incur, those with limited incomes may still need support in finding natural places to run. It would be worth mentioning programs that assist in that process, such as Back on My Feet, a running program for homeless people, or youth-oriented programs such as Students Run Philly Style, Students Run LA, Girls on the Run, and Kidsmarathon, all of which encourage children and teens to begin running.

Although “not a luddite,” Cregan-Reid has become increasingly wary of technology. “My GPS watch has been sat in a drawer for months” (291) because “I want to drift when I run, not feel chased by the superego of wearable tech. I don’t want to know that I’ve lost my satellite signal, and that this part of the run in the woods isn’t being counted. I don’t want my watch to tell me that its battery is getting low, or that I’m in the wrong heart-rate training zone. If freedom is anything, it is surely feeling untethered” (291).

Underlying the motion of running is the fact of movement, fluidity, and essentially freedom, a chance to break out of boxes (physical and psychological) that confine us and our thoughts and find the open spaces that invite us out to play.

It’s a door, perhaps, to a place where we can find a “something else” not connected to the artificial environments of office or home, but in wild places (293). There is, he writes, “a busy chemical and hormonal conversation going on out there in the wild. The scents of life we pick up as we glide by are part of a complex communication system between all manner of plants and animals that we can briefly listen in on, if we are prepared to go out on a limb to find them” (293). And perhaps find ourselves in the process

Copyright © Diane McManus 2017

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