Karin S. Lindelöf
Running, by sociologist and runner Lindsey A. Freeman, is a beautiful little book, with pink cover and illustrations by Hazel Myer, in the series Practices from Duke University Press, that also embraces titles such as Fly-Fishing and Juggling. Although repeatedly described as a handbook, it is really not. Rather, the book is a sociological and autobiographical queer feminist text on running and writing, queerness, and love. It is essay-like in its theoretical composition, drawing on social and cultural theory, firmly anchored in feminist, queer and anti-racist tradition, but its style is more of a scholarly and well-read collection of memories and reflections than a coherent essay.
At first, I thought of it as an autoethnographic endeavor, where the author “seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (Ellis et al 2011). But that is not really the case. Instead, Running is a personal account of the life as a queer runner and academic writer in the United States of America – although stuffed with scholarly references, as well as references to popular culture, sport (especially running, but not only), and sometimes political activism, that unfolds new ways of understanding both running and writing.
She describes her early childhood, growing up in a family of runners, her disciplined and self-monitored training at the age of five, her experiences of running, racing, and loving, through adolescence, young adulthood and grown up life.
In 23 short – or even shorter – chapters, with headlines such as “A Note on ‘Just Do It’”, “On Hitting the Wall and Writer’s Block”, and “Loops–Practice–Repetition–Ritual”, Freeman tells the story of her running life: with passion, pleasure, pain, injury, recovery, runner’s high, and total disaster. She describes her early childhood, growing up in a family of runners, her disciplined and self-monitored training at the age of five, her experiences of running, racing, and loving, through adolescence, young adulthood and grown up life. She refers to the Swedish interval training term “fartlek” (speed play), coined in the 1940s, and another type of interval training called “Virén sprints”, after the Finnish 1970s runner Lasse Virén. I, myself being Swedish and partly Finnish, read these sections with a smile on my face, somehow connecting to the author across the Atlantic, in a similar manner that Freeman describes how the practice of running itself connects runners across time, space, class, race and gender.
She writes about when she was literally run over by a car while training for the Boston Marathon, about the visible segregation of the running team at college: sprinters black, longer-distance runners white, about friendship and companionship among runners, and about runners – especially those racialized or identified as female or queer – being harassed by strangers when training alone. She also writes about the possibility of “leaving it all” on the track, and, while racing, be allowed to do and to be what in most other situations is regarded as “too much”, as well as of the hallucinations that can emerge during long slow distance runs. This is the true practice and lived experience of running.
Freeman’s text resembles many other autobiographical inspiration books on endurance and extreme sports that I have come across in my own research: “I did this, this was my experience, you can also do this or experience this”. The way that she compares running with other aspects of life, such as writing, is also recognized from such literature: for example, how the “ultra-mindset” of an endurance athlete can be a general asset in life (see Macy and Hanc 2015). However, written by a scholar of sociology, Running has a distinct theoretical approach that singles it out from other books in that genre. Freeman wants to dig analytically into the beauty and poetics of practice, wants to find “a resonant theory of running” (p. 8), and she does this elegantly with the help of writers such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Sara Ahmed, among others. In her text, running, writing, living and loving are intertwined. Practice is at the core of all this, and through repetition of practice we can connect with the world and with other people. The book ends with the following statement, summing up the essence of Freeman’s thinking:
We reproduce ourselves each day through the repetitive things we do, and even though they are often similar, each day, each run, and each new sentence written has the potential to shift things – a person, a thought, an afternoon – if only slightly. Over time these shifts are part of what forms a self, a body, and a body of work. While bodies and bodies of work are wonderful things, often how we appear to the world and how worlds come to meet us, this handbook is ultimately about the beauty of practice, the often unseen and overlooked actions of trying to do something well because you love it, and because by doing so you can touch and be touched by others who love it too. (p. 133)
As a researcher in gender, culture and recreational sports, as well as someone who enjoys an occasional run, I find Running truly inspirational, both in content, style and form. It is intelligent, interesting, and well-written. The small format also makes it the perfect companion for travelling or commuting. A good read altogether. I strongly recommend it.
Copyright © Karin S. Lindelöf 2024