If you’re really interested in a particular environment, be it a spectacular mountainscape, a beautiful forest, a heritage-rich inner city, you name it, enjoy being part of it, want to connect with it to the max, why would you want to run it? Seems a pretty fundamental question to my ‘project’ of promoting running as a way to explore landscapes/cityscapes.
I may experience running as a way to connect with my environment and make it a place of my own, but looking at it from the other end of this equation, running doesn’t seem the obvious modality to engrain a landscape into a person. Walking would offer itself as a more appropriate motion of choice.
The ‘research methodology’ of Teju Cole, whose approach to the city experience illuminates my thinking about city running, is to make long destination-less walks, observing the city as an alien to avoid the blinders of preconception and increase the chances of luck, or urbanating as he calls it, placing himself within the family of traditions that includes Baudelaire and Benjamin who describe and theorize the flâneur (the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city), and the dérive (an unplanned tour through an urban landscape directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings), of the situationists and psychogeographers.
Isn’t walking the prototypical way to connect to one’s environment, make it one’s own? One of the best books about walking, Geoff Nicholson‘s The lost art of walking. The history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism, certainly would suggest that, as would most contemplative books about walking.
However, when running is being ‘theorized’, what is foregrounded are the competition, its training aspects, health benefits, self-discovery potential. In the trail running world, the landscape is given its due, but it is telling that those who most vociferously emphasize the natural environment do not seem to address the specificity of running as a way of being out there. They often alternate running, climbing, walking and skiing, but don’t offer thoughts on what particular vantage point or connection each way of movement offers, at least not that I am aware of. Anyone running spectacular landscapes, be they natural or man-made, obviously likes running as an activity, but what’s the edge this specific way of moving about has over other possibilities of connecting with them, making them one’s own?
Zooming out, figuring out where the category borders are, and what is beyond them, is always a good strategy when mapping conceptual territory. I followed it in my investigation of the multidimensional space of running, exploring its overlaps with climbing, dance and walking, and concluded with labeling it pedestrianism. Revisiting my results I now realize that one of the claims I made, that it doesn’t make much sense to separate walking and running, is only partially true. Yes, separating them doesn’t make sense because power walking and running can be near equally efficient, thus walking at a speed at the upper end of the natural range for the walking gait is surely part of the pedestrianism conceptual space. But what about other kinds of walking? Calling the flâneur a runner would be stretching the pedestrianism category, defined as it is for me, and convention, by the efficiency of movement from A to B.
I get into really murky waters here. The dictionary meaning of pedestrianism is much more general than its technical ‘sports’ meaning, and although the latter is the one commonly intended when the term is currently used, the connotations of its broader self (the practice and fondness of walking), are also present. So while a running-centred understanding of pedestrianism would exclude, or at least marginalize the flâneur, another understanding of the term would decentre the runner, and foreground the walker; a state of affairs that is inherent in semantics and thus unavoidable.
(I should not digress, but cannot help myself: pedestrianism’s second dictionary meaning is the quality or state of being unimaginative or commonplace, which opens up a whole new register of overtones that I am not going to pursue here)
There is no real way out of this quagmire, so better use it for what it’s worth, and ride the different waves of meaning wherever they take us without worrying about the destination. Each dive into the conceptual space (well, I just used the label semantic, are they the same, not really, but there is this interesting overlap, and….just another example of the general point I’m trying to make) might result in new discoveries, deepening, enriching, increasing the texture, cluttering, your understanding. In terms of visualizing the conceptual space of pedestrianism, it is maybe best to think of a venn diagram, of overlapping more narrowly focused spaces, the diagram representing a conceptual space one abstraction level up. And for a starter: let’s define pedestrianism as the diagram of the overlapping spaces of walking and running.
But once one goes down this road, what is there to stop one from zooming out even further? Remember, the trigger for all of this is the fundamental question why one would want to run the city, rather than the very obvious and potentially much more sensible, and certainly much more conventional alternative of walking it. But why stop at walking? Are there no other options? Let’s further zoom out to what I by way of working title would label the conceptual space of motion. What does that bring into the picture?
Using your own two feet is but one kind of motion our tool-using species has access to. The usefulness of higher speeds over longer times/longer range in shorter time has found expression in e.g. the taming of horses, and the invention of bicycles, motorcycles, cars and planes. And thus one can look at the city as experienced by motorcycle or car, or from the birds-eye perspective of a plane. From the perspective of connecting with the environment these are undeniably modalities that offer something that is experientially inaccessible to the runner or walker.
And then, at the other end of the speed continuum, we have, the still ground of motion, of which the prototypical version is sitting some place, on a terrace or in a park, letting the world go by.
So the abstract space of motion is considerably bigger than the space of pedestrianism, and opens up perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked. But abstraction also comes with disconnecting consequences. Flying-over and any variety of moving though at ground level are (nearly?) impossible to integrate into one coherent sensory-based experience of a particular environment. And also the feel of driving through an environment is way further removed from running through it that running is from walking or taking it in while standing still or sitting.
If I go out for an urban exploration, run part of it, walk part of it, and take time to have a good look at one or more sights, buildings, scenes as well as enjoy some street-life/people-watching from a hawker centre table, it all feels like a seamless immersion into the cityscape. The weird thing is that if I were to insert sprints into it, those bits would be escape my immersion. One cannot explore the outer world when focused inward. Is it only me or do you recognize this: for an urban run with a cityscape exploration objective, sipping a coffee and watch the world go by can feel like an integral part of what it takes to fulfill my objective; if I’ve build in speed intervals, which assumes that my run had an additional objective, training, that coffee feels like a time-out, while the intervals feel like taking a time-out from my exploration.
What does that imply? That purpose is a really important lens for what is experienced as being part of a ‘run’.
This reminds me of system thinking which says that the goal of a system (its purpose or function) is nearly its most important determinant (more important than the players within it, the structure, etc. etc.). Change the goal, nearly everything is going to be affected. Even more fundamental is what system thinkers would label paradigms, the basic beliefs underlying goals and everything else. A relevant paradigm would be the broader mindset which underlies running for sport/exercise/health within which it is difficult to see people-watching as an integral part of running, but has no trouble absorbing an instrument of torture.
I’ve been going on for quite a while now and still haven’t addressed the title question head-on. Shame on me. But all was not for nothing. I believe that becoming aware of the added value of stillness points toward an answer to the question ‘why run a landscape’. Walking a landscape is the middle way. The middle way is great. It avoids the extremes and thus their limitations. It is the way water would flow were it to make the decision for those thinking like ecologists. It is the optimal solution for those thinking like engineers. Only being motionless allows immersing oneself totally into what is out there right here now. But that here and now is only a small fragment of a much bigger organism. Only running allows one to take in a seizable chunk of what is out there, with enough connection to feel part of it. But that connection is way more tenuous and and all-inclusive than its motionless version. The walking middle way gets close to the strengths and largely avoids the limitations.
But why be satisfied with good enough? Walk the middle way, run the vastness and diversity of the landscape, and disappear totally into this scene here and now. Fine and very feasible combination.
It is instructive to watch Salomon promo of city running. Let’s ignore the drone visuals. Or maybe not, because many places have perfectly accessible viewpoints that would allow you to add a ‘drone’ perspective to your exploration experience. Now to the rest, how much of the imagery suggests a walking or motionless perspective? In other words, you want the kinda Barcelona suggested by this video? Walk the middle way, run the vastness….