Writing about running involves as much of a chase as running itself. It might be for something that we’ll never fully catch, but we persist because there are rewards and lessons learned along the way and the closer we get, the more richness we add to our self.
Just as runners search for the perfect race where a million variables within and beyond our control find harmony, runners who write about running are looking to “capture the sheer joy we have in moving over the earth and in interacting with it.”
That’s how Roger Robinson describes the mission statement of his new book, When Running Made History, and of his 50 year career chronicling the sport, years in which he’s, “been fortunate for my career to have coincided with the amazing growth of running from an eccentric niche activity to a global movement.”
Mr. Robinson describes himself as “quite a lot of people in that I’ve always wanted to have a balance of activities in life.” That balance has included a career as an athlete on two national teams, an academic career as a professor of English Literature, and decades as a running journalist and commentator.
“One common thing to all that is that I’m a wordsmith,” Roger tells me from his home in New York. “I wrote and taught literature and realized that all that I did with running had to do with words and trying to express its pleasures in writing.”
Robinson says he’s “hardly dewy eyed” and knows running is still confronting issues of equity and of course honesty at the competitive level, but argues that, “You’d be hard pressed to find a mass activity with such a positive mass effect with so much collaboration on a single day.” For that reason, Robinson has always found the sport to be fertile ground for moments and stories that emanate hope and a positive vision for the world at large.
Those moments are the basis for his new book, in which the author recounts 21 moments to which he was a direct witness. While there’s some arbitrariness to the selection, for Roger, these are all special moments because, “There was something more that was happening, when running wasn’t just running.”
In accordance with the incredible scope of Robinson’s career, those moments span Emil Zatopek’s 1948 Olympic triumphs, which “gave us hope for a non military future,” to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, after which a city and a global running community stood in defiance of an intrusion of hate into a space that celebrated inclusion and positivity.
Running’s next chapter, he hopes, won’t necessarily be a massive breakthrough in popularity or a major barrier being broken, but will rather mark a return to the inclusion that may be compromised as the sport becomes more popular and mainstream.
Robinson has also been impressed over the years by what he calls the sheer scale of running and the efficiency of big city marathons, but hopes that running will continue to be firmly rooted in the communities where it happens. “We often show up in a community to run,” Robinson says, “but don’t always put back into the earth we run on.”
There have been strides in that direction with the Chicago Marathon planting trees along its course and the New York Marathon working with the city to establish more natural, accessible playgrounds. Those are small but meaningful actions that Robinson hopes will once again see running take a lead role in imagining a better world.