pedestrianism and purpose

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 hobby-horse of running as a way to explore landscapes/cityscapes. 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. My thinking on this question hinges on two closely related conceptual entry points: ‘running’ and ‘purpose’. I’ll start with the latter.

When running is being ‘theorized’, what is foregrounded in general are sport/exercise aspects, competition, training,, health benefits, community, in the world of ultra added with aspects of self-discovery. In the trail running world, the landscape is given its due, even vociferously emphasized as the underlying purpose for seeking out natural environments, but the totally obvious question why run when walking seems the better alternative if the outing is to be about the landscape basically ignored. And to the extent that trail running has become mainstream with the attendant ‘infrastructure’ of media, advice, gear and promotional activity, the above mentioned perspective is overwhelmingly dominant.

I am not arguing that all those trail runners mentioning the great outdoors as their prime motivator are lying. Obviously they love being out and they love doing it on the run. But I do doubt they are running to explore that outdoors. Exploration as the primary purpose of running would make for a trail running community looking quite different, because purpose is a ‘high’ level determinant of any activity. With the risk of totally losing you I invite you to think about the world of running as a social ‘system’, and a system’s ‘purpose’ is more important to its ‘functioning’ than its ‘structure’, the particular ‘players’ etc. . The best introduction to systems thinking that I know of is Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems (free download). She was a power house of accessible, simple non-technical explanation, able to convey complexity without unnecessary distortions or mystifying vagueness.

Let me quote an example from her book (p. 162) about the influence that adopting a different understanding of a system’s purpose has on how it functions:

Not long before Ronald Reagan came to office, a president could say “Ask not what government can do for you, ask what you can do for the government,” and no one even
laughed. Reagan said over and over, the goal is not to get the people to help the government and not to get government to help the people, but to get government off our backs. One can argue, and I would, that larger system changes and the rise of corporate power over government let him get away with that. But the thoroughness with which the public discourse in the United States and even the world has been changed since Reagan is testimony to the high leverage of articulating, meaning, repeating, standing up for, insisting upon, new system goals.

There are six lower (and thus less powerful) and only two ‘higher’ levels of leverage on a system:

  • the ‘paradigm’ level, the mindset out of which the system arises, its great big unstated assumptions, the stuff so obvious that everyone already knows and thus not questions;
  • the transcending paradigms levels, meaning one realizes paradigms are never ‘true’, they are always only ‘perspectives’

It is tempting to see running for exploration as a different paradigm altogether, that is how far outside current common sense it seems to be. But nitpicking doesn’t add much to the basic insight that one’s primary reason to run is what matters a lot more than a plenitude of of other running specifics. By way of a last illustrations of this:

  • Many runners deeply enjoy the social (community) aspect of their sport. For a niche segment however, the social is what it is all about.
  • Many have the experience of an interesting thought/solution to a problem popping up during a run. For a niche segment however, that is why they go out on a run in the first place. That is when they do their most important ‘mental work’.

For these socializers and thinkers, as it is for me when I go out to explore, running is not a sport but something different altogether. Having said that, sure, it is good for our health too, purpose isn’t exclusionary, one’s running may have a different purpose at different occasions – I can thoroughly enjoy doing intervals with team mates on a track, or participating in a race – and all runners enjoy in one way or the other the physical activity as such.

It may be a flawed analogue: good fusion music is really something different from either participating musical tradition. And if it is indeed flawed, who cares, still great music:

That much about the importance of purpose, but did I enlighten you yet on the core question at the start of this meandering intellectualizing: why explore a landscape running? What the edge is this specific way of moving about has over other possibilities of connecting with tour surroundings, making them your own? To get to full my answer I still have to bore you with some thoughts on what we mean when we talk about running.

But I can already share what distinguishes running for exploration from running for other purposes: it is running with your attention maximally focused on the environment you’re in. That external focus is fundamentally different from, and thus makes for a fundamentally different kind of running from the more or less internal focus required and desired by ‘normal’ runners.

And running for exploration tends to include walking, even stopping, for the sole reason that running past it would defy the purpose. 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, enjoy some street-life/people-watching when replenishing liquid and sustenance, and engage in conversations it all feels like a seamless immersion into the cityscape. Were I to insert some fast intervals into it, making for a dual purpose exploration-training run they would definitely feel like taking a time-out from my exploration. Their focus would just have nothing much to do with the city (other than the obvious not getting myself into any kind of physical or social trouble). So sipping a coffee and watch the world go by can feel like an integral part of exploring, while some real running may be alien to it. That’s running for exploration for you.

On to the understanding of running. Does it make sense to still call what I describe above ‘running’? Well, a closer look at running understood as a sport reveals this term lumps together a diversity of pursuits that makes one wonder how all of these fit under the same umbrella term. Running middle distance on the track, running a mountain ultra, running a fell race, basically incomparable.

It becomes even more fuzzy when one starts exploring the boundaries of the concept of ‘running’. E.g. mountain running moves toward an edge with what Kilian Jornet did on mountains like Matterhorn or the Courmayeur-Chamonix traverse and then morphs into the kind of speed climbing – a different fuzzy concept – that Ueli Steck was famous for.

Similarly, much of parkour, with its emphasis on fast and most efficient movement from A to B, is clearly within the running space. But when the emphasis moves away from efficiency toward self-expression through movement (which is the underlying philosophy of the parkour spin-off freerunning) one gets to the fuzzy edge. And one crosses over to dance, and other ‘disciplines’ – all of them as fuzzy as the rest – when efficiency is not a consideration any more, as in the B-boying-inspired movements in Daniel Cloud Campos first short film The Paperboy.

the-ultimate-parkour-29-638

Then about the combination of running and walking: that definitely deserves its place under the conceptual running umbrella. When a mountain runner powerwalks a hill, when an ultra runner applies a run-walk strategy during a 24hour race, they are both running a race. But it is equally clear that there are plenty ways of walking that couldn’t or shouldn’t be labelled running. Calling the flâneur a runner would be stretching the running category, defined as it is for me, and convention, by the efficiency of movement from A to B.

When I walk during my explorations it is not a running kind of walking. 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. And, anyone thus inclined can play around with constructing a more elaborate venn diagram with dance, climbing and other disciplines added.

Before we continue, some more good fusion to reward your persistence in getting through all of that armchair analyzing:

Which leaves us with the stops: sometimes, to really commune with an environment one needs to stop, be still and take it in. Sure, when you don’t move, you’re not running, but many runs become much more enjoyable, interesting, surprising, memorable, restorative, you name it, with stops build in, moments lacking any movement. We all know that stillness allows us to be fully present. And we all know how difficult it is to actually be still. It so happens that for many some vigorous movement is really good preparation for it. No guarantees but certainly increased chances. The alternation of movement and stillness has the potential to enrich both.

Time to address the core question head-on. 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 sizable chunk of what is out there, with enough connection to feel part of it. But that connection is way more tenuous and less 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. Which is my kind of running for exploration, a fine and very feasible combination, indeed.

If you’ve made it all the way to here, you certainly deserve a little treat.

2 thoughts on “pedestrianism and purpose

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