Book Review- Footnotes How Running Makes Us Human by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

I have to start out by saying this book is one of the most unique books on running I’ve ever read. Unique isn’t necessarily bad, just different. Cregan-Reid is a literature professor and runner who decided to write a book about biomechanics, psychology, and the environment in the context of running and literature. I’m quite sure I’ve never read another book that combined all of those things together before.

The book is divided into four parts:  sensing, reasoning, earthing, and roaming. I’ll discuss some of the things that stood out to me from each part. In the first part, Sensing, the author describes how he became a runner and his experiences with the early stages of running. He spends a great deal of time discussing running shoes and the history of running shoes. He also goes into detail about barefoot running and how he became to be a firm believer of barefoot running.

There is also a large section of part one of the book about Cregan-Reid’s visit to Boston to meet with Dr. Irene Davis at the Spaulding National Running Center. The author has an assessment of his running biomechanics and there is a lengthy part on ‘natural running’ and how shoes effect that. One quote that stood out to me from part one of the book is, “Running changes who you are and how you see, feel, and sense the outside world- how can you still be you if you run?” I like this quote a lot and think it sums up how much running changes a person.

Part two of the book, Reasoning, like the other parts of the book is filled with literary references and detailed personal runs by the author. One quote from this section I liked is “Put simply, running makes you smarter,” and he continues, “If performed in a softly fascinating (more on this later) and natural environment, running can make you better at your job, more independent, a more attentive friend or partner, care more for the environment, enhance your concentration levels, improve exam reports, and feel more attractive to whoever it is you want to attract.” Cregan-Reid backs up these claims with numerous references, which I’m not going to get into here but it is a weighty quote!

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Also included in part two is a discussion on “runner’s high,” with scientific studies and the author’s personal experiences with it. The author even has specific requirements for runner’s high:  the run will be longer than 40 minutes and the run takes place in a green space, plus some others mentioned in the book. Cregan-Reid also discusses a meeting he had with environmental psychologists from the University of Michigan, Dr. Avrik Basu and Dr. Jason Duvall. They discuss how distractions negatively effect our attention spans, among other things. Dr. Duvall has a study on the effect of ‘awareness plans’ on outdoor exercise. Basically, the groups that were aware of their senses had significant improvements in their well-being.

Cregan-Reid also discusses how running should be neither work nor exercise but more like play. He traces the history of exercise back to the 18th century and notes author Jane Austen’s references to exercise. By the 19th century, exercise is more commonly seen in what the author calls “leisured classes” of society. Poor people were working in the fields and doing other types of manual labor so they had no time nor need for exercise on top of this. Finally, the author says, “Running, like literature, like art, helps you to remember and re-experience some of the impossible strangeness of what it means to be who and what we are, of what it means to be human.”

Part three of the book, Earthing, discusses humans need to connect physically with the earth for our well-being. There are parts where the author discusses running in the fir and redwood forests of California. From this, he segues into a discussion on a review paper from 2010 that concluded forest environments lowered blood pressure and pulse rate among other things compared to city environments. Other studies have concluded that forest time “improved nocturnal sleep conditions for those with sleep complaints.”

Also in part three is a discussion on the treadmill as a torture device beginning in the 18th century. William Cubitt invented the treadwheel or ‘Discipline Mill,’ which soon became known as the treadmill. Beginning in 1818, prisoners of ‘Her Majesty’ who had committed more serious crimes were sentenced to hard labor, including put to work on the treadwheel. Oscar Wilde is one of the most famous victims, who spent as much as six hours a day on the treadmill in prison and was basically physically broken because of this. One interesting claim by the author is that he says he remembers nearly every outdoors run he has done in the last 12 months, but only a couple out of a hundred runs on the treadmill.

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Part four, Roaming, is basically about how exploring new places by running can be exciting and wonderful or it can be frustrating and disheartening. Cregan-Reid of course gives personal examples of this in this section, along with other sections of the book. There is also a discussion on wildness, freedom, and trespassing. Possibly the most famous author on this subject is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote Walden. The author visits the replica of Thoreau’s hut at Walden Pond but is disappointed to find the area fenced off in places and finds the area not so natural but rather touristy.

The final chapter is about the author’s experience running the London Marathon. This was the author’s first race since school, so there were no 5k’s or other distances leading up to this marathon. Cregan-Reid, who is an asthmatic, applied for a charity spot, was accepted, and began raising money for Asthma UK. Four days before the race, Cregan-Reid’s asthma worsened after he caught a cold. Concerned about running a marathon when he was ill, he told everyone he wasn’t able to run. When he went to formally withdraw from the race one day prior to the event, he had missed the deadline that would have allowed him to run it the following year.

The morning of the 2012 London Marathon, Cregan-Reid awoke before 6:00 and debated whether or not to run the race. He decided to wear his heart-rate monitor and run so slowly that his heart rate wouldn’t exceed 130. He walked the mile from his apartment to the race start with his partner. The author made his way to the back of the 35,000 people at the race start, with the agreement that he would check in with his partner along the course to make sure he was OK. Ultimately, he finished the race and says that “at mile 26.2 I find that, almost by accident, I have run a marathon.”

There are several references to the author running in cities around the world, including the places I’ve already mentioned, as well as Venice, Paris, the Cotswolds, California, and Boston. Being a runner who loves to travel, I found these sections interesting, as I too love to explore new cities by running. Finally, the author states that running has made him more “self-reliant, resilient, and free.” I would concur with this statement about myself personally.

While this book may not be for everyone, especially if you’re put off by the many literary references, I found it refreshingly different and enjoyed it. At 293 pages, it’s not what I’d call a “quick read,” but it’s not meant to be. If you enjoy running and would like to read a book about the history of running, biomechanics, and psychology involved in running, written in a unique way, I recommend checking this book out.

You can find this book at your local library or on Amazon here.

How many of you have “accidentally” run a marathon? Do you enjoy reading books about running that aren’t full of advice but more about the history of running and other aspects of running like psychological effects?

Happy running!