There is saying the same thing again in a different form,
There is saying something new in the same form,
There is saying the same thing again in the same form,
There is not much saying something new in a new form.
—3.2, Hannah Sullivan, from Three Poems
Postmodernism is responsible for the idea that boundaries are bad, and as a result it is arguably the foundation for a century of forgettable culture. Strip back the niceties of narrative and what do you have? Maybe you’ve created something exciting, but is the excitement to be discovered in the content or the blurring of formats? Most often it’s all about the structure – or lack of. Tear down the boundaries of what constitutes a particular art-form and what do you have? You have Malone talking to himself impenetrably for 150 pages. Or Tracey Emin presenting the detritus of an unmade bed in a gallery. That’s not to say Samuel Beckett or Tracey Emin are anything less than groundbreaking geniuses, but rather, they will be remembered less for the thoughts their work inspires, as for the lifestyles and philosophy that inspired their work.
As a simple consumer of culture, work that asks questions of me sticks in my consciousness longer than work I admire for its innovation. For instance, I discovered Dostoyevsky and William Burroughs around the same time. I have however only revisited one of those writers as an adult.
Dostoyevsky was writing in an era of great censorship. And yet, within the limits of what was allowed, and within the great narrative arc of what constituted a sellable novel at that time, he managed to squeeze more ideas into some chapters than most of us have in a lifetime. I remember reading The Grand Inquisitor as a teenager and it genuinely changing my perception of the world. I’m yet to discover that breakthrough feeling of discovery with postmodern literature.
Maybe it’s there, and I just haven’t unlocked it yet? Maybe I’m so tied to the idea of routine, and structure to see through the noise?
Is that a bad thing?
This is exactly the reason I started writing this essay. Since I ran the Abingdon Marathon a month ago, life has been good. I’ve enjoyed waking up at the weekends without the sense of duty that I need to squeeze in a hard 36km run alongside some approximation of parenting. And yet, I’ve missed the structure that marathon training gave my week – the spreadsheets that detailed my training plan for the coming month, the daily calorie counting to ensure I was eating well, the feeling of going to bed knowing exactly what tomorrow would bring. At the time, I couldn’t wait to move back to the chaos that is normal life for the parent of a young kid, but after a couple of weeks of relative freedom, I began to crave structure, routine, orderliness. Maybe humans need a narrative if they’re to thrive?
I started running again without any plan or reason, just running to see where my legs would take me and if they might enjoy the experience. They did but they didn’t; they could take it or leave it. They ran when they had to but they chose to repay me with unwarranted stiffness at other times. I found this awkward and distasteful, given the still-fresh memories of what fitness feels like.
Then cross country came to the rescue. My legs didn’t really want to race, but equally, my brain knew they needed something to pull them out of the funk. The first race was round two of the Start Fitness Metropolitan League in Welwyn Garden City. I took the family. Autumn had been glorious to this point — “you two will have great fun”, I told my wife, “there’s a park, he can play, and the race is only half an hour.”
Of course, a sunny morning became an overcast afternoon, and by the time my race began, there was a hail storm.
I hadn’t even had the chance to buy longer spikes for my shoes, so was condemned to Bambi my way round the course on 6mm track spikes. Alexander Holley has written about the race here — my experience was much the same as his, only slower, and with the added guilt that I’d brought my (pregnant) wife and child to such a frigid washout. We drove back down the A1 shivering.
Having placed 12th in Abingdon, it turns our I barely scraped into the top half of the field at Welwyn, coming 260th of 530 male runners. It was precisely the humiliation I needed to reintroduce some structure to my week.
So last week I ran — to some degree — every day, and I even ran a fairly easy workout. I watched what I ate, didn’t drink too many beers, and by Saturday I felt optimistic and enthusiastic for the London XC Champs at Parliament Hill.
I’ve only raced once as an adult at Parliament Hill, in an epically muddy 14km Southern XC Champs back in 2016. I averaged a pace I would normally do on an easy run, and yet, by the end I felt like I’d been wading through treacle for over an hour. That’s pretty much exactly what I had been doing. The London Champs were billed as 10km and the weather hadn’t been anywhere near so bad as they could be in November, so things looked good. Throw some sunshine into the mix, some proper length spikes (12mm) and the promise of a post-race pint and things worked out well.
By well, I mean, I didn’t lose my head, and I kept plodding on, slowly with never a pause.
“Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede.” — Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
After 10.4km (the race was long — we don’t mind that kind of thing in England) I even mustered a sprint finish. I lost the battle with the Ranelagh guy, but I crossed the line knowing that the tides had turned. I had imposed my will upon my body, and it was enjoying the narrative of the racing life.
As in running as in life, structure isn’t something that binds us and oppresses us, but rather it’s the framework within which we’re able to thrive, test our limits and make sense of the world. Whether you’re a writer or a runner, the imposition of structure is often what ultimately sets you free.
If you can nail the existentialist quest for structure within postmarathonism, half the battle is won.
I’ll finish with a quote from a piece called The Existentialist’s Reluctant Guide to Life on Quartzy:
“The key to being a fit existentialist is accepting that you cannot win. There is no winning. There is only decay and deterioration and loss. Still, you don’t give in because you’re stubborn. And if you’re lucky, you may find some other people who share your gloomy worldview to have a drink with after”