An embarrassing phenomenon sometimes occurs when I’m in the grittiest depths of a long run. It occasionally happens when I’m interval training too. Basically, moments when I’m so delirious (be it with dehydration or the delusion that I’m “owning” the run with my super-human speed) that I accidentally blurt out a few words of a song I’m listening to. Beyoncé is most likely to bring on these loose-lipped episodes. “Looking so crazy right now,” I grunt, then look around shiftily, hoping I got away with it. That I’m not, in fact, looking crazy.
But there’s someone who thinks I should stop reining myself in. That someone is singer/songwriter Merlyn Driver – the founder of Soundtrack, a London running group where you sing while you clock the miles. The idea, Merlyn tells me, came about when he and a friend were late for a meeting and started running to get there. Spontaneously one of them broke into song – Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al – and the other joined in. “It gave us this huge rush of endorphins,” he recalls. Of course, the runner’s high is well documented. But in studies, such as one published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, singing has been found to cause a surge in endorphins too.
Merlyn goes on to explain that singing and journeying on foot are a traditional pairing in many cultures. “There’s the tradition in Australia of what are called songlines – routes through the outback that are recorded in song. If you knew all the words, they’d guide you by landmarks from one side of the outback to the other.”
So perhaps it’s not all Beyoncé’s fault. Perhaps there’s something innate about wanting to strike up a tune while you pound the ground. I’m intrigued and want to join a Soundtrack session. But there’s just one stumbling block – I can’t sing. The last time I did in public was when I was cast as a fork in the school production of Beauty and the Beast.
So as I wait at Hammersmith tube station on a Monday night to meet Merlyn and the Soundtrackers (great band name, no?) I’m more than a little nervous. It’s compounded by the fact that he’s sketchy on the details of the running itself. When I ask how far they go, he’s not sure. It seems they “just run”. While my running is better than my singing, it too is on the shoddy end of the spectrum. I’m worried I’m out of my depth.
I needn’t have been. The Soundtrack experience is off the wall, but a blast. The group of six of us kick off with Hot Chip’s Over and Over. Merlyn recaps the words, then bounds off down the Thames path. And, to my surprise, I find myself singing as I trail behind. The fact that Merlyn is up ahead paying no attention to whether I can hold a tune – and the rest of us are too busy trying to co-ordinate running, singing, dodging puddles and swerving other joggers to spot dud notes – means it doesn’t matter that I’m essentially shouting.
Next we try some call and response – some of which are traditional work songs (again where singing and physical activity come together) and some are normal songs that Merlyn has broken into parts. My favourite is called Pork Pie Hat. “Give me back … give me back my pork pie hat,” we belt out. Surprisingly, we don’t get any weird looks (that I notice) but we do get a couple of smiles and cheers.
Merlyn sets quite the pace, but remembering the lines distracts me from my complaining legs (another “selling point” of the concept) and after every song we stop for a breather to learn the next. Invariably Merlyn tells us a tale of where the tune comes from – one that Jamaican singer Ronnie Gordon used to perform; another a Tanzanian running song. And at one point he tries to teach us a song in Spanish, which we have no hope of mastering, so we protest that we’d rather sing Katy Perry. But he soldiers on, enthusiastically explaining what all the lines mean.
In all we probably only run about 5k, but we get completely lost having skirted off into a field (Merlyn’s “just run” philosophy has a few holes) and have to walk back to the tube. Honestly though, I don’t care. The haphazard feel adds to its charm. And to be fair, it’s only the group’s sixth outing and Merlyn recognises that he could do with tightening up the logistics.
At the end we hug goodbye – not normal behaviour for running clubs (or me). I assume that the intimacy is a consequence of Merlyn’s open friendliness – but maybe there’s more to it that that. Research has found that when people sing in synch their hearts tend to beat in synch, and singing causes our bodies to produce oxytocin – the bonding hormone.
So next time you’re out for a jog with a friend, why not throw a song line out there?It might just start something special. At worst, you can blame dehydration …
Visit cargocollective.com/soundtrackrunning or facebook.com/soundtrack.running for upcoming runs. It’s free to attend but donations are welcome, half of which go to the Thames River Trust.
Jessica is features editor at Top Santé – @topsanteuk, @JPJourno. She also blogs about fitness at fitphernalia.com.
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