Why I run | Jon Ronson | Catherine Bennett | Simon Hattenstone

To look like George Clooney. By Jon Ronson

I started running because I found myself in the same room as George Clooney, saw how fantastically thin he was, looked down at myself and noticed – and I really had no idea – that I was fat.

“How did that happen?” I thought, startled. “I was definitely thin until recently, yet I haven’t changed anything about my lifestyle except I’ve been eating a lot more puddings. Maybe that’s it.”

And so I did something I’d never done before. I went for a run.

This was in Puerto Rico. I was there because they were turning one of my books into a film and, assuming everyone was, in my absence, having unimaginable fun, I asked if I could visit the set. They weren’t having unimaginable fun. Everyone was busy and stressed and filled with anxieties. But they were fantastically thin.

I’ve been running almost every day since. The weight fell off me within a month or so, and has never come back. I don’t understand why anyone would want to go on a diet. It seems crazy. Dieters are tired and sluggish. They joylessly eat boiled fish meals with watery sauces and no bread. Diets are about edging miserably away from things – puddings, cheese, etc. Whereas running is about tearing into something – into a park or a city or along a beach. A 40-minute run uses up 400 or 500 calories, I imagine. What is the not eating equivalent of that? You’d have to not eat a whole lunch and then you’d be hungry and unhappy and unable to concentrate for the rest of the day.

Running can be a little painful sometimes, towards the end, or when you go uphill, or if your knees start to give way. (When that happens, I switch to a cross-trainer for a few weeks, which is just as great as I get to watch YouTube videos. I am the Dr Livingstone of YouTube, finding myself hacking through dense, unexplored forests of forgotten punk bands.) But the pain of running is a bracing, enlivening pain, unlike the endless dull ache of a diet, that constant miserable feeling of emptiness. Running is the opposite of emptiness. Your ears are filled with the music you’re listening to, your eyes with the trees or buildings you’re running past. Endorphins shoot all around you, like your own little stash of heroin.

I run about four miles a day, wherever I am. So I find myself in parts of cities I’d never otherwise make it to. I’ve run along the Charles river in Boston and over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. I once accidentally ran into a bad part of New York City and some muggers ran after me. You know what? I effortlessly outran them. I am only the second Jew ever to accomplish such a physical feat, the first being Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.

All those decades I stood on the other side of the mountain, hopelessly chain-smoking, overweight, thinking I’d never climb over. And it turned out to be unexpectedly easy. It takes about two weeks to get fit enough to run four miles a day. I wish I’d known that years ago.

Now you should see me without my shirt on. It’s amazing. I look like George Clooney. If I miss a few days, my body feels chemically unbalanced, unpleasant and icky, as if there are ants crawling all over me, and I become restless and fretful. So I’m evidently addicted, but at least for the first time in my life I’m addicted to something good.

To be alone. By Catherine Bennett

Right up to the moment I started running, I saw running as showing off. Why would you exercise in public, in shorts, if not to parade your superior fitness? But middle age had taken hold and, given a choice between exhibitionism and blubber, I picked running. If you can call it that. My signature short stride is more reminiscent, I am told, of one of those wind-up cracker toys, wobbling precariously across a table. In fact, like a cracker toy, I recently fell flat on my face, and now have a genuine running scar.

I could not consign my blubber to a gym, following the important insight, after two decades of research, that signing up to a series of these smelly establishments did not merely identify me as unbelievably stupid, given the £50 estimated price per workout: the visits had been among the dreariest experiences of my life. I could have learned Mandarin in the time I spent inhaling other people’s sweat. There had never been a moment in a gym I did not hate. Yet I had joined so many. If the mind can compass a time before thongs, then that is when, in the age of leg-warmers, I started with dancing classes at Pineapple, progressed to aerobics in a city gym full of drunk yuppies, then joined the Sanctuary’s all-women classes, where members faithfully recreated the school gym: teacher’s favourites waggling their rears at the front, fatties humbly at the back, contortionists preening in the mirror. Next, the flash Broadgate gym, because of its pool, then a downshift to the Barbican, then a pongy, cut-price little cellar near work, then a hotel gym near home, to cut down on travelling, along with, appropriate to motherhood, the dementing tedium of yoga and Pilates, neither of which makes you thin; also a flirtation with rollerblading before the disadvantages of a sport requiring skill, Terminator-style equipment and time to travel to a designated area became unignorable. At least, I tell myself, I never tried a Wii. The one home-exercise investment in these years of shame was a primitive step machine, on which it took 20 minutes to burn off a yoghurt.

So: running. It’s free. It makes you happy. You get to use your legs. You aren’t pressed up against strangers’ bottoms. There are no opening hours, queues, identity cards, turnstiles, gurning receptionists or lowly, no-towel membership tiers. For once, I spent nothing before trying out a hurried walk that developed into the current scuttle. As it diminished, I forgot about the weight of my own carcass and started noticing stuff like seasons, birds, skies and other soothing sights not included in a Virgin Active membership. Every street has its distractions but, probably crucially, I have been lucky enough to run around Hampstead Heath. Even in the Heath’s deadest months, there are nutty outdoor swimmers to look at, and people sleeping rough and, most fascinating, the affluent middle classes, exempting themselves from its prominently displayed bylaws. Invariably, when rosy dawn stands tiptoe behind Lord Iveagh’s ornamental lake, a dog will be crapping luxuriantly nearby, while countless others race ahead of their owners, itching for a fight, or a shag, or a runner to get their teeth into.

The disadvantage of running, unless you are a landowner or a beautiful person, is having to do it in public, exposed to weirdos, semi-acquaintances and people who say, “He’s only being friendly.” Some people may even be bitter enough to think you are running to show off. Fine. Anything’s better than a gym.

To fight my demons. By Simon Hattenstone

I can’t stop. I know I can’t. Even now, writing this, right here, right now, I’ll probably break off for a quick one. My name is Simon Hattenstone and I’m a running addict.

People who hear about my running habit assume I’m training for a marathon or that I’m a club runner with a chest full of medals. If only. Truth is, I’m rubbish. I can keep trundling on a good day, but that’s about it.

So what’s it all about? To look good? No, I look ridiculous – tight Lycra shorts highlighting my belly bulge, wife-beater T-shirt, back humped after decades of pitiful posture, feet splayed. And then there’s the sweat. Buckets of it. Oceans of it. When kindly strangers see me slumped against a lamp-post, wheezing asthmatically, purple with exhaustion, they ask if I’d like help and should they call an ambulance. When I say I’m fine and smile beatifically, they say this can’t be good for me. They may have a point and, yes, I know it’s bound to knacker my knees and worse, but what the hell.

Most days I run six miles at lunch. Occasionally I pretend I’m doing something different because I don’t like people to think that running has become a “problem”.

So why do I do it? Because it makes me feel great. That’s GREAT! – with italics, caps, bold type, exclamation mark.

See, if I don’t run, my head tends to take a turn for the worse. I shrivel up and back away from the world. Charlie Brown understands. “This is my depressed stance,” the Peanuts hero says. “When you’re depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you’ll start to feel better. If you’re going to get any joy out of being depressed, you’ve got to stand like this.”

Sometimes depression comes from thinking too much about things. Always a pointless pursuit, as my existentialist friend Eeyore knows only too well. “The old grey donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things,” wrote AA Milne in Winnie The Pooh. “Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, ‘Why?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Wherefore?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Inasmuch as which?’ and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.”

It’s not that I’m a misery guts or bleat on about it endlessly, it’s just that I have bleak moments. All you clinical depressives out there will know what I mean – anxiety, negativity even when things are objectively fine, paranoia, tearfulness, a metronome constantly click-clacking in your head, making it impossible to answer complex questions such as, “What’s the time?”, wanting to stay in bed for ever, not looking forward to anything, and feeling guilty about feeling so crap because you know there are people out there who really do have reason to feel crap.

But when I’m running, most of these feelings start to dissipate. Just that feeling of mainlining fresh air, the utter exhaustion, the brilliant mindlessness of it, the buzzy buzz that is often achieved illegally, the positivity that transforms you from Leonard Cohen to Stevie Wonder.

Plenty of people take antidepressants to get this serotonin kick. Me, I do both. Double bubble, win-win. And the amazing thing is, however crumpled I am at the end of the run, a few minutes later my body does begin to straighten up and my head does hold itself higher and the world does look that little bit brighter.

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