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On January 1st this year, I did something that I hadn't done in over fourteen months.

I went out running.

Back in October 2013, during a long-ish run as part of my training for an upcoming half-marathon, I pulled up short with intense pain in the base of my left foot. After a few days of discomfort, particularly in the morning and evening, I went to the doctor, who told me that it was probably something muscular and that I should stay off my feet for as long as possible.

I cancelled the half-marathon, and waited.

Since then, a series of podiatrists diagnosed basically the same as the original doctor, and prescribed inserts to raise my arch and 'fix' my gait, and a series of exercises designed for sufferers of plantar fasciitis (which apparently I "definitely don't have, but the exercises are good for what you have as well").

Following the most recent appointment, the podiatrist told me: "There's nothing more we can do, but I can refer you for a course of laser treatment." I'm not entirely sure how that would work, but luckily towards the end of last year the persistent pain that I had lived with for more than a year lessened and then eventually disappeared, with the result that, on a sunny New Year's Day, I felt confident enough to try running on my damaged foot again.

Since then, I've been out several more times, gradually increasing in distance, vigilant at all times for the slightest twinge from my so far complaint-free foot. And, despite the bitter cold and occasional rain shower at this time of year, my enjoyment of the sport has not dimmed during my enforced sabbatical; in fact, a recent book I read has reinforced a lot of my beliefs about the purpose it serves.

What I think about when I read about running

In Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the celebrated Japanese novelist details his daily running and writing habits and muses on the relationship between the two. A committed marathoner, he runs an average of six miles a day, every day, and has done so for over twenty years; but the book is not only concerned with running. In it, Murakami draws connections between his solitary pastime and his relationship with his body, and his writing. The fact that you have to put the time in, every day, to get better. The fact that you are competing against nobody but yourself.

Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn't become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.

A lot of what he talked about in the book rang very true. Not the part about doing it every day, because I have neither the time nor the inclination to take it that seriously — and also not the part about how it has helped him to become an internationally successful novelist — but I recognised both his description of the empty, absence-of-thought that fills (or rather, doesn't fill) your mind when running long distances, and the connection with, and affection for, the various landscapes through which he runs.

Where I live, there's not much landscape to speak of — it's flat, muddy, and featureless — but I still feel as if I am a part of it when I run. The potholed road, the windswept trees, the swans overhead; the mud and the rain and the wind and me.

(Ironically, while writing this piece I actually broke my toe, so I am once again back to a non-running state for at least a few weeks until it has healed. Plus ça change...)

Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.
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