At Groveland cross-country race yesterday morning, we started with a minute’s silence because it was Remembrance Sunday. There are always some instructions at the beginning of a race like that, about how many laps to do, the importance of keeping in order when you go into the finishing funnel and so on, and some people keep talking all the way through them – maybe because they’ve done it so many times before that they don’t feel the need to listen. But today when it came to the minute’s silence everyone joined in, and the crowd of around four hundred runners fell completely quiet. There was something very powerful about the silence and stillness; although few of us knew each other, it was a collaborative act. I wouldn’t claim that everyone was engaged in an act of remembrance of those killed in war. I’m sure people were thinking about all sorts of things – I was mainly thinking about my dad whose birthday would have been today – but together we created silence.
And then when the race began, I was struck by how that silence largely stayed with us. Some runs are all about the conversation; racing is more of a solitary effort, where you’re concerned about giving it your best rather than staying with your friends so you can have a chat. When you’re racing hard, really stretching yourself, it’s impossible to speak because of the effort you’re putting in. Of course there were lots of sounds to listen to – the clack of spikes as we ran across the paths, the sound of breathing particularly up the hills, leaves rustling beneath our feet, men spitting as they ran (guys, why do you need to do that?!), people groaning with effort from time to time, and then dogs and children playing outside the bubble of the race. But most of us were silent as we ran, apart from an occasional ‘keep going’ to our team mates as we went past. I think the ability to run alone and therefore to run silently is one of the keys to running well. It’s not only about improving your physical fitness, but also your capacity to be alone with yourself. You need to be comfortable in your own company, to be happy in your skin, to experience what Mark Rowland, the philosopher and runner, calls ‘the freedom of spending time with the mind.’ I hadn’t seen it like that before, but it seems to me that a race is an invitation to enter into a collective act of silence with those you’re racing against, something that’s very rare in our busy, noisy world.
Photo: Charlotte Johnson