In the summer of 2009 I was thrown into the back of an ambulance in the Chinese city of Guangzhou and quarantined by a team of doctors who were worried I was carrying the H1N1 virus – that’s swine flu to you and me. I had been due to teach English at a local primary school that had since closed its doors to foreigners as a precaution against the pandemic. Outside the hospital, tents and trestle tables had been erected to deal with the flocks of worried parents and sniffling children, while I lay awake in an all-too-well-lit room, listening to people vomit.
“It’s just a migraine!” I pleaded with the nurse after she spilt a sample of my blood on the floor (and left it there), concerned not so much about the virus I was pretty sure I didn’t have, as the smorgasbord of illnesses I was likely to contract while on the grimy hospital ward.
It was one of those desperate moments in which deals with the universe are struck. “Let me out of this one,” I whispered into my pillow, “and I will become a healthier person.” Up to that point I had avoided exercise wherever possible. My diet was far from balanced. “Let me out of this one,” I repeated, this time with a more specific promise in mind, “and I will take up running.”
In the end it was running that saved me: I legged it the following morning when the doctor wasn’t looking and disappeared into a cheap motel room to recuperate. Eight years later, I am still running, only now it’s not the fear of death that gets me out of the door. I run to stay sane.
Leaving the physical and cosmetic benefits to one side, recent studies have shown some of the ways in which mid-level cardiovascular activity helps bolster mental stability. While you’re out jogging, the brain is flooded with newly oxygenated blood. Neurotransmitters are released which aid clarity of thought, and at the same time a huge increase in the number of endorphins (naturally occurring stimulants, opioids and cannabinoids that I like to think of as free drugs) induced into the bloodstream helps you respond more positively to those thoughts.
“Running familiar routes,” as the science journalist Paul Bisceglio noted in an article last year for the Atlantic magazine about the impact of running on a person’s memory and mental health, “conjures our demons and gives us the tools we need to conquer them.”
Not that it started out that way for me. For the first few months, all I could think of while running was some combination of the words “stop”, “please”, “it” and “make”. I’d creep out of my university dorm first thing every other day in borrowed plimsolls and my old PE shorts, unable to confront the possibility that I might be turning into one of them: a Lycra-clad fitness junkie. But over time I, too, found that running helped me think things through. In eight years I have never quantified my “performance” with a smartphone, tracked my route with a GPS watch, or even listened to music while running. It’s the ultimate private time.
Heading out for a run helps me shake out the anxiety, indecision and pent-up energy that come from working at a desk all day. It’s a restorative process, one that helped me through what might politely be referred to as a psychological meltdown a few years ago. This is because resources in the brain are competitive. When the limbic system (the structures that control our emotions and drives) is busy expending all its energy telling you just how badly you’ve messed up your life, simply doing something else – stimulating the areas of the brain that co-ordinate muscle movement, for instance – balances things out a little. It gives you a fighting chance.
Last summer, I moved from London to Berlin. One warm and cloudless morning soon after the move, I ran across the Tempelhofer Feld, the 954-acre former airfield in the heart of the city, whose open skies seem precision-engineered for the involuntary flow of memories. I started thinking about all the places I’d run in the past: in Cardiff, where I finally bought proper running shoes and added miles to my runs through Bute Park and into the valleys; in my home town of Middlesbrough, where I was unemployed after university and cared for a dying relative; in London, which I disliked pretty consistently until I moved to Clapton in east London and discovered the sleepy, uncultivated beauty of the Lea Valley. As any long-term runner will tell you, plotting routes and laying down roots are one and the same thing.
“Our relationship with movement and with place is so fundamental that it effects actual structural changes in our brain,” explained Vybarr Cregan-Reid, the author of Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human, when we spoke recently. Cregan-Reid sees the act of running as enabling “a deep immersion into the environment”, much in the way that the poems of Coleridge and Wordsworth immerse a reader in the geography of the Lake District. “When you can run well enough to just follow your curiosity, you get to know a place in a way only runners can: it’s on your skin, in your brain, in your blood. Your embodied knowledge is a runner’s knowledge.”
Studies have shown that running enlarges the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with memory and spatial awareness – and that running in green spaces is especially good for recuperation and concentration (though environmental psychologists continue to debate the reasons why). And this suits me just fine. I still prefer to run where I’m less likely to be seen. The other day, having moved away from the area around Tempelhof, I ran through Plänterwald in south-east Berlin, home to an abandoned theme park, and past a 39-foot bronze statue of a Russian soldier crushing a swastika and holding aloft a German baby. I’ve no idea how long I took and I don’t care. Running isn’t a competition for me: it’s therapy.
Philip Maughan is a former assistant editor of the New Statesman
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West