on 26 March 2014
Some important questions when you've finished reading a book are: Did you enjoy it? Have you learnt anything useful? Would you recommend it to a friend? Would you read it again? Since my answer to all these questions is “yes”, why have I only given the book 4 stars?
In the foreword, the book is described as “part diary of a year running through the Northamptonshire countryside, part exploration of why we love to run without limits” and those aspects of the book are indeed excellent. Richard Askwith describes his runs so eloquently that you can almost feel the mud caking your legs and smell the manure-dappled fields. As someone who has run in similar situations to those he describes, I was with him for both the elation and the discomforts (which all seem worthwhile once the run is finished).
He also describes his own progress from non-runner, through what he describes as the 'Seven Ages of Running' (I can imagine lively discussions between runners, arguing about their own interpretations of these 'ages'). How his running has affected and been affected by his family and professional life are also described and this also is both interesting and entertaining.
So, we have here a description of a running year (excellent), an account of how running has affected the author's life (excellent) and lots of anecdotes gleaned from 30 years of running (also excellent). However, the author is not just a runner, he is also a rider of hobby horses. He rides his hobby horse to do battle with what he describes as Big Running (his capitals). Most runners will know that the likes of Adidas and Nike would like to sell you more stuff than you need, and certainly more than you can afford. Also, we know that it is possible to get a lot of pleasure from running while spending very little. I would not have objected to a few elaborations on this theme but the book devotes far too much space and far too many lists to hammer home these basic truths.
But hey! If you are going to run in the countryside, you'll have to negotiate some difficult terrain and keep your eyes peeled to avoid any potential hazards. Read this book with a similar wary eye, skip over the examples of commercial avarice and you will really enjoy it. Then, whatever the weather, get your kit on (expensive or cheap) and go for a run.
on 16 March 2014
It's difficult to write about something you are passionate about without at times becoming evangelical or appearing to dismiss the alternatives. In 35 years of running I've been through most of the phases that Askwith describes in his book - though as many of these were in a more innocent, pre-internet age, perhaps I avoided some of the excesses of consumerism that he rails against. Thus his book veers an a times awkward course between personal recollection (which will doubtless strike some chords with fellow runners), criticism of commercialisation of running, and evangelical espousal of a form of running that will probably not be easily accessible to the vast majority of the running population.
I'm fortunate that I do live (and work) out in the country, and a recent running experience might illustrate who will most appreciate this book. It was a semi-illicit lunchtime run, sneaking off without explicit indication of where I was going and what I was up to, squeezing in a quick 5 miles. I got a bit carried away with myself and an off-road track led me to speculation that I could do a loop round a few forest firebreaks: there then followed several joyous miles where I reached deep into the forest, several times up to my knees in bog, finally (after a couple of episodes where I feared I was irretrievably lost) reaching back where I had started. I got back to work with a glow and sense of satisfaction that undoubtedly improved my productivity for the rest of the day. Nothing here about times, splits, distances, just about the sheer joy of being out and behaving in a child-like manner.
This is really, at heart, what Askwith is writing about. It might have been better to have written solely about this primitive joy without putting it in comparison to other forms of running. Whilst he does say repeatedly through the book that his view is only one of many equally valid alternatives, it's difficult not to pick up an implicit criticism of how others relate to running. Yes, Big Running (as he calls it) has many downfalls. But perhaps it's also part of a journey and an inevitable experience to have before you come out the other end, to running with childish joy through the deep woods without any more thought of what you are doing than the immediate experience.
It's well worth a place on any runner's bookshelf. As a dyed-in-the-wool fell runner, I'm not sure it's better than his earlier book, Feet in the Clouds. If you are one of the converted, you will nod along sagely in agreement, and there's nothing more satisfying than seeing your own opinions confirmed in print. If you're not one of the converted, then I hope it might help you think "out of the box" and, most importantly, keep running when the initial goals - time, weight, distance, whatever - cease to become as important as they once seemed.
on 8 May 2014
I liked Askwith's previous book, Feet in the Clouds, and I found an affinity with him as a runner. We share a great deal - age, obsession with running, rural running over road mashing, enjoyment over performance. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy this book too - what I didn't expect was to love it quite as much as I do.
Running Free is really a story about change. Rural running is an unusual pastime in today's society; in a performance-driven world many people run get fitter and faster, enter races and gain medals and honours for completing them. They spend ever increasing amounts of money on scientifically designed kit to help shave seconds off their PBs, because that's apparently what running is all about. But, Askwith argues, it wasn't always like this. Just a generation or two ago people mostly ran for the enjoyment of it. They ran together as communities, organised races and chases that started with a pair of simple shorts and trainers and, via hills and muddy fields, ended in a pub revelry. They ran for the sake of running, to enjoy the outdoors, to get away from the everyday stresses of life and bond with nature.
You should read this book if:
- you don't run and you wonder why some people love it
- you hate running but do it anyway because you feel like you should
- you love running and you do it in a gym because there's no time to do it anywhere else
- you love running on roads and occasionally glance at a field or hill and wonder what it's like to run there
- you spend a ton of money on kit and shoes but that doesn't increase your enjoyment of running
It's time to reclaim our running heritage, to move away from the pavement and roads and obsession with speed and PBs, and instead slow down and enjoy a run because you're running. To realise that running in the dark, in the mud, over hedges and stiles, through rain and fog and wind, through herds of cows and flocks of sheep, will not kill you and in fact it may well enhance your enjoyment not only of running but of life. Running isn't a means to an end, it's a wonderful, beautiful, uplifting end in itself. And if you're curious about why or how that could be then I can't recommend this book highly enough.
on 1 May 2014
No longer will I be able to read the usual promotional and advertising features on gadgets, nutrition, shoes and clothing cluttering so much of the fitness media without screaming 'cobblers'. This book reminded me why I started to run 25 years ago. For the sheer enjoyment and freedom it gave me. Not to run like Mo and not to know my heart rate, mile pace and calories and certainly not to feel guilty about not having some piece of overpriced 'technical' tat that will have no bearing on my running experience. Any long-term runner will share many of the author's reservations on the way the sport has moved on over the last 10 years at a time when its grass roots is failing to come through to elite level in anything like the numbers previously. This book does challenge the current dogma surrounding the vast commercialisation of what is essentially the most basic of human activities. Some of views expressed are perhaps overstated but its well worth a read whether you are a rural or urban runner because, as we know, running is all in the mind. Enjoyment and freedom.
on 13 March 2014
As someone who came relatively late to running (my early thirties) and is a decade younger than the author (I also spent ten years living in London, where I began my running, before moving to the Lincolnshire seaside) I think I have progressed fairly rapidly through what Richard Askwith describes as the Seven Ages of Running and I am now into the fifth. That is like him I don't wear a watch let alone any kind of high tech measuring device anymore whilst out on a solo training run or listen to music. Instead like the author I prefer to enjoy my natural surroundings and let my body and environment dictate the run and consequently unless I am doing a set route have no real idea of time or distance. Having said that I do still try to push myself on organised runs or on club nights as it is still pleasurable to gain a pb. However I am now at a stage of life where I may gain some improvement for a few years before it starts slipping back again but I am certainly not going to be challenging for any medals. Like Askwith I am also enjoying runs that go off the beaten track a bit more and like him I am lucky to live in a part of the country with it on my doorstep (in my case a coastal nature reserve).
In his enjoyable book which has a slightly more meandering air than the more tightly focused, `Feet in the Clouds', Askwith argues the case for a return to simply enjoying running in its basest form rather than succumbing to the demands of what he calls, `Big Running'. Whilst I agree with his philosophy to a certain degree especially when the over-commercialisation of the London Marathon and Great Run series is considered I still think there is scope to enjoy different forms of running. We are not all lucky enough to have instant access to the country seeing as the majority of the population live in urban areas. I have enjoyed the 24 Hour Adidas Thunder Run as although it is a commercial enterprise it brings a community of runners together. As you are running laps at various parts of the day the course can change with the weather and temperature and each lap can be very different. Some of the most enjoyable runs I have done have been organised through the club I belong to such as long distance relays and our own version of a `Hound and Hares'. These have involved club runners of all abilities and have been more about the taking part than achieving times. Many local clubs in Lincolnshire put on some good inexpensive races over a variety of distances and terrains, which I would rather take part in and support than many of the commercially organised ones.
I also disagree with the author when it comes to barefoot running. Again its very much `horses for courses' as I had a lengthy lay off with a knee injury before being prescribed running shoes to correct over-pronation and I also use corrective inserts in my everyday shoes. Since then, touch wood, I have not a serious injury that has required a long recovery. Where I do agree very much with Askwith is in trying to enjoy the moment of running rather than the outcome. Again that maybe is because I feel I am moving into the fifth age of running that he describes where pb's seem increasingly less important as does the use of recording devices, using social media to share my every run and shelling out vast amounts of money on kit when I am not going to improve by any significant amount. Although he touched on it a bit when describing what brought him to running, a chapter on what inspires people to start running (wanting to get fitter, depression, escape etc) would have been instructive.
'Running Free' is an interesting and thought-provoking book containing much that I agree with and some that I don't. I also suspect that younger runners or city dwellers may disagree with even more of it. Perhaps at the rate I am going it will not be long before I join him in the sixth age of running which as he says is rediscovering the simple carefree childish joys of running or running free.
on 21 May 2015
I've read the mixed reviews of Running Free and though it worth adding my tuppence worth. It is a different book to Feet in the Clouds which is one of my all time favourites. However I loved Running Free. It was relaxed read that felt like an engrossing fireside chat (well multiple chats and maybe chats as we jogged across the fields). In summary I felt and understood the journey and has left me a new inspiration to enjoy my running .... and to not bother about the wind, rain and the mud ... indeed to get out there and enjoy, to not just carefully pick my way round that muddy patch but to bounce, splashing through the middle with the grin of a 3 year old. I also loved the tie in of the enjoyment of the running with the appreciation and enjoyment of nature.
If you've just read this book or are thinking of buying it, chances are you're a runner. You'll have your own approach to it and your own views with probably hang-ups, things that drive you barmy etc. I certainly do. What I haven't done is write a book about it. OK, I don't have the back-up, to say nothing of writing skill, both of which Askwith has, but basically all this book is is a statement of Askwith's attitude towards how and where we should run as well as his cynical view of the huge running industry, which he calls 'Big Running'. Given that, I think giving the book one or two stars just because you disagree with him is a bit unfair. But if all you're doing is airing a point of view, you're going to get that aren't you? 'Feet in the Clouds' was brilliant but it was a story - an account of that race in the Lakes. It wasn't opinion. So, if having enjoyed that book you're expecting something similar, you'll be disappointed.
I happen to agree with him about Big Running and the way we're almost unconsciously being manipulated by the big companies, magazines, adverts etc and indeed some race organisers but I can't agree about charging through nettles at the crack of dawn in winter while being chased by a pack of hounds!
on 10 April 2015
I've recently resolved to try and read more books - and on the face of it this looked right up my street. However it's basically a 4-5 page magazine article stretched to fill 250 odd pages.
Basically the author seems determined to slag off anyone who makes money from running - not including himself and a few brands he seemingly approves of. I agree with some of his arguments to a point, but he just takes it too far - to the extent that the whole book becomes ridiculous and annoying.
I was glad when it was over.
on 3 June 2014
A very enjoyable book, that is hard or put down. It sums up everything that running means to me, with every chapter inspiring me to go on my own rural running adventures. Recommend to any runner or would-be runner, both confirmed trail runners and treadmill junkies who want to get out in the fresh air!
on 26 March 2015
I am in my fifties and started running two years ago. I know that I will never be fast and am usually found towards the back of any organised race. This used to bother me - I must do tempo and speed work; I need to include hills and cross-train and do core strengthening exercises.
Richard has eloquently demonstrated that you don't! You can just go out and run, enjoying the company of other runners or loosing yourself in splendid isolation surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of nature.
I recommend this book for anyone who goes running for pleasure. It affirms that you don't need all those gadgets or the newest shoes/compression clothing....