Running in the park with Kierkegaard

“that which is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated; but precisely this, that it has been, makes repetition something new.” Søren Kierkegaard

When I go for a run in the park I nearly always take the same route. It’s not that I’m a creature of habit in general, but with running I like to go the same way. I start by leaving my house and turning right, taking the road directly to the park, then, with only minor deviations (normally because I’ve seen someone coming towards the narrow entranceway), will head straight down to the tarmac path, then up and around in quite a specific route round the back of the Plymouth Argyle stadium then across the playing fields. I never really stopped to consider this in the past, but now that I am running more regularly (because I signed up to run the Dartington Trust’s Climate Marathon this October), I am starting to wonder why. There are multiple variations and combinations of routes I could take within the park, but I hit upon my one and it has stuck. There is no need in the park to stick to the paths as it’s all open access, so the route I’ve chosen, or unconsciously accepted, is in a sense completely arbitrary. I could go anywhere, but I don’t tend to. I could even run outside the park, but given the choice, my feet still want to take the same route and repeat themselves. 

I think the main reason is that I enjoy how I have now learned the contours of my route through the park really well. My legs and feet can anticipate the changes in gradient, even the slighter change that is barely visible on the way down from the clock tower to the playing fields to the south. There are certain tangles of tree roots that my feet have become really nimble at picking a safe route through. There is another bit where the route heads downhill quite steeply, followed by a hard right, which is also coupled with a change to an uphill slope again, where my body loves to feel the momentum as I swing around the corner at speed, take in the switch from grass to concrete, to roots and mud and then swinging out onto the tarmac of a wide drive, settling back into a steady but not too racing speed uphill past the stadium. There is also the benefit of knowing when the hard hills are coming, and being able to prepare myself for these, one about 500 metres in, the next midway through, and then again if I’m doing extra laps of the south area of the park. 

I think people may mistake as boring this unadventurous approach of always going the same way. Why not choose different directions at any moment along the route, explore a part of the park you know less well, make the most of the variety available to you? It’s dull to always go the same way. It’s not spontaneous. It lacks imagination. It could even be bad for you to always train the same way, you could get into bad habits, or only be able to run up hills at 3 minutes and 15 minutes into any given run. These are all very legitimate points and questions. My answer is on the one hand practical – I like to measure my progress. How fast I have run is easier to compare with a previous run of the same route than it is to compare two different routes. But that in itself would not be enough for me. 

Running the same route over and over is a kind of meditation exercise – I think that’s really why I like it. I know the route so well, I know each view as I run it, each scene as I pass through it. I know it before I get to it. And so my brain can relax. I don’t need to think with that part of my brain that is used up during the rest of the day, solving problems, analysing things, making decisions, responding as quickly as possible to messages etc. With the run, all these brain things are gone, and I pass through my route of the park without needing any of these skills (apart from avoiding the occasional errant dog, or saying hello to friends). What it lets me do is use other parts of my brain, and connect with different parts of myself and the world outside. When I see the same scene again and again on different days, the same avenue of trees, the same view across the fields, the same distant view of the sea over the rooftops of the town centre, it is the same each time, but exactly because it is the same, I see it differently, or notice what has changed. Within that there are different aspects. First, within myself, I notice that when I get to a certain point how tired I am feeling in comparison to previous runs, or I notice that I have a spring in my step today, where yesterday I felt laboured. You could notice these things if you went for two runs on different routes, true, but I think you can tell in a more nuanced way how you feel inside on a run along the same route, where the analysis of each sensation can be more refined. Then there are the external aspects, which are at least two fold. First you notice the change in weather conditions much more when you know the route really well. The surprising mist of an early morning run is brought into sharper relief when the brain has a store of memories of the same place without mist.  A sunset too, and the light it casts, the scenes of the park, the perspectives that I take in as I go on my prescribed route, are lodged deep in, so seeing a very orange glowing sunset, or the strange eerie purple light of post-sunset, can bring to life a view in a new way. It has become a bit like a series of paintings for me now, a series of paintings that as I look at them time after time, I find something new, plus they are actually physically changing each time. 

That leads on to the second aspect which is more long term change, like the change of the seasons, or the return of certain vaguely recognisable people who were not there for a few weeks but are now back, or the gradual sharpening of a desire line between a collection of fir trees. These longer term, more gradual changes are not so much noticeable run by run, but accumulate over time, until apparently out of nowhere I realise the leaves on the trees have turned brown, or that the leaves have become great mounds, or as I realise my feet now turn a metre or two earlier to cut a corner. 

Recently I went back to my family home, a long way from the park, to stay. While there I was confronted by a related phenomenon, when me and my brothers went on a run which retraced the steps of a route I ran quite regularly as a teenager to keep fit in the holidays. This brought home to me the way a place, a route, when it is repeated often enough, can come to enhabit us, so we carry it within us even when we move away. Running that Purley to Kenley route again, after a hiatus of several years, it felt almost as if I hadn’t left and the scenes of that common land, the view across the aérodrome, the narrow lanes that lead up to it lined with tall trees, all sung with a familiarity and a kind of certainty that said “yes”. But this “yes” at the same time was from inside me. I was seeing these cues, the mental cues of long ago. The lines carved in my brain run after run, were reawakened, lines that were rich seams full of memory, association, even full of identity. In spending time doing a repeated thing many times, even day after day, we become an element of the scene, we become a part of the furniture of the place, we sense that other people walking by will in some dim way recognise us, half remember that they might have seen us before, and therein we are associated with the route beyond the inside, the memory. Even though we are not consciously recognised, there is that moment of something tinkling of hmmm seen that one before. We leave ephemeral marks along the route with our footprints traceable by forensics and our scent traceable by dogs. But this mark also becomes timeless in the brain.

The thing is really that any route can be a good route. It can be I believe really any route. It does not matter if it is the most beautiful route through a mountainous region with sweeping views left and right over sun-drenched landscapes as far as the horizon, or a monotonous, grey, cheerless route through a built-up suburban area, the thing that has the greatest power is the repetition. If you repeat that route enough times, say a good 20 times for starters, you will develop an attachment to it that will outweigh the aesthetic of the scenes you pass through. That is because you will see that the more you run it, the more you will notice, the more events will happen on the route that will trigger links, associations and memories. The route will become your route, and the route will also come to attach itself to you too. It goes both ways. 

“that which is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated; but precisely this, that it has been, makes repetition something new.” Søren Kierkegaard*

*This quote from Kierkegaard’s short book Repetition published in 1843, and which I read recently, was what initially got me thinking about repetition in connection with running. Even though the text doesn’t mention running at all, and the narrative follows the ill-fated love affair of a Young Man (with, it has to be said, problematic attitudes to gender and the roles male and female characters ought to take, which can distract the modern reader almost to the point of wanting to throw the book away in outrage and disgust), nevertheless, in rereading it I did take pleasure in finding a hint to the direction my own thoughts would take in the narrator’s passing reference to “Pacing about my apartment in my usual measured strides” on page 44 of my copy.

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