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Running With The Pack by Mark Rowlands

Scott F. Parker reviews Mark Rowlands on Running.

Go to your local park and watch the runners. If you watch carefully you’ll be able to distinguish between those who run to accomplish something (calorie burning, usually) and those who are running because they love it. Initially you might think that it’s the fast ones – those who are ‘good’ at running – who enjoy it most. However, plenty of slow runners love it as much as or even more than their more gifted compatriots.

Mark Rowlands, for instance, is an undistinguished runner. I’m not being rude here: in Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality, he himself writes, “I suppose the most important and obvious fact about me as a distance runner is this: I am not very good at it.” Nevertheless, Rowlands enjoys running. He’s also able to appreciate the important distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value, and he builds his case for the place of running in a flourishing human life in terms of this distinction.

Rowlands identifies in contemporary society an obsession with instrumental values – the valuing of the utilitarian, efficient, productive – and says that this obsession distances us from the joys that are available to those who participate regularly in life’s intrinsic values. That puts him at odds with the instrumental reasons many runners have for running – doing work that pays off; but for Rowlands, “At its best, and its most valuable, running is play not work” (p.9). The kinds of evolutionary reasons that have made this so have received significant attention over the past several years, especially thanks to the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (2010), about ultra-runners. But the way Rowlands puts it is, “The inescapable conclusion seems to be that our modern sedentary life is one for which we have not been designed and for which, at least biologically, we are poorly equipped… We are happiest and healthiest when we live our history, and so become what we are” (p.67) – by for instance, running. For Rowlands, our status as embodied creatures who have evolved in our particular way determines the kinds of intrinsic values accessible to us.

Shooting Off At Tangents

Intrinsic value and running – the marketing team at Pegasus Books, the original publishers, must have wondered whether to present Running with the Pack as a running book for philosophers, or as a philosophy book for runners. According to the buying patterns I saw online, readers are thinking in the latter terms and placing it in the company of books on the thoughtful end of the running spectrum. So this book is meant to popularize philosophy, as well as to show that philosophy can be grounded in an activity as pedestrian (pun intended) as running.

A criticism for perhaps not asking the right philosophical questions applies to Rowlands when he gets away from his central argument and spends an inordinate time on love, fatherhood, and his dogs – all fine topics, but ones that appear awfully far afield in this context. That criticism aside, Rowlands is convincing with regard to the matter at hand: that running, when approached in the right way affords an opportunity for play that is necessary for adults who spend so much time and money pitching back and forth between work and other commitments. He argues that one of the fortunate ironies of running is that “play is what running essentially is – and even when one runs for other, specific, reasons, play keeps continually reasserting itself at the heart of running” (p.91). Here the instrumental value is ultimately overcome by the intrinsic.

The book itself is structured as a series of runs, with Rowlands beginning a run and then following it where it leads geographically and intellectually. His tangents, then, are logical even as they distract. The repetition, though, does create a rhythm that brings the reader in line with Rowlands’s thoughts, and creates the space for philosophical insight.

A long-distance runner spends serious time attending to his or her inner life. Rowlands proves himself a philosopher when he divides and classifies stages in that runner’s inner life according to the philosophies of Spinoza (mind and body in action); Descartes (dualism); Hume (selflessness); and finally Sartre (nothingness). It’s odd on first thought to put Sartre at the pinnacle of this progression, since Sartre saw anguish “in the gap between reasons and actions” (p.180). But in that same gap Rowlands sees joy, which it is the book’s main aim to praise: as he writes, “Joy is nothing more than the recognition of intrinsic value in life” (p.153). As anyone who has finished a first marathon will know, the letdown of achieving a goal can explode the very concept of goals. As Rowlands says, “Running distance is a goal-based achievement that reveals the bankruptcy of goal-based achievement” (p.19). This helps create an understanding of the intrinsic value of activities such as running: that is, running for its own sake, and not for the sake of some goal. Of course, such joys are available to non-runners as well as to runners, but running is one good way to get there.

© Scott F. Parker 2015

Scott F. Parker is the author of Running After Prefontaine: A Memoir (2011).

Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality, by Mark Rowlands, Pegasus Books (2013), 224 pp. ISBN 978-1847082633

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