What Shapes a Runner: Catriona Menzies-Pike on Writing "The Long Run"

Penny Mann on June 05, 2017

Long_run-225For those that run there is something that comes before the first time you lace up your shoes and set out – a reason, a desire… a calling. Catriona Menzies-Pike found her 'something before' in a deep and embedded grief that still held her ten years after losing her parents. Stepping into her running shoes, Menzies-Pike found a natural inclination (and joy) for running, along with a desire to understand those that started the journey before her. What took shape was a unique look into her story and the untold history of women in running.

Below she shares a glimpse into the experiences that took shape and led her to writing The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion.

When I started writing The Long Run I thought I was writing a book about other women who ran. The women who ran marathons and broke world records. The brilliant athletes who overcame the tremendous pressure of social convention to run at a time when most people, and certainly most sports officials, believed that running long distances was terribly dangerous for women. I wasn’t going to write about myself.

I started running when I was thirty and very unfit, on a treadmill in the back of a very dingy gym. For years I’d been advised that regular exercise might lift my moods; my parents had died suddenly in a plane crash when I was twenty and I’d spent the previous decade pushing away grief, depressed and weary. Though my methods—late nights, mostly—were about as effective as pushing away the tide, exercise had seemed like a facile response to my terrible sadness, and I refused the prescription. I finally hopped on that treadmill with some metaphysical ideas about marathon running, curious about the state of mind marathon runners attain. I didn’t actually expect to develop any regular running practice.

To my very great surprise, I loved it. As my body swung like a pendulum on the treadmill, I discovered new sensations in the long muscles in my legs, in the pads of my feet, in the back of my shoulders. And yet, when I got moving and all the goods that exercise is supposed to deliver fell in my lap: I was healthier, I slept better, I was happier. Running put my grief in motion. Instead of running away from the past, I was just running.

It was on those runs that I became curious about the women who had run before me. Where did this sport come from? How did we all get to undertaking such mileage together? I started reading about the history of women’s long distance running and I was delighted by the women I met, astounded by the obstacles they had overcome, and truly baffled that their stories were not widely known. Fueled by the endorphins every runner knows, I resolved to write a book: a forgotten feminist history of distance running.

And yet as I wrote I began to reflect on my own experiences as a runner. Had athletes such as Kathrine Switzer, Bobbi Gibb and Joan Benoit experienced the great transformations I had when they started running? My conversion did not herald remarkable feats of endurance, but it, too, was surprising. Why do we run? To answer these questions I needed to draw on what I already knew about literature and feminist politics, but also about endurance – and I found that the story I had to tell about women’s running had a place for a runner like me after all. Slowly The Long Run made room for a memoir. And perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because its true beginnings lie in the steady rhythms of my first long runs.


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