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Extract: 'Running makes me feel alive, connected to the moment'

Author of The Cow Book, John Connell shares his experience of one long and glorious run he had through a forest in Longford, in an extract from his new book.

John Connell

I’VE NEVER RUN this far before. I’m thirty and this is all new to me. I’m running now as though everything depends on it and in so many ways it does.

This run, this voyage, is in ways the climax of a journey into the country of the self. The final destination after a year of travelling.

I’m thinking of all this but really I’m just putting one foot in front of the other and willing myself on, hoping to keep going because I’ve quit at so many things in my life, ran away from problems and people, but right now this run is a way to make amends for all that.

It might sound like magical thinking and maybe in some way it is. All actions start in dreams and thoughts and I’ve long held on to this one.

I’m in a local forest of Derrycassin in rural Longford, it has snowed and between the melting snow and puddles of water I race now. My feet are wet but I do not mind. My lungs are strong and firm and I know and feel that at this pace I can continue for a long time, an hour more, two hours more I am not sure.

The magic of a run

This is an undiscovered country.

A man once said to me you get to know yourself on a long run. In the end, he surmised you realise you’re a lot stronger than you think and a lot more stubborn. Those words are haunting me now. They are every one of them true.

Running and farming are two things I understand, two tangible things. With each passing day, progress is made. The cultivation of a crop or cow is like the tending of the garden of the self, not much happens in a week but in the culmination of weeks and months real progress is made, real goals achieved.

Everything starts in dreams and thoughts, the building of a farm, the building of a body, the writing of a book. We are I think in a way the heirs of our dreams.

The sweat on my face has dried and turned to salt and when I lick my lips I can taste it. It has been several hours since I have drunk water: at times a craving comes to me for it and then like a lustful urge it leaves again.

I tell myself that soon, soon I will stop and give in. There are a river and lake beside me, next to this old forest: perhaps when all this is over I will jump in, quench and cool myself. I’ll cup my hands and drink the water from the lake fresh and clean like the old people did in the long ago.

Feeling alive

I am not the greatest runner but I have in me the discipline of an athlete. Running and exercise have given me control of my life, a real foundation on which to build, and from that, the new man that I have become has been forged.

They say running is a lonely thing but out there on the road, on the roads of life, I have never felt more alive, more connected to the moment.

In the forest, the path winds and courses through steep hills and bends, I have names for some of them, secret silly names to help me surmount and overcome them. The gravel is loose underneath my feet as I beat out my weary rhythm. I am alone here today, there is only the forest, the lake and me.

At Switzerland bend, I feel the glee of the flat ground return. The huge pine trees surround me and I imagine myself in some Scandinavian place, some Valhalla of nature, some distant land. I hear the lake waters lap and fold onto themselves. I know that soon the hills of the forest will be upon me and I will have to strain and push myself forward.

I have been running for twenty-five kilometres now and with each passing lap, I urge myself forward.

Out of range

There are jobs to be done at home, cattle that need to be cleaned out, feed to be given. My phone does not work here and while I run in this place I am not contactable. I like it that way it is just the road and me.

My headphones beat out a steady rhythm of 70s pop and easy rock music that keeps me happy and motivated. Alone here now I shout out the words of Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked on a Feeling’.

There was a time I couldn’t sing any more, that I had not the joy of life, but these words as my actions now remind me that there is so much joy in the world, joy amidst the darkness.

The snows have turned to slush as I round the corner and hit the thirty kilometres mark. I am hot and remove my jumper throwing it on top of a nearby bush.

I must be careful now to ensure I do not catch a cold when I finish. The day is cold but I am hot and alive and I think now of all those who run with me, of the ancients, of Murakami, of the Olympians.

When I was a boy I loved to run but as a student, I put that aside thinking the life of the mind to be an immobile one. In the last two years, after everything, I have come to see that the intellectual life as Seneca said is interlinked, that true happiness is found in the present moment and that physical labour and thought are the same.

My feet are the extension of my thoughts and it is intellectual will that gets me around this course, not just mere physical fitness.

The body speaks

At thirty-four kilometres I hit the wall. I am in the land of the new, the place beyond the pines. I have never run this far before but I have the will in me to continue.

I have every will but my body is beginning to tire. My foot pains have returned, I can feel a build-up of lactic acid in my shoulder and my calf muscle is beginning to ache. I run on for another kilometre ignoring my failing engine.

I do not know the rules of this country, its customs, perhaps in the land of thirty-five kilometres there is only pain and ignorance. Perhaps it is a corroboree of effort and sweat culminating in the discovery of the dreamtime of the self.

In my mind, I think of all the places I have been, all the journeys I have undertaken. This run is a part of that story. I will remember it in the list of great days I have had on this earth.

A man gets to know himself on the road and in me, I have found a multitude of histories; a conflict of nations, of language, of faith.

In the recess of the past, I see my grandfather on the run fighting in the War of Independence in his flying column, moving from safe house to safe house. It was only weeks ago that my father told me that he had been captured and imprisoned at that time. What would he make of me now? His namesake, running in a forest for no other reason than life itself.

By the water’s lapping edge I imagine the older people, too, the Celts who once ruled this place. They are all of them in me and I in them. A landlord once owned all this, this lake, this forest. I am running on colonised land. Running as a post-colonial man, whatever that is.

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I think now I must be getting delirious and perhaps I am. ‘Murderalise ’em, Rock!’ I shout out aloud now, uttering my old Rocky movie mantra to snap me back into the present. My feet are tired, my body sore and the Italian stallion urges me on in my mind, asking for just one more step.

At the last turn I near the end of my race. It has been four hours or more. I carry my wounded body across my imaginary line. There are no waiting crowds, no cheering lover, no landlords or IRA men. It is just me and the forest and the cold winter’s day in rural Ireland.

I slow to a walk, stumbling towards the grass of nearby Mullinalaghta Gaelic football field. I hunker down to catch my breath. I am thirty, I have never run this far, I have never felt so alive.

John Connell is an award-winning journalist, producer, farmer and author of the award-winning number 1 bestseller The Cow Book. His new book The Running Book is out now with Picador.

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