Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I used to swim a lot, but now I run. I’d really like to do more of both, but it gets complicated. If you’re an outside runner, all you need is to get out there and do it. I can’t see myself becoming an outside runner somehow. I’m not sure why. It might be because all my running activity was once at school, where my abiding memory is of having to run cross-country in the freezing cold, through clayey mud. I have a searing memory of the air going down my throat like a shower of razor blades, and my feet encased in heavy wet clay at every step.
After school, I was glad to forsake all sporting activity and I took up smoking instead. It was only later on that I started to think about myself in terms of survival and quality of life. When George Bernard Shaw said “Youth is wasted on the young”, he could have been talking about misusing a strong healthy body, as well as wasting time and energy. We do tend to take these things for granted when we’re young, and only notice when things don’t work so well.
As painless and pleasurable as possible
So I started running at the age when the so-called mid-life crisis is said to occur, only I prefer to call it a wake-up call. And because of previous experience I wanted it to be as painless and pleasurable as possible. So I was introduced to warm gyms and running machines, and running, while music plays in my ears. And afterwards, no trudging to freezing changing rooms and crowded dirty showers. The only thing I had to concentrate on was getting used to the running itself. I’ve been doing that ever since.
Using a treadmill is a strange inversion. When you’re a child you naturally run everywhere. You want to go somewhere, so you want to spend as little time getting there as possible. You find the quickest way, and it’s fun. Crawling becomes toddling, which makes way for running, and then bicycles, and cars or motor bikes increase your speed and reduce the time of the journey. Occasionally even this isn’t enough, and some people become pilots or racing drivers or Olympic champions.
We think about the quality of the travelling instead
And another thing happens. By the time we become adults we usually stop being impatient with the journey as a space in which nothing happens between one thing and another, and we think about the quality of the travelling instead. I’ve always thought that rail travel is wonderful, as long as you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere.
I used to enjoy a ferry ride or a trip on the hovercraft, but when I was using them for commuting it was all about the time the journey took, and I would bury my head in a book so I didn’t even notice what was happening. The same could be said for railway commutes into London and using the Tube in rush-hour, which was often so unpleasant that I had to completely blank the experience every time just to survive. Now I work locally, every trip across the Solent has become something of a treat again.
I’m not going anywhere
Running on a treadmill isn’t going to take me anywhere. I’ll be travelling through time in a musical landscape, and I’ll decide before I start exactly how long I’ll run and how fast. I won’t have to stop for traffic or avoid crowds and obstructions, it won’t be too cold or too hot, it won’t rain or snow on me, and I won’t be getting wet, apart from the sweat I squeeze out of my own pores. Any distance I run is strictly virtual, because I’m not going anywhere.
Some people I know agree with me that this is highly civilised. Others think it’s a waste of time and effort. I like to watch the sun rise or set outside, and the music on shuffle is always surprising, and my mind wanders off in lots of very productive ways. I also appreciate the good chemicals that the exercise releases into my bloodstream, and the sense of pleasure I get from simply being able to run.
After such a dismal set of early experiences
I also never fail to be astonished that I can now enjoy running, after such a dismal set of early experiences. I feel that I’ve turned something round. Running is no longer negative, and every time I do it I feel amazed that I can and that I do. I also wonder what state my health would be in by now if I hadn’t stopped smoking and started exercising. Of course, this is somewhat random, because I could have been struck down or affected by any number of other disasters or illnesses. I can only compare where I am against other possibilities that my limited imagination can come up with.
I don’t know whether I’ll discover the joys of running outside. There’s running round a track as in athletic pursuits, or running along roads or pavements, or even cross-country again. I think I might try the road first, if I ever do. I have yet to be persuaded of the pleasures of this when set against the treadmill in the gym.
I can set my own goals, and I can be in complete control
The track always seems to me to invite competition, and I would never be a good enough runner to compete in that way. And the cross-country thing is too reminiscent of school and all of its horrors for me to want to go there. I think I’ll probably stick to the gym, because it’s just about the running, and it’s sort of pure in the way that the other kinds of running aren’t.
I’ve written about swimming before, and it’s similar to running for me in that I can be very precise about distance and time, and I’m in control, unless other swimmers get in the way. I think what I like about both is that I’m not being made to do anything, I can set my own goals, and I can be in complete control. I can also do everything in a way that minimises the chances of discomfort or pain or the need to depend on others, and it becomes something I own completely. Perhaps I’m just a control freak, but if that’s so, it’s only for myself and not over anyone else.
We don’t have to join in or follow or be told what to do
I think this is something we all need; some form of activity or interest where we are in control of what we do and can proceed entirely according to our own whims or pleasures. This is why people have hobbies or read a lot, or go walking or paint or do any number of things. It’s our time, and our goals, and we don’t have to join in or follow or be told what to do, unless that is exactly what we want. For that period of time we’re free from the demands of others and the necessities of our lives, and we can be ourselves.
For many of us, with our busy lives and all those demands that take up so much of our time and attention, this can be literally a life- or sanity-saver, and we feel we’re losing our minds if we don’t get that release. I remember a long period of my own life when I lived on four hours sleep every night. I was working some distance away from home, there was a ridiculous commute and long hours of pressurised work, and I was determined to get home every night to spend time with my young children.
The thing that kept me sane
This situation lasted far longer than it should have done, and I shudder to remember it, including the times I drove too fast and took risks and almost fell asleep at the wheel. It was all for a good cause, but I was lucky to survive it and come out the other side intact. The thing that kept me sane and reasonably clear-headed was that I always made time for myself at the end of the day, even if it was midnight and I needed to be up early.
I’d spend an hour or so doing something just for me, and that seemed to clear the air or regain some balance. It almost didn’t matter what I did during that hour, as long as I chose the activity and allowed myself to get lost in it for a while. It was more important than sleep, it was almost a healing process for the madness of the day, and it gave me strength and refreshed my batteries every time.
We gain some well-earned pleasure and a feeling of well-being
Of course, not all so-called hobbies fulfil this function. Sometimes they can be used as weapons or a means to escape or avoid confrontation, and that doesn’t help anybody. But we shouldn’t underestimate the benefits of having some regular activity that we choose for ourselves, from which we gain some well-earned pleasure and a feeling of well-being.
Having a hobby is good for us and helps us feel comfortable with ourselves, and I suspect it also prolongs our lives. If your life is without hobbies, you should get one right away.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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