Field of Play: Running to my heart's content | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: Running to my heart's content

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2014 | 01:33 PM

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The author rediscovered the joy of running amid the historic structures of the University of Oxford. The author rediscovered the joy of running amid the historic structures of the University of Oxford.

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Seeking to recapture the carefree feeling of running as a child, I set out to make a lap around Oxford.
When it comes to running, I'm one of the middle-distance men.

By that I mean I'm 56 years old and somewhere in between when placed in this all-too-human race. Truth be told, I'm probably a hell of a lot closer to the home stretch than I am to the starting blocks.

But I don't care to think about that much and I hate to dwell upon the inevitable. In fact, the wire at the end of the road is something I'd just as soon avoid for as long as possible.  

Then again, that's why I run in the first place.  

I've convinced myself that it's running which helps my mind and body stave off elimination. Who knows, there might even be some truth in it.

That doesn't mean that every once in awhile I can't relegate the approaching finish line to the far reaches of my brain and indulge in hoofing it without any apparent purpose.  

Rare is the chance to understand that there should be no fitness regimen to maintain, no schedule to adhere to, no distance to cover or clock to beat.  

Instead, the luxury of recognizing the gem of a little child's play presents itself. It comes in the form of the opportunity to run without premeditation, other than to withdraw from the rigours of adulthood and rediscover that youthful cadence which was once a joyous instinct.

In short, it is to run to your heart's content.

So it was that I set out to run around Oxford.  

Horse play

It is home to the oldest and most revered educational institution in the English-speaking world. There is evidence that teaching first went on here in 1096, and 27 Nobel laureates have graduated from its impressive colleges, not to mention untold numbers of presidents, prime ministers and a multitude of noteworthy pioneers in a kaleidoscope of endeavours.  

Port Meadow I have, because of family connections, visited Oxford many times, and following on my experience at the recently completed Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, I ventured back again.

It is an ancient place but each time I come here, I'm reminded of simpler, better things from those days when I was a kid. These are childish memories to indulge, I admit.

As I began the trek at what seemed to me like a breakneck pace I was full of beans and blurted out "I feel like a racehorse," to anyone listening.

"You don't sound like a racehorse," replied my long-suffering running partner. "More like a farting donkey, I'd say."

Undaunted and unoffended, I galloped on.

Adventure in Wonderland

Through the luscious Port Meadow and by the lingering cattle and horses, I encountered legions of trotters who loped along in the laziness of a weekend mid-morning.  

Treacle Well The clouds, like those at the beginning of an episode of The Simpsons, were puffy and billowed forth in an almost cartoon-like fashion as they raced across the bright, blue canvas of the English sky.

I alternated between sprinting and then gasping for breath, recovering each time after forcing the ducks in my path to scatter in a flap of awkward flight.

It was a silly game with running at the heart of it... delightful in its not-yet-forgotten simplicity.

At one point I came upon the ancient St. Margaret's Church at Binsey where I paused to examine the mysterious and magical Treacle Well that Lewis Carroll had written about in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was another reminder of being a youngster and of so many fantasies yet unfulfilled.

In Bannister's footsteps

In Oxford, at the Iffley Road Track on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human being to run a mile in under four minutes. It happened more than 60 years ago but it still rings a bell with me. I can remember my father being flabbergasted by Bannister's accomplishment and recounting the still-fresh tale when I was little.

It was, to a very young person, akin to a man landing on the moon, and indeed, it was proclaimed by many to be the athletic achievement of the 20th century.

Iffley Road So on that day, as I set foot on the track at Iffley Road and ran a lap, I imagined myself tracing the footsteps of a hero or at the very least a fabled figure. I became inspired by the notion, and as I gobbled up the setting I wondered to myself, how could Bannister have been so fast?

Nowadays, the sub-four-minute mile is seen as old hat, but consider the fact that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have equaled or bettered Bannister's time.

I've been reading his autobiography, and in it the legendary runner describes his motivation to attain what was for generations thought to be an unreachable goal.

"I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well," Bannister wrote.

And yet, as I floated over the lanes at Iffley, I knew there was no chance for me to be great because of my running. Ludicrous was the belief that I could approach his time or distinguish myself athletically, as he had, at this late stage in my life.

I made one last circle and headed for home.

'Liberated from stopwatches'

Rambling past the great colleges of Oxford and the Radcliffe Camera, where all of the medical volumes of the magnificent university are gathered, I dodged my way over the cobbled and weathered streets of the town.

Back in the Port Meadow I stopped to sit on the grass and watch dogs chase children and vice versa.

There were people on bicycles and a fisherman flinging balls of bait into the middle of the Thames River with the aid of a slingshot. I swept past the ruins of the Godstow Nunnery and spied other runners who had amazingly stopped for a refreshing pint at the idyllic Trout Tavern.

I kept on running in my gleeful way.

Trout Tavern And on this day I felt as if I was never tired and that somehow I might go on forever.

Roger Bannister is old now, somewhere in his mid-80s. Yet in his book he does not dwell on that spectacular watershed he created six decades ago, and that which has made his a name that still resonates today.

Instead he talks about an elemental delight which came to him naturally.

"I was running now and a fresh rhythm entered my body," Bannister recalled. "I discovered a new unity with nature. As I accelerated I felt something of that experience of running in childhood, with the surge of adrenaline added. I was liberated from a world of stopwatches. I was transformed by the pure joy of making a physical effort for which my body was well prepared."

This is what I felt that day in Oxford.

I was not yet resigned to be the "farting donkey" that appeared to all the various onlookers.

Rather, I became the little boy that I aspire to be again.  

I was sweating, wheezing, laughing and savouring every moment of the hour or more that had elapsed since I went out the door.

I was running to my heart's content, and the finish line was nowhere in sight.

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