The Quays to the City - Manchester, Spring 2009
One of the ways running changed my life was almost entirely geographical.
As a jobbing club comedian, particularly in the first ten years of my career - the first ten years of this century - my life rotated around weekend visits to UK cities. I got very used to heading out of my flat, and later my house, on Thursday lunchtime and rolling back in some time Sunday, after three nights of performing one or two shows a night.
Sometimes I wouldn’t be away at the weekend - I’d be working in London, or doing one-night shows in a variety of places - but other times I’d be away for longer, stringing together five, eight, ten nights of gigs around the country.
A visited a great slate of cities - Manchester, Southampton, Glasgow, Bristol, Brighton, Edinburgh, Bath, Leicester, Cardiff, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle, Birmingham and more - but it was a finite list; within a couple of years I’d been to all these places several times, and knew them well. Or if I didn’t know them well, I knew all the bits that suited me - good record shops, independent cinemas, places where you could get a good cocktail - not to mention where the Wagamama and the Sainsbury’s Local were.
Sometimes I would fill the daytimes - the Fridays and Saturdays - with work. I might’ve been writing an Edinburgh Fringe show, or exchanging long production emails, or sorting out money stuff; as the musical element of my set got more complicated, I’d often book a band rehearsal room, just for me on my own. Back then, simply finding a good internet connection used to keep us travelling folk pretty busy. As Christmas approached - with more shows and longer stays away, as all the parties came to the clubs - I’d gleefully shop and wrap for days on end, arriving in, say, Birmingham as myself, and leaving laden with tempting-looking gifts like a mufti Santa.
I like some of these cities more than others, of course, but I kind of love them all, because for the time I’m there, I’m home. And back then, for all the writing, working and shopping, the daytimes ultimately featured a lot of time in cafés, cinemas and hotel rooms - all of which I’m good at. I know how I like my coffee. I know not to go to the cinema on Saturday afternoon, when the talkers go. And in my hotel, I don’t moulder; when I arrive, I unpack - neatly. When I wake up, I get up, get dressed and make my bed.
But when I started running, I took my relationship with these places to the next level. Before I’d really done one, I imagined the optimum outdoor run was down country lanes through the English countryside. Of course not; I’m a city boy, raised playing in the parks, and walking with my grandparents along the canal towpaths, of West London. Now each of these cities I was already friends with opened up their loveliest outdoor spaces to me. Sometimes they weren’t that lovely, or at least, not exactly Venice - but if, for example, you follow the canal towpaths East of Birmingham, right to and under Spaghetti Junction, on a sunny morning, it’s beautiful. Water, wildlife, greenery, blue skies and fresh air; even the thundering M6 overhead gives you a frisson of pleasure in having taken the road less travelled by.
Manchester was one of the first cities I used to tour to in this way; in the early 2000s I would go up on Tuesday to do XS Malarkey at bar XS in Fallowfield, then stay right through till Sunday doing the often fairly rambunctious Frog & Bucket. So when I started getting booked for weekends at the mighty, legendary Comedy Store I already knew where all the city-centre cinemas and the 24-hour shops were; the new experiences began with nice hotels, but almost immediately headed out behind them, along Manchester’s superb waterways. Those stovepipe-hatted Victorian businessmen may not have known how to respect the human rights of textile workers, but they sure could lay out a running route.
These days the Comedy Store put us up in a really nice hotel right by the old Hacienda, and I like to run out of town along the Bridgewater Canal to the big shiny excitements of Salford’s Media City and back. When I first went up for them they used another nice place, just a couple of streets over, which backed on to what I thought was another canal, but was actually the River Irwell, factored and engineered into the fabric of the city as it burgeoned in the nineteenth century.
It too snakes out towards Media City, and was my original route. Suddenly, from 2008, I was doing something completely new, in completely new places, through these old, familiar spots; I remember finding what was - I didn’t realise at the time - quite a sketchy riverside path and heading right past my hotel room window on the opposite bank, literally thinking ‘woah; who have I become?’
It was an inauspicious beginning for what would become a favourite run in a favourite running city; it was raining, and there’s a stretch of the river there which is a bit of a hinterland - redeveloped, by the look of it, in the eighties, but perhaps forgotten a little as the tram flew over it to the newer museums, theatres and TV studios of Salford Quays. I ran along mossy pavements under old, moon-like street lights towards locked gates, gaps in the pavement opening up to show pipes and wires below… it was a ‘this can’t be right?’ route, and as it rained harder, I had to give up the riverside and run across some scrubland to pick up a dusty little road that led to a dead end. Away from a dead end in this case. Thank goodness for that little road - handy for me, as it would doubtless have been for, say, a couple of Mafiosi looking for a handy spot to lob a corpse in a shallow grave. Maybe that’s what happened to the big and very dead bird I nearly tripped over.
Although there would have been witnesses. As I felt more and more of a lycra-clad fool, trying to keep running as I scrambled up a bank in the middle of nowhere, brambles scratching at my legs, I looked up at a tram trundling past on the overhead line, full of Mancunians doubtless on the way to work - it was first thing on a Friday - staring back through the windows at me blankly, like a jury. The verdict: idiot.
I kept running. The path by the river began again, still sketchy and murder-friendly, but leafier now. Then, close to Old Trafford, the path opened up into a wide pavement, the water spreading out on my right towards new, silvery buildings and fancy bridges ahead. There were swans! And in the distance, a person or two - looking more dog-walky than homicidal. Media City was more like the Emerald City for me that day. I ran through it, past the building where, a couple of years later, I would win Mastermind without getting any of my specialist-subject questions wrong.
Did I shoehorn that in?
On the return route, I found the good way; I crossed over the Throstle Bridge and came back along the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal, loving my run now; loving the whole thing, in spite of the early trouble. I chuckled as a ridiculously appropriate song came on in my headphones - the fantastic ‘Thieves Like Us’ by New Order. Expansive and filmic, I had fallen in love with it listening to their singles album Substance - on cassette - more than twenty years before. I remembered seeing shots of Manchester set to it on a South Bank Show about the band, before I’d ever visited the place. Now I was living it - as the chunky, mid-speed drum machine and the shimmery synths took their time building up to Peter Hook’s enormous bass slide in the extended introduction, I was the video, striding through this fantastic city’s history, from the twenty-first-century architectural adventure of Media City, through the quintessential Victorian engineering of the bridges, tunnels and locks of Deansgate, towards the Hacienda, the iconic club this very band had helped to build. Well - the car park where it used to be. As Bernard Sumner sang the deceptively glib, satisfyingly gnomic lyrics of love found and lost, for me I knew the song was about my relationship with Manchester. I didn’t know then how much I would fall in love with running there, but it all began that rainy day.
All that, plus I did one of my earliest Tweets that day; one of the first to be well-received, anyway:
’Ah, a morning run along the banks of the Irwell; how nice to be-EWWW!! DEAD GOOSE DEAD GOOSE!!!’
Listening to music while you run is frowned upon in some circles.
It’s strange, when you think of the people you see running out and about; so many of them have headphones on - earbuds in - that the naked-eared purist would seem to be the exception. And modern running is totally tied in with 21st-century tech; those earbuds aren’t just playing tunes, or some great running podcast - chances are there’s an App watching those runners from space, and an additional voice in their ears telling them when to speed up and slow down, how far they’ve come and how much energy they’re burning - even whether they’ve managed to escape a virtual horde of zombies, or been caught and eaten.
But if you sign up to a running event - a 10k, a Half Marathon, a Marathon - headphone disapproval starts to creep in. Now, I totally accept that a warning is appropriate. If you reduce your ability to hear when you’re taking part in a group event, you have to make sure you can still hear instructions from marshals, sirens coming up behind you, etc - and pointing this out in a message to participants is appropriate.
If you haven’t ever received one of these messages, however, you would be amazed how often a passive aggressive ‘do it without headphones anyway - so you can enjoy the day’ creeps in. And occasionally the aggression isn’t passive anymore - ‘this event is for proper runners, and if you’re seen wearing headphones, you will be disqualified’, or words to that effect, really does happen from time to time.
I’m not having it. If I get that second message, I’m either asking for my money back, or doing that run, wearing my headphones, ready for a row. Yes, runners need to take care - but they do, so let’s not lay it on too thick; I’ve never heard of some great running disaster, where someone listening to Led Zeppelin missed an instruction and careened off a cliff. And if you can’t get the attention of a marathon runner passing you at twenty-two miles, it’s more likely to be because they’re locked in a tunnel of pain and perseverance than because they’ve got Katy Perry on.
There’s a traditional British idea of the cross-country runner - as seen, years ago, in comic strips about Alf Tupper, or the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - that still very much abides. A working-class Northerner in a vest, this man - always a man - would NOT listen to music, or anything else, whilst pounding miles and miles of chilly grey paths.
This kind of runner is still very much a part of contemporary running - I know these guys, they’re amazing runners and wonderful people. They’re not just Northerners these days, and some of them are women! Many of them are middle class, but like comedians, they’d be unlikely to identify as such. Future tech is embraced - but worn on the wrist. No phone. No headphones. The biggest philosophical shift is probably a culture-wide acceptance that running is good for you openly and simply, physically and psychologically - it’s no longer some kind of post-religious self-flagellation, offering self-worth only through great suffering. Punishing though it can be. We love it, it can help us love ourselves - and that’s OK.
I have no problem with this model. In another universe I AM that runner - we certainly share a level of obsession, and one of the most important things running brought to my life was leaving my phone - and all the texts, calls, emails, social networks and cat videos therein - at home for an hour. But I am also obsessed with music. There is always music in my head. When I listen to music, I am not introducing it to my silent thoughts - I’m merely taking control of what tune plays.
That’s not to say that I listen to music all day every day - although I do pretty much listen to music all day every day. If I’m writing a song, then I’ll let those melodies fill my noggin instead, and see where it goes. But not when I’m running, because running is too rhythmic - it carries too much of its own music; I end up ‘listening’ to a mildly nightmarish, relentlessly repetitive tune I find playing as my feet hit the ground, my sleeve brushes my body, the breath goes in and out of my lungs. I have run 10k races without headphones a couple of times - one of those, I think, was even because they weren’t allowed, before I was such a zealous defender of my music - but I ended up literally attempting to play songs - whole albums - note-for-note in my head, just to keep my sanity, and escape the step-step-step, breath-breath-breath mental hamster wheel.
Whatever works, eh? Anyone who runs is a runner, from someone doing the NHS’s Couch to 5k for the first time - or trying to do it again - to some incredible, superannuated fell-runner who wouldn’t take his house key with him, never mind wear an Apple watch. But if you feel in some way that, by listening to music while I run, I’m not accessing the entirety of the experience, the true majesty of running, that’s where I need to put you straight. Music makes my running beautiful - not because of the great tunes, great tunes though they are, but because music damps down the mundane machinations of my mind. It helps me stop thinking about the act of running. It helps me stop thinking about my life beyond the run. It opens up a mindful, meditative space, and helps me be… present; alive to where I am - open to the wonderful world beyond this plodding machine. I honestly believe I’d be more likely to hear that marshal, or see that approaching meteor with my headphones in.
So don’t worry. It works for me. And I am a Proper Runner. We all are. Even though vests really chafe my pits.