Running and walking with writers at Swindon Festival of Literature

6 May

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Life’s all about choices, and on a warm bank holiday Monday afternoon I faced a dilemma – take a 5km run through Swindon’s Lydiard Park with some Lycra-clad literature lovers, or enjoy a gentle stroll around the ornamental lake of the Georgian stately home with storyteller Rachel Rose Reid.

So while the fitness fanatics got sweaty (more of whom later) I, and a crowd of 40, which grew in size as we meandered lazily through the Park – much like the rats in the popular folk tale about the Pied Piper of Hamelin – enjoyed stories and songs from around the world, spun and beautifully sung by the internationally-renowned storyteller.

Not that we were to get away without doing any exercise at all. Some of the stories involved audience participation in the form of vigorous actions. A Ghanaian tale of talking yams involved us pretending to dig, and running on the spot. And I swear the walk back from the lake back to the mansion house was actually uphill.

At the last stop, under the shade of a tree, Rachel reminded us that Charles Dickens – who came from humble beginnings and was not afraid to explore the less affluent parts of London – would walk for inspiration, and recited one of her own poems: a contemporary twist on his night walks composed for the 200th anniversary of his birth.

The walk ended with tea and biscuits, but there was to be no calorie consumption for me – I was off to rejoin the runners whom, leg muscles suitably flexed, were engaging their brains with Alexandra Heminsley, the author of Running Like A Girl.

Giggly, bubbly, engaging Heminsley is a self-proclaimed girly-girl, freelance features writer for the likes of Elle, Red and Grazia, and author of the cunningly-titled Ex in the City – a book about being dumped. Her new (equally cunningly titled) book explores her reasons for running, and why more of us – myself included – don’t.

The author has a couple of marathons under her belt, but this isn’t the tale of a remarkable woman who’s done amazing things with her legs and a pair of Nikes; rather it’s the story of a writer who happens to run, peppered with stories of remarkable women, like marathon runners Julia Chase-Brand and Katharine Switzer, who defied the laws banning women from competing in races longer than 880 yards.

Heminsley got into running after her brother won a place on the London Marathon. “I wish I could run,” she told him over the phone. “You can run – you just don’t,” commented her father, who was within earshot.

The author – who couldn’t make it to the end of the street the first time she pounded the pavements – is of the opinion that pretty much everyone can run, but that most people are put off by the thought of being ‘bad’ at it. “Don’t try to be better than others,” is her advice. “Try to be better than yourself.”

“Being good at running should be measured by how joyful or celebratory it makes you feel, not how fast you go. I believe in the infinite capacity of running to change your mood.”

Of course, there are plenty of people attempting to dissuade us from running – from education secretary Michael Gove (“Hearing him say that running should be used as a punishment at schools breaks my heart”) to, ironically, ad execs for sportswear companies (“It’s sold to us [women] as being about weight loss and getting the bikini body… about how we look, rather than how we feel.”)

And Heminsley is an advocate of the running writer. Dickens may have taken night walks for inspiration, but today we can carry distractions like smartphones on our walks. “Running gives you the self discipline to tear yourself away from the screen. Your run gives you really valuable thinking time – it’s a magic gap time.”

Peter Davison took a cycle ride in preparation for this review.

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