Walking into Catriona Menzies-Pike’s address, Why I’ve Lost Every Marathon I’ve Ever Run, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Thursday, one may have expected to see an audience 20 or 30-somethings dressed in active wear, ready to be motivated by a “fitspo” pep-talk. But such an assumption was wrong. People were not there to be motivated to run marathons. They were there because they were intrigued by her.
Ms Menzies-Pike has completed five marathons, not an easy feat but she has other impressive credentials. She is the author of The Long Run, has a PhD in English literature from the University of Sydney and has worked in editing roles for digital media for the past decade.
But what captivates her audience is her self-deprecating attitude towards her athletic achievement. She admits she is a “really, really slow runner” and is “not particularly interested in becoming a fast runner”. Now the lack of gym junkies in attendance makes sense.
It wasn’t the athleticism of marathon runners that drew her into the sport. In fact, anything athletic is still to this day something that makes her cringe. It takes her back to her days of going to all lengths to get out of her school cross country event, as running was something which “put her unco-ordination on display”. She says she was an awkward, clumsy adolescent.
No, it was the curiosity of endurance and the ability to constantly move for a prolonged period of time that prompted her interest. She was intrigued by friends who completed marathons. It struck her that “there must be something poetic in their endeavour” and that made her think that she could run a marathon, too.
Like most action spurred on by self-empowering statements, she expected her interest to fade. But it didn’t. As she felt her body become stronger, she discovered that endorphins really do exist and running gave her a new kind of empowerment she never knew possible.
Ms Menzies-Pike explains what she sees as the difference between a runner and an athlete. “The runner, she just runs. The athlete competes. I got carried away by the glee of running, but I never managed to become an athlete.”
And then there is the relative value of speed and slowness. The questions she faces with great frequency revolve around that of her speed. “How fast can you run a marathon? What’s your best time for the half-marathon?” These questions, and her acknowledgement that she is a slow runner, were the catalyst for her book.
When researching the history of running, she found that stories framed around winning and losing were dominant in the literature. But this wasn’t what she needed in order to articulate what running meant to her, a self-proclaimed slow runner. She knew she would always be a loser; she needed stories that weren’t about competition or performance management.
Performance management is comprehensively covered in marathon training literature, and Ms Menzies-Pike understands she is in the minority when it comes to running purely for the joy of it. “I found myself in a new relation to the city around me; I listened to the whoosh and glide of my limbs and the hypnotic rhythm of my feet.” She says she was aware of the wind on her chest and shoulders and sternum, and the way the sun hit her skin.
While she admits to occasionally keeping a record of times or distances, especially when training for a long run, it is clear her love for running is the reason she does it. She often wonders why amateur athletes worry so much about performance. “After all, the etymological root of amateurism is the love. So I’ve become somebody who loves running. A real amateur who runs slowly.”