Dr. Ian Mortimer is the author of twelve history books, two volumes of historical documents, four novels, three other books, and numerous articles on the history of England between the tenth and twentieth centuries. In total, his books have sold more than a million copies and been translated into fifteen languages. The Times referred to him as “the most remarkable medieval historian of our time” in recognition of his series of late-medieval historical biographies. He is also an avid runner, which led him to write Why Running Matters, a memoir about the meaning of running. In this interview, we discuss his running background and the significance of running beyond physical fitness.
Greg: Can you tell me a little bit about your professional and athletic background?
Ian: My professional background is in archives and academic history. Hence I have four university degrees and a sustained track record in annoying university lecturers (especially medievalists). I have worked for several research organisations but gave that up in 2003 to concentrate on writing full time. My aim is to be more scholarly than any other public historian and more readable than any other scholar. As for my athletic background—it is almost nothing. Only by proxy. My aunt, Angela Mortimer, won the Ladies Singles title at Wimbledon in 1961 (among many other titles) but I myself have no sporting background beyond going for a jog now and then.
Greg: Your books cover a wide variety of genres, from history to fiction. What led you to write a memoir about running?
Ian: I am first and foremost a writer, therefore I naturally communicate best through the written word. When I have something to say, I write about it. It’s as simple as that. The inspiration might be something I’ve read or heard on the radio, or somewhere I’ve been, or even a tune I’ve stumbled on while playing a guitar. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Thus when I started running “seriously” (i.e. more than once a week), I discovered that you can find food for thought in your physical activities. It was such a revelation! As I mention in the book, it was like discovering a previously unknown cathedral—and who would NOT want to tell their friends about such a discovery? In my case, “telling my friends” includes setting pen to paper and thinking about phrases to convey my enthusiasm and insights to the public.
Greg: Why Running Matters offers several lessons about running that go beyond physical fitness. Can you share a few lessons that first occurred to you when you conceived the book or stood out to you as you wrote it?
Ian: The very first one mentioned in Why Running Matters is the only one that directly helped inspire the book. It was simply a case of my youngest son, Oliver, phoning me up when he saw one of my parkrun [a free, weekly, timed 5K run held on Saturday mornings across the world] times and wanted to congratulate me for achieving a long-held ambition. That made me think about the way we care for each other’s achievements. It’s a line of thought that I’ve been enriched by ever since.
When I run with other people, I care for my companions’ successes. I call it ‘benevolent competitiveness’. It’s not about being fastest or anything like that—that is the sort of competitiveness most of us leave behind at school. It’s more about bringing out the best in each other. I would rather run a half marathon with a friend or rival who beat me by ten minutes than run alone. I’d like it even more if he or she beat me by twelve minutes, especially if I was really trying hard. On my birthday in 2018 I ran a parkrun with seven friends and the fact that I was the only one of us not to run a PB didn’t matter in the slightest: we were all very happy with our collective success. I felt their achievements were like a present for me.
The two chapters in the book that stand out most for me now relate to two long runs. First, there’s “Family and Familiarity,” when I ran around the part of suburban south London where I grew up (Bromley, Petts Wood, Orpington, Bickley and Shortlands); second, the Portsmouth marathon 2017. The first one was like seeing my whole life—well, about fifteen years of it—flash before my eyes but without the drawback of being about to die. It was that much more enjoyable as a result (who can appreciate seeing their life flash before their eyes knowing that it’s shortly going to be over?).
The other most cherished, memorable chapter describes my first marathon, which gave me the most incredible high. I didn’t know whether I could run 26 miles but on the day I just started very slowly and ran faster and faster until the end. I felt triumphant throughout the second half.
Greg: Would you expect to derive similar lessons from other endurance sports (cycling, rowing, swimming, cross-country skiing, etc.), or is there something unique about running?
Ian: Similar, yes, but not the same. Those other events require equipment (or a pool), and thus they act as a self-selection tool that excludes many people. One of the things I love about running is that all you need is a pair of trainers and some lightweight clothing and off you go. Another thing I like about it is that that means everyone who does it is equal, more or less, in that we aren’t in faster boats or on faster bikes, etc., and there’s a shared camaraderie as a result.
It doesn’t matter if someone is able to run 10K ten minutes faster than me: at the end of the day, we’ve both propelled ourselves over the same bit of ground and experienced the same weather, etc. with no technical equipment but our shoes. That binds people together—parkrun is a good demonstration of that. And when it comes to writing about it, it means what I write about my experience in a half-marathon or a parkrun has meaning for other people in the same event. Or even those who weren’t there at all. Even those who don’t run.
I have a hunch that you could do much the same thing with an activity like mountaineering or rock-climbing. The books that touch the public imagination go well beyond the activity itself. However, to get the same level of meaning out of another competitive sport, I imagine, you’d have to tie it to something else that everyone could understand, such as a quest to be fast or to go further, to break a record or achieve something special.
So someone who is passionate about cycling could certainly write a meaningful book about cycling for other cyclists but, to make it meaningful for those of us who don’t ride, he/she’d have to tie it to a narrative that all of us could understand. I’m not saying this could not be a quest to discover the greater secrets of life through cycling but the revelations would have to be about much more than the cycling itself. Writing about running is therefore simpler—and, ironically, allows you to digress more. It gives you more freedom.
Greg: What are your thoughts about some of the recent technological developments in running, such as Nike’s Vaporfly shoes that are supposed to boost a runner’s efficiency, or all of the technology employed in the Breaking2 effort? Do those advancements change the meaning of running, or are they a byproduct of elite athletes with a very different purpose than most runners?
Ian: To be honest, although the Vaporfly debate is fascinating and raises many philosophical issues, it does not concern my own relationship with running or with other runners. I love watching elite athletes run, and if I ever met Mr. Kipchoge, I’d express my admiration for him. But it would be very much along the lines of my admiration for Lewis Hamilton in a racing car. They are doing in athletics and F1 driving what I am trying to do in history writing.
With the technology at his disposal, each man has proved himself the best, or at least the best contender to be acclaimed the best. Neither got into that position accidentally. But with regard to my own running, there is little impact, if any. Kipchoge’s triumph merely alters very slightly the limits of what we perceive to be humanly possible—albeit in the most dramatic, exciting and uplifting way—and gives a framework to an incredible personal story.
Greg: How has the meaning of running changed as you’ve gotten older? How do you expect that meaning to evolve as you continue to age and run?
Ian: This is a big question for me at the moment. Why Running Matters was written about my running in the year I turned fifty (2017). It starts with the premise: “first you run for fitness; next you run for speed; then you run for meaning” and concludes “finally, you run for other people.” But since lockdown I have been revising what I think about that. It is as if it makes sense on a daily level but fails to satisfy a deeper curiosity in me, and thus fails on an “eternal” level.
With no parkruns, no half-marathons and no 10Ks, I find myself more often running by myself. My elder son has now left home; my daughter won’t run, full stop; and my younger son is not running at the moment. Various running friends have managed to injure themselves. And so one day, running along, I found myself asking, “if it is true that I run for other people —is that it? If I were the last person alive on earth, would I not run?” On the day I thought that, I had to stop, and walk, and start thinking.
The realisation since then has been that running for yourself, with no care as to what anyone else is doing, is a very different activity. It’s neither better nor worse—you can’t compare the two. It’s more like yoga than a sport, due to the lack of competition. You have to trust that the benefits for other people lie in you being a better person and thus more considerate or understanding towards them. Except that, as a writer, that isn’t enough for me, as it reduces the entire process to one of just doing it and not making it meaningful for others. So that has forced me to ask, what is the meaning of running if it is not about doing it with other people? That is a challenging question for someone like me.
In my professional work, historical research is useless unless it is shared: the whole point is that it is about communication. Who cares if I’m right or wrong about the causes of the Hundred Years War if I don’t tell anyone what I think? So, running alone? Having to do it makes me search for answers to the deep philosophical questions of life. Why are we here? How come life evolved in the way it did? What is the origin of death? What makes us social creatures? What makes us what we are? Unless you’re doing it for a practical reason like fitness or trying to lose weight, the meaning of running alone is like meditation. Running with others is more of a celebration.
To answer the question, yes, the meaning of running has changed for me as the years have passed—but not necessarily due to my ageing. And it will continue to change in the future as the questions it raises in my mind demand deeper and more lasting answers. I am hopeful that in future I can combine the two—the meditation and the celebration—in both my running and anything I might write about running in the future.
Greg: You said that while running alone, “You have to trust that the benefits for other people lie in you being a better person and thus more considerate or understanding towards them.” You made a very clear argument about how running with other people encourages you to find joy in others’ successes. But how does running make you a better person even if you are not running with others?
Ian: The answer has to be subjective, as I don’t think there can be an objective one that is true for everyone. In fact, there is probably a different answer for every individual. The reason running alone will “make you a better person” is very much a matter of what it is about your character that is negative in the first place. For me, I have an intense self-consciousness, which means I am enormously self-driven and determined but also that I am sometimes neglectful of others’ needs. And it means that I can come across as being self-important and judgemental too, which is distressing to me as well as other people.
So the greatest benefit for me from running alone is humility. There is humility in the process of not checking times, not trying to run against a friend or rival, and not striving for personal goals or announcing them on Strava. This is to be embraced because humility is one of the hardest things to achieve in life (especially in this self-obsessed, selfie-snapping, hero-worshipping, judgemental age).
There is no reason why, as an amateur running alone, moving through 5K of air in an indeterminate time is any better or worse than doing the same thing in under 20 minutes. But is very difficult to adapt from challenging oneself to do a fast 5K to running without ever placing any importance on the performance. To do it regularly without some other payoff (like losing weight, or training for an event) requires someone to set aside their sense of self or their self-importance, and most of us find that difficult. I think of it as a matter of dissolving myself in the mass of humanity and becoming anonymous. And if I can become more humble by doing so, or even trying to do so, perhaps I can become “a better person” in terms of being more attentive to others’ concerns, needs, worries and priorities.
One of the most inspiring things I have ever read was Jean Genet’s last book, What Remained of a Rembrandt in which he describes an apocalyptic vision in a railway carriage and realises the truth of every man and woman being worth exactly the same as any other. For him, that meant character annihilation and the loss of everything that he cherished— “everything that stems from seduction” as he put it. I feel the same way. I fear it, that self-destroying anonymity of true equality. But when I run alone I know it is true: I am not worth any more or less than anyone else. I lose myself in simply being a human being—and am freer than I could ever be in any other environment.