Out of Thin Air by Michael Crawley is a fascinating and beautifully crafted book. Based on 18 months of research, living and training alongside some of Ethiopia’s best long distance runners, Michael offers unparalleled insights into the cultures of Ethiopian distance running. The book’s subtitle ‘Running wisdom and magic from above the clouds in Ethiopia’ is a great snapshot of some key aspects of this culture. Ethiopian running is as much about belief, superstition and ritual as it is about times, paces and distances, which are all revealed to the reader through Michael’s lucid and lively account, inviting us along for the run too. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Out of Thin Air is more than worthy of all the rave reviews and plaudits it is attracting, which is so lovely to see. This book is based on Michael’s anthropology PhD at the University of Edinburgh, which he first told me about back in 2015 at the inaugral Running Dialogues seminar. Personally, it has been so nice to see the outcome of that journey, and what a triumph it is. The whole book is brilliant, but here I thought I would just highlight the aspects that I found particularly fascinating as a running geographer.
Running with places
Place is deeply entwined within Ethiopian running. Runners here know the value of particular places – their terrains, temperatures, airs and surfaces – and use these forces to enrich their running. Whereas most of my running starts and ends at my home, this is rare within Ethiopian running. It is much more common to travel to specific places so that their particular qualities can be harnessed for different types of running. These qualities of place are at once physical (environmental factors), cultural (the training grounds of famed runners) and almost a form of eco-spiritualism, where it is believed the energy of place can be transferred to runners. These intimate relationships between places and runners, of understanding the affordances and speciality of places, are passed from runner to runner but also developed through repeated interactions with environments. These are personal and collective geographies of running that see places as vital agents in running, not just abstract backgrounds. These are places ran with, not through.
One aspect of place worthy of special mention within Ethiopian running cultures is air. Throughout the book, the significance of air is discussed in both a literal and metaphorical sense. The special air of place refers to altitude, oxygen levels and their associated training benefits, as well as the magical, spiritual and enchanted feel of a place. This resonates with much discussion in geography currently around atmospheres. Atmospheres are understood as hard to pin down, continually emerging and shifting senses of places, shared moody force-fields that give places particular auras. In Michael’s book, the impact these literal and metaphorical atmospheres have on running experiences, beliefs and knowledges was vividly illuminated, and a fascinating dimension of Ethiopian running.
A difference with my own running I found fascinating, in Ethiopia, nobody runs alone. Indeed, it is treated with suspicion. If you are running to improve, you are running together. This is an idea that contrasts the individualistic notions of running middle-classness in the UK, and with this cultural shift comes a whole new range of practices and conventions more akin to cycling pelotons: learning to follow the feet in front of you, knowing your teammates movements intimately, waves of clicks being sent down the line to highlight rocks and potholes, zigzagging to keep everyone together. In Ethiopia, running is a communal endeavour, feeding off each others’ energy and improving together.
Reading from a UK perspective where every run I do is GPS tracked, timed and accompanied by umpteen different insights into how that run went, the Ethiopian perspective is a refreshing antidote. Here, running is more art than science. Running knowledges are embodied, developed through experience (along with magic and mysticism) and there is scepticism of sport science and the whiteness of this expertise. How can sport science know more than the body doing the running? GPS watches are certainly, and increasingly, present in Ethiopia but are not always used as expected. Accounts of using such technology to see how slowly you can run were very pleasing. These perspectives really resonate with me and I may well be tempted to leave the Garmin at home. But the collector in me doesn’t want gaps in my Strava record!
Out of Thin Air is truly a wonderful book. A glimpse into a fascinating running culture that inspires awe, intrigue and a healthy dose of self-reflection on our own running cultures. It is also a stark reminder that there are multiple running cultures and that talking about running in the singular, as though it is done the same way by everyone, everywhere, is an unhelpful starting place for conversations.
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