In his new book, John Connell takes us on a 42.2km journey, a marathon, around the byways of rural Longford – his home turf – and beyond. It is a journey punctuated by local stories, nuggets of history and the musings of a man out on his long run. Bernie Commins chats to John about The Running Book, which takes reader and runner on an intriguing and unique journey
It occurs to me that there are two types of runners: those who run for something and those who run from something, writes John Connell in The Running Book. I ask which one he is.
“Well, I started as someone who ran from something. I was running from depression, a failed relationship and, a kind of failed life in Canada. Things were pretty bad for a while, so I think I was running from that. But I think the power of exercise is such that it changed after a few months to running ‘for’ something and finding the benefit. Now I run because I love it."
And in The Running Book – the second part in a trilogy – John’s love affair with running is evident. It is a central theme in the book, the background to which he regales us with stories from the past and present, the local and global.
“My first book, The Cow Book was, ultimately, about a man falling in love with life again, and The Running Book is about the joy of being alive. It is a celebration of movement and history, about living in the moment.”
There has been some change to John's life in recent years. Free from the fetters of the daily grind, he is now a professional writer, which means he can write and, importantly, run whenever he wants; he has gotten married; and he has reached a very positive place, both mentally and physically. Life is good.
Written in 2017, The Running Book knows nothing of the pandemic that would strike in 2020, it is footloose and fancy-free, and beautifully showcases the freedom that running can provide – pandemic or not.
“I have seen more people out running in Longford than I have ever seen before [the pandemic]. It is great, they are of all levels and nobody is judging anyone. I think running has kept me sane through it all; I have gotten fitter because I have had more time to run. When the travel restrictions were in place, there was a five-kilometre loop around here and that was my link to the outside world when we had full lockdown.”
Ultimately, he agrees, the pandemic-inspired interest and uptake in running must be heralded as a positive side effect of a societal health hazard.
“I think people are fitter and happier than they were pre-Covid-19 because they have discovered time with themselves and most people didn't have that before because they were stuck commuting, or they were stuck in traffic, stuck in a meeting. Life has gotten simplified. We all realised that there wasn’t much that we needed really: food, rest, entertainment and exercise. I think that people found the joy in movement again.”
Two roads converged
It is this joy of movement – of blissful running – that spurred John to write The Running Book. And it came easy to him, as he embellishes his running experience with highlights of a lifelong history lesson.
“I always wanted to write a book about running and I always wanted to write a book about history,” he says. Combining the two made sense.
“I wrote The Cow Book in 2016 and after I got the book deal, I had saved enough money to quit my job and go visit my friends in Spain to do a bit of running, and to write the second book, which I did in 2017. So, it is three years ago now. I had always had it in my head to write the next book about running and once I got settled into it, I wrote it in a couple of weeks, and it was really pleasurable. I was in Spain initially and then I went to Los Angeles and I would write during the day and then run in the evening, or go for a run in the morning and write in the evening.”
Once in a lifetime
John’s trip to the US gave him the opportunity to feature what is, he agrees, one of his favourite stories in the book, and, perhaps, one of his most life-affirming experiences so far: visiting the Navajo Native Americans.
‘In the Navajo tradition, running creates a living cord between earth and heaven, it is a means of communication between the living, the dead, and the holy’ he writes in the book. Running, John explains, is a sacred act for the Navajo, deep-rooted in their culture and heritage. His visit there was meant to be, he says.
“It was so coincidental how it all happened. I said to my friend, our parish priest, that I was going to go and meet the Navajo Americans. He asked me why and I said, 'I don't know really, I am just very interested in them’. He then presented me with a letter that he had from a distant relation of mine, who was a priest, who had lived with the Navajo and the letter details the links between the Irish and the Navajo. After that, I said, 'wow, I really need to go there'.
"I went to Monument Valley, the famous mountain range that features in all the westerns in the US. This is located in the Navajo Nation. It was just really, really special. And I remember it so fondly because I had never been on a trip like it, where you travel around the world and you end up meeting people like yourself.
“That was the thing that struck me when I was writing the book – runners are the same everywhere, everyone gets that great feeling of running out in the open, particularly in a special place. I was writing a book about local history and how it reflects to the greater world, running is a special thing that connects everybody and that was something that I really took out of it and loved.”
Keep on keeping on
Some people run to clear the mind, to filter out the day’s rubbish, while for others, their paths are fuelled simply by the thoughts of putting one foot in front of the other. The Running Book reflects the ability of the imagination to run a little wild while out and about. “You have to find different ways of keeping on,” says John. “Something that Sonia O’Sullivan once said to me was that ‘you will think of anything to keep moving, particularly when you get into distance' and I suppose, I kind of got into that space.
“In a sense, I wanted the book to be a history of Longford, where I am from, but really it is an 'anywhere' book and it is just to show you that everywhere has a story and its own interesting experience for you. When you are in the slow lane [I am a slow runner] you can kind of capture and think about all these things, reflect and learn so much about yourself.”
Food for the soles
John is a huge music fan and, like many of us, loves a good sing song on the road. Here are his top-five running tunes:
Mac De Marco – The stars keep on calling my name
Redbone – Come and get your love
Kendrick Lamar – Money trees
Paul Kelly – Before too long
Tom Misch – It runs through me
The Running Book – A Journey through Memory, Landscape and History is available online and in all good bookstores from October 2020.