A friend of mine, Alex Hutchinson, sent me the following video this week. It’s a fabulous and totally weird short film from the 1960s about a Canadian runner named Bruce Kidd. Kidd, in his day, was one of the best distance runners in the world, and an icon in Canadian running circles.
The film was made by the National Film Board, Canada’s national and serious art agency. The script is written in a strange, hilariously pretentious manner that somehow really really works, and the narration is done by… wait for it… W. H. Auden, one of the century’s greatest poets. It’s an exquisite piece of mid-60s Canadian high modernism.
The reason I want you to watch the Kidd film is not just because it's a bit of sublime Canadiana. It deserves to be watched because of Kidd. Just look at the way he runs! He’s short and slight, in the manner of nearly all great long-distance runners. He’s in his early twenties, but looks younger. And he doesn’t run so much as he tip-toes—brushing the ground with impossibly short, light-footed strides. But his form isn’t perfect, which is the other fascinating thing. He does a strange wriggly thing with one of his arms, as if he’s constantly battling a cramp in his bicep. I’ve never seen an elite runner do that before. (Except for the Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie, who ran with one of his arms slightly askew, which had been that way since he ran to school every day with his books under his arm.)
Some months back, I wrote a Bulletin on the puzzle of why comedy insiders—people who know comedy—loved Norm Macdonald, while I, a comedy outsider, did not. The reason, I concluded, is that because I don’t know much about comedy, I didn’t know what to appreciate in Macdonald's art. The same is true for running, I think. Elite track and field isn’t a very popular sport in the United States. (A friend of mine, who is an elite runner, once said he thought that there were 15,000 serious track fans in the whole country. I couldn’t tell whether he was kidding or not. Either way, it broke my heart.) And why isn’t it popular? Because most non-runners don’t know how to make sense of runners. To a non-runner, running is running. But to a serious runner, what Bruce Kidd is doing—the impossibly elegant little tippy-toe dance, with the weird arm wiggle—is mesmerizing. I could seriously watch an hour of that without taking my eyes off the screen.
Are you convinced? Let me give you another example, in which the beauty of the runner is even more pronounced.
It’s from a film that the hipster sportswear brand Tracksmith recently made about the New Zealand miler Nick Willis. (Full disclosure: I not only wear lots and lots of Tracksmith, but I also volunteered to do voice-over on two of their ads. I’m in the tank for Tracksmith!) Anyway, Willis is one of the greatest milers of his generation. Every year since he was 19, he has broken 4 minutes for the mile. This year, he traveled to New York City to see if, at the stroke of midnight on January 1, he could extend his streak of sub-4 miles to 20 consecutive years—which would be a world record.
A couple of notes about the film. Willis is paced throughout by two other world-class runners. Mason Ferlic leads the first half of the way. Ferlic is tall and floppy. He’s known to fans as “big bird.” Ferlic then gives way to Willis’s second pacer, the teen-aged sensation Hobbs Kessler who, at 18, is already in the top echelon of the world’s middle-distance runners. Ferlic is not an especially beautiful runner. Kessler is. Look at his slight forward lean, his rhythmic arm movements, the relaxation of his upper body. Someone once said to me that runners, while running hard, should be so relaxed above the waist that you should be able to push them over with the slightest shove. Kessler seems like that.
But oh. Look at Willis. Have you ever seen anything like that? A stride as smooth as whipped butter! An upper torso so relaxed he makes Kessler look like he’s in agony! A look on his face of complete contentment and serenity! I would remind you that Willis is running throughout this video at a 4-minute mile pace. In case you are wondering how fast that is, let me put it this way: unless you are a top athlete, in your teens or twenties, I very much doubt that you could keep up with him for longer than, at most, ten yards. He is flying. Does he look like he’s flying? No, he doesn’t. He looks like he’s out for a Sunday cruise. That is God-given talent, honed by thousands of hours of running. The rest of us weekend warriors only dream of moving like that. If he passed you on the track, you might not even notice at first, particularly if—like most imperfect runners—you were consumed with your own effort and exhaustion. You might just hear “tap, tap, tap,” then “whoosh” as he swept past, and then if you looked up from your labors, he would very quickly be so far ahead of you that could only see him if you squinted. (Until, of course, he came around again and lapped you.) There are lots of people who think Willis has the most beautiful form of any elite runner in the world.
Do you know what I do when I’m feeling blue? I watch running videos like these. They always make me feel like the world is a beautiful place. You should do the same.
[Header Photo: National Film Board of Canada]