William Wordsworth liked to get out and about as we know, but how much more fun would wandering lonely as a cloud have been if he was into running? Helen Mort, a former poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, employs a similar technique of writing on the hoof, but at a faster pace. Her time in the Lakes resulted in her debut full-length poetry collection, Division Street, but also the more prosaic publication Lake District Trail Running: 20 Off-Road Routes for Trail & Fell Runners.
“Poetry for me is about memorability,” she says. “I don’t take anything to write or record with when I’m out running, because I like to trust that, if I’ve remembered it by the time I’ve got home, it must be half decent. My favourite poems are the ones where a line or an image or a phrase has really stuck with me. You turn it over and over in your mind, like a craftsman whittling it into the best possible shape.”
Raised in Chesterfield and now based on the edge of the Peak District in Sheffield, she’s a sub-3 marathon runner, past representative of Yorkshire in cross country and a keen climber. She knows she doesn’t fit the “pale and starving” image of the traditional poet, but finds it’s more fun this way. Her love of the outdoors fuels every element of her writing. Currently in the works: Never Leave the Dog Behind, a book of canine mountain adventures, and A Line Above the Sky, a memoir about climbing, nature, and motherhood. She ascended Snowdon with her toddler when he was a baby, and didn’t go the easy way.
“I am a very nervous person in general, and worry about things I shouldn’t worry about, particularly in relation to my child, but there’s something about being outdoors in the mountains, in my element, that takes that fear away. I actually feel very confident in those kinds of environments,” she says.
The link between running and writing isn’t a new discovery for her. She says she essentially does the same kind of work now that she did as a 14-year-old, when she attempted to write her first novel. It was the story of a group of girls who were all preparing to run the same race. “The way you push yourself as an athlete, and the way people engage with wild places, there’s so much to write about because it’s so psychological,” she explains. “I’m so interested in what drives people to do the things that they do.”
Childhood hikes with her dad, a hill walker who took her to high places in the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales and up some of Scotland’s Munros, led to a strong performance in a school PE beep test and the start of the road into club running. She has competed with Chesterfield & District Athletics Club, Ambleside AC and Sheffield Running Club. Her experiences have led to her becoming interested in what she calls “running as a feminist act”.
“A lot of my second poetry collection, No Map Could Show Them, was about the early days of women’s mountaineering and some of the prejudices that female climbers faced. That led me to stories about women in running, like the organisers trying to drag Kathrine Switzer out of the Boston Marathon. I thought my new collection wasn’t about running at all, but a lot of it is about body image, different generations of women, motherhood, the postpartum body, and lo and behold running has found its way into all of that as well,” she says. “It’s been a metaphor for freedom and being able to do things for yourself.”
And even though it’s hard to picture Byron or Shelley knocking out a Parkrun (how much sweat wicking could those billowing shirts really do?) Mort thinks she’s far from alone in her dual enthusiasms. “You don’t necessarily think of artists as the most clean-living, but things have changed. There’s a lot of overlap now. So many people use running as a kind of meditation.”
It works the other way round, for readers, too. “As a writer, it’s nice to think that a book can become somebody’s point of connection with the outdoors. You’re never without adventure when you’ve got a book, because it really transports you to the landscape of the writing. You can go on an adventure from your living room, and that’s what a run is too, isn’t it?” she says. “You can completely redeem your day just by going out your front door.”
THREE OTHER WRITERS WHO RUN
The Japanese author wrote a whole book about his training for the 2005 New York City Marathon, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. “For me, the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels,” he wrote.
Joyce Carol Oates
The prolific novelist and multiple Pulitzer Prize finalist has been an equally dedicated runner. “Both running and writing are highly addictive activities; both are, for me, inextricably bound up with consciousness,” she has said.
Paul Deaton, Kim Moore and Ben Wilkinson
These three poet-runners are the co-editors of a recent collection of poems about running, The Result is What You See Today. Like Helen Mort, they see a close connection between the two disciplines: “With running, it’s you versus the path ahead, you versus your fellow competitors. In poetry, it’s you versus the blank page,” says Wilkinson.