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Every step you take

Philosopher runs as a quest for meaning

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Why do we work? And why, in North America, are we so obsessed with working?

Why don't we join the rest of the equally developed but much more reasonable world and make leisure a priority?

These questions drive this beautiful little book but they do so in a very particular, focused way. As big questions, they are posed by a prodding, charmingly cocky philosophy professor. But this one also runs. A lot.

Like any philosopher worth his bombast, Mark Rowlands, now 48 and a professor at the University of Miami, has been peripatetic: raised in Wales, trained at Oxford, hired in Alabama, then to Ireland, then to France and finally back to the U.S.

These periodic grand meanderings set a beat of regular, ongoing journey for the smaller wanderings of the first focus of the book: daily runs.

These runs by this "aging philosopher and talentless runner" range from a very few miles to the Golden Fleece that haunts all runners: the 26.2 miles of the marathon. They are sometimes better described as "walks" and even "saunters" but more often than not are real, rigorous runs that seem to build relentlessly to something.

That is the point for Rowlands: What are the stories of these runs building to? Are they building to the tale of his first foray into marathoning that frames the book?

Or are those hundreds of thousands of steps his obsessive campaign against time? Or is his daily running an end in itself? In short, Rowlands runs -- does he therefore work, or does he therefore play?

His constant griping about injuries and aging is a front for a childlike joy that oozes from every page of Running with the Pack.

Nimble young Mark likes to run as fast and as far as he can. Decrepit "old" Rowlands likes to engage Spinoza and Descartes and even Plato.

So as he runs, he strives to use the metronome of his steps to impel his quest, really, for the meaning of life.

We learn soon enough the whining is a mask for the joy because of the second theme that shapes the book. Not only does Rowlands love his job as philosopher, not only does little Mark love running, but they both love animals. Dogs specifically.

Rowlands' professional writing consistently engages the questions in and around the nature of animals and our treatment of them. Throughout his entire life, he has been accompanied by dogs.

The principal canines in this part of his story are all now extraordinarily dearly departed but they live on in stories and at least one life.

The main character here is Brenin, a massive dog whose long partnership with Rowlands was chronicled in his bestselling The Philosopher and the Wolf (2009).

Through much of Running with the Pack, Brenin is teamed with younger Nina and Tess. This trio forms a daily quartet with Rowlands as he wanders so briskly.

Does Rowlands run with them because he needs them to be exhausted? Does he run with them to clear his mind? Does he run to enjoy their human-like companionship?

As all runners do, Rowlands ends where he started: with the frame-story of his 2011 marathon attempt. This mighty endeavour was massively hindered by yet another recent injury and, for this cranky prof, too little proper homework/training done.

As he stretches, runs, walks, limps, thinks and runs again, he must decide whether to stop at the temptress, the half-marathon, or go for the gold.

En route, he has a final philosophical epiphany (this time with Sartre) and presumably now can die in peace.

This, though, is not because he finished the marathon. That's not the point. The point is Rowlands had already named his first child "Brenin."


Laurence Broadhurst teaches in the departments of religion & culture and classics at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 A1

History

Updated on Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 12:30 AM CDT: Edits formatting.

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