Surfing vs Running
Finding the middle ground of obsession.
I’m just back from Portugal, near Peniche. It’s the first time I’ve left Scotland in probably three or four years, and the first with my kids. They were good as gold considering it was their first experience of flying and standing in various sweaty queues with indistinct purpose.
I thought I missed travelling, but it turns out I don’t. I mean, I miss being places, but the process of getting there isn’t that fun, really. At least not if you’re relying on anything but your own power. And I still hate flying.
Honestly, everything seemed like a hassle, the flight, the parking, the queues, a hire car rigamarole that I’ve no desire to recount here. The crowded spaces bothered me. The dusty orange heat of Lisbon made me want to get out as quickly as possible. I never was a city person.
The trade-off is that the whole of Portugal’s Atlantic coast offers year-round swell, which is particularly good in September and October. It’s warm, and there’s some kind of surf every day if you want it. It’s a peninsula, so there’s nearly always somewhere offshore. It’s great for me, and one day I hope it will be for the kids, too. They’re lukewarm towards surfing now, but at just four and five there’s plenty time.
I surf a lot less than I used to. That’s at least partly because of running. I’ve thought about my relationship with each a lot lately. I’m someone who’s always needed things to obsess over. Passions form the basis for our identities, our relationships, our world-views. It doesn’t matter what you love, what matters is that you have something. I think that’s the point of life.
But finding what you love and letting it kill you is a fallacy. Finding what you love and letting it last is the true purpose.
I’ve loved and lost many things. Some deserved more, some much less, but surfing and running have remained relatively consistent. These days, I appreciate each for its contrast.
They’re different in the geography they need and the way you observe landscapes. Running for me is mostly a solo activity. Surfing can be, too, but more often than not if the waves are good you’re sharing them.
Running feels more consistent and controlled. Effort can be tweaked, and you can do it any time you like. Surfing mostly controls you. It can be a frustrating obsession, unpredictable, and prone to massive highs and lows.
I revelled in the differences last week. Surfing felt fresh, joyous at times. Borrowing my running ethos, I simplified my surf experience. I took one board, one wetsuit, some swim fins and a handplane. Simple tools that were all I needed.
The good came from the quiet days where I had a chance to refamiliarise with the contours of my board as it moved through the water. Where I started to reconnect with the knowledge of winds, tides and wave patterns that has never left me, but often feels like a faculty in desperate need of exercise.
On one particularly big day, and the most powerful surf I’ve been out in for some years, I opted for fins and handplane rather than a board. I find it easier to manoeuvre in big waves without being encumbered by a board. Even so, I was swept a mile down the beach by the rip and at times found myself staring over the precipice of my comfort zone. There was a moment when I realised I was further out than I thought, and I wasn’t sure I could make it to shore. But those moments as the situation veers from my control are perhaps what I enjoy most, thinking on them now. It’s a mark of how unacceptably comfortable life is that being humbled by the sea is a rare privilege.
But if these were the highs, the lows came in the form of aggressive, hostile crowds. A pack of fifty or more surfers, nearly all men, jostling for beautiful waves made ugly by the scrap for them. I saw two serious altercations, people punched in the water, lashed at with fists and boards. The infractions were minor, people taking off on the same wave, fifty-fifty decisions about who’s in the wrong that always swing in favour of the more competent surfer. How’s anyone supposed to enjoy riding waves when there’s a chance you might end up dodging punches on your next wave? Or worse, feeling like you want to throw them.
Surfing can give rise to some pretty unpleasant personality traits - mine included. Paddling into a new and competitive line-up can be a bit like walking into a prison, I imagine. When someone comes at you, and they will, you’ve got two choices. Which way you go will define your place in the hierarchy, but neither will assure your survival.
The jarring contrast between what people imagine surfing to be vs the reality is always amusing. The endless summer was over long ago.
Good waves are a limited resource, and more people than ever are trying to catch them. Surfing shouldn’t be a battle, but unfortunately that’s mostly the reality. The ugliness a few simple waves can create in people made me pine for running.
When surfing was more or less a singular focus I spent a lot of time anxious about what I might be missing. It’s easy to get consumed by things that are scarce and uncertain. Running doesn’t require patience, and there’s no uncertainty. There are few, if any, really bad runs. With surfing the disappointing often outweighs the good.
These frustrations were largely why finding running felt so significant. Trails and hills don’t come and go. You don’t need to battle for them, or work your way up a silent pecking order that’s part meritocracy and part animalistic instinct. With running there’s no pressure about when, how and where you do it. You just run, and it’s nearly always enough.
I ran once in Portugal, on a small, onshore day, but it was a bit of deflating experience that made me appreciate the hills and woods of home.
The coastline is dominated by sandstone. There’s a feeling of impermanence. There are some trees, many of which look like relatively new plantations, likely paid for by the golf courses or developers of luxury villas. There’s none of the vibrance of the woods at home, none of the lichens and the mosses that make the green tapestry of a damp woodland.
There’s nothing nice about running on sand. The cliffs are striking, but they lack the solidity you expect from rock. It feels bleak and barren. I found myself wondering whether I’d bother to run if I lived here. It obviously takes time to learn a landscape and to unlock its secrets, and it’s naive to condemn a place based on such cursory experience, but I’d probably just surf. You make the most of what you have.
Most often, when I return from surfing it’s all I can think about, but this time feels a little different. I feel a little different. I ran at home yesterday with new perspective.
It was unplanned, as all best runs are. Six miles of trail and hill amidst autumn’s gentle death and the white roar of tumbling water. I ran in a vest, despite the rain, unable to shake off the warmth of holiday but also wanting to appreciate water and wind. I dived into the river rather than use the bridge. I ran alone, thinking about the freedom I have to shape my runs, and how fortunate it is to exist in a place where the terrain is only limited by my boldness.
At times I felt part of the landscape, in a way I used to feel when I lived by the sea, connected to the rhythms of elemental forces. For all the differences they’re the same, really, running and surfing, at least in their best guises. I guess I just need to pick my moments, and realise that the way to happiness is to define myself by neither.
In the landscapes of my mind, there’s a place for both. I will surf whenever the opportunity presents, but not pursue it through the bad days and the crowds like I used to. The trade-off is that I will inevitably do it less, and my place in the pack will always be somewhere around the middle. But maybe the middle’s ok. Maybe the middle’s what I’ve been looking for all along.