A couple of weeks ago I came across the concept of ‘Therapeutic Landscapes’. The concept stuck with me and on one of my long runs I came to wonder whether it satisfies as a concept to gain a deeper understanding of the attractiveness of long distance running, and especially marathon racing. In this post i’ll try to make sense of my thoughts.
As a runner I’m constantly on the lookout for new running routes, both on the road and the trails. When i’m on my bicycle with my children on my way to their school or just cycling around Amsterdam on a sunny summer day, I always keep an eye out for new running grounds.
Over the years i’ve come to know most roads and parks spread out through the north of Amsterdam. And even more the roads that cross the meadows around the city. I’ve spend uncountable hours running there. Some of these roads are part of my weekly running staple. For example, I have one specific route I use for my marathon tempo sessions (click here for some of my favourite tempo workouts), and another one for my short recovery runs. I still vividly remember training sessions that went spot on, and also those that did not go too well (and why that was: stomach issues, overheating in the summer, empty carb tank), and where on which road I was running at that time.
When I run these roads in a later stadium, my thoughts often go back to all those sessions. But it does not do that every time. I cannot force these thoughts either. It only happens when it happens, much like Proust describes in his ‘Remembrance of Things Past’:
It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.Marcel Proust
Since Geographer William M. Gesler’s 1992 use of the concept of ‘therapeutic landscapes’ in reference to a setting that has ‘an enduring reputation for achieving physical, mental and spiritual healing’, a number of studies have explored the connection between health and place. These studies often make reference to the concept of therapeutic landscapes. Some studies have focused on sacred places or places of Pilgrimage, others on more profane places like home.
In his article ‘Landscape, care and the relational self: Therapeutic encounters in rural England’ (2005), Geographer David Conradson describes how some of these studies have a tendency to attain intrinsic therapeutic qualities to places. He notes however that the study of therapeutic landscapes must ‘extend beyond landscape qualities alone to consider a person’s interaction with that landscape’. He goes on to state that ‘the therapeutic landscape experience is best approached as a relational outcome, as something that emerges through a complex set of transactions between a person and their broader socio-environmental setting’. In other words, it is not the landscapes perse, but our interaction with that landscape that should be the focus of analysis.
In my experience the word therapeutic is slightly misplaced, or at least misleading. I am not experiencing the landscape as therapeutic in the sense that it plays a role in some holistic or spiritual form of ‘healing’. In my experience therapeutic landscape might be better replaced by health(y) landscape, or maybe even vo2max landscape or peak landscape… I have clearly not nailed it down yet.
Nevertheless, during that long run, I realised that the landscape surrounding me is as much an actor in the mutual relationship between me and that landscape, as I am an actor in that relationship. And it is the interaction between us where the ‘landscape-that-is-therapeutic’ (for lack of a more satisfying concept) comes into being. I could also phrase it in a simpler way: certain parts of the landscape where I experienced peak performances in the past continue to produce a therapeutic landscape in the present due to a continuing mutual interaction between me and that landscape… *at this point i’m wondering if the reader is still here.
Marathon racing, then, where runners from around the world that come together on a designated day and time to run that 42.2 kilometer, is a ritual of the like-minded that i belief enhances the production of therapeutic landscapes even further. We’re dressing up that landscape with kilometer markings, music bands, cheering, drinking stations and of course the start and finish line. Ask any marathoner at the finish line and they will tell you there is a sense of spirituality (or at least liminality) in those last 10-12 kilometer of the race. Your mind seems to be approaching somewhat of an altered state (that differs with each marathon).
This state seems to linger in the landscape and might (or might not, see the quote of Proust) re-appear on another visit of that landscape, like meeting an old friend bringing back memories of the days past.
As a final remark (perhaps disclaimer), this post is no more than a (probably incomplete) thought experiment of some sorts by someone trying to make sense of his deep love for distance running.
Conradson, D. (2005). Landscape, care and the relational self: Therapeutic encounters in rural england. Health & Place, 11(4), 337-348. doi 10.1016/j.healthplace.2005.02.004
Gesler, W. M. (1992). Therapeutic landscapes: Medical issues in light of the new cultural geography. Elsevier BV.doi 10.1016/0277-9536(92)90360-3
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