Today I am going to post about something which is, bizarrely, rather a contentious topic. Running with headphones. If you ask advice on the best headphones, or the best songs to run to, or how long you should make your half marathon playlist (two hours and fifty-four minutes, for the record), you are GUARANTEED to have someone step in and give you a lecture about running to music and tell you to chuck your headphones in the bin and just embrace the atmosphere and listen to the birds tweeting. This lecture nearly always comes from a man, and almost exclusively from someone who runs quite fast. It is often accompanied by a completely fabricated story about someone who was nearly mowed down by a stealth ambulance during a mass participation race. I call bullshit because I work with (and occasionally in) ambulances. For a start, sirens are LOUD. Find me some earphones that block out sirens, and I’ll pay a fortune for them because I can’t even find some that block out the shitty music in my gym. Secondly, it is very rare to find an ambulance making its way through a crowd of runners to a patient. A foot team would normally bring the patient to the nearest side road, and the ambulance would access from the side. It’s far easier and safer. Yes, it is not sensible to listen to music so loud that you can’t hear people say “excuse me” – but if you turn the volume down a little, wear one ear only, or (like me) wear fabulous bone conduction earphones, that problem is easily sorted. But according to the headphone police, there are droves of stealth ambulances plunging through marathons and being impeded by someone with these magic headphones on…
It’s complete and utter nonsense and it’s all born out of snobbery and resentment: “Look at me running along so easily without any music to help me! Look at me sucking up the atmosphere of the adoring crowds! Look at me chatting with all my similarly paced friends! No, you can’t make it easier for yourself by running with music! *I* don’t!”
When I started running (and my weight was nearly in triple figures) headphones were my barrier from the outside world. People make cruel comments to overweight people, and there is nothing they hate to see more than an overweight person trying to do something about their problem. Now I am more medium-sized, I generally get sleazy comments rather than insults, but I still get comments. What a world we live in where I am relieved when I brace myself for an insult and merely get sexually harassed instead. I think it’s no coincidence that the majority of headphone haters are men, and so are the majority of hecklers.
These days I am less self conscious when running so instead of being my barrier, my music has become my companion. If you’ve run a marathon in an average sort of time, you may recall being “carried by the crowd” and seeing the barriers lined with people as you hit the “wall” and climbed on over. I saw those people lining the finish as I hit the 13 mile mark. Three hours later, most of them had gone. There was hardly anyone left to cheer me on. It’s a lonely old place, at the back of the pack. Music makes it a little more bearable. On a smaller scale, even a 40 minute parkrun can result in you losing sight of the runner in front of you and feeling alone and rather self conscious and it’s nice to have some tunes to blot out the sound of your own plodding and breathing. The headphone police will tell you to be sociable and talk to other parkrunners, but they don’t slow down to keep you company. And to be honest, I can’t talk while I am running anyway. At 5k pace I’m breathing too hard, but even at a slow pace I am concentrating hard on keeping the rhythm, following the route, not tripping over my own feet… I don’t want to talk. Throw my headphones in the canal and I STILL won’t want to talk. So there.
The other reason I run with headphones is simply because I love music. When I wasn’t quite so past it I was out clubbing and dancing every weekend. I spent Saturdays trawling Berwick Street for CDs and vinyl. I am the master of the eclectic mix tape (my school friends all remember my teenage creation, Polish Folk Songs Volume Four) and these days that talent has been channelled into creating the perfect Half Marathon Playlist. My playlist from Brighton 2016 was a work of art, a mix of old favourites and audience suggestions, mixing happy hardcore into The Safety Dance and finishing to a-ha. I still remember Big in Japan at the crest of the hill, Like A Rocket along the seafront and Lying Sack of Shit past the place my ex and I had our first date. When I look back at that playlist, I remember every emotion that I felt that day and every painful metre right to the point where I crossed the line and knew that I had done it. Music doesn’t stop you enjoying the atmosphere, it enhances it. (I have put together an equally brilliant playlist for Sunday, by the way. It is mainly banging industrial techno but occasionally flits into the unknown with Front Line Assembly covering Rock Me Amadeus and Aesthetic Perfection remixing Katy Perry. If I was as good at running as I was at making playlists I’d need to go in the first wave.) Sometimes I think the anti-headphone sentiment is simply resentment from people who don’t “get” music and only listen to what they hear on Capital Radio. They see that we are getting something from our music that they don’t experience and get bitter. “Oi put those headphones down and look at my running! Look how fast and easy I am! Oh dear I was so busy showing off I have just been run over by an ambulance! Splat!”