The barefoot riverbank adventure

Is there a new way into walking and running?

The Great Banks of the River Swale Adventure

Listen to the Sound of Silence: this is a game that we’ve just made up. As softly and sweetly as possible you sing the last line of the famous Paul Simon song. Wait poised and silent for 2 or 3 seconds. Then on the top of your lungs and as loud as possible you holler out: “WUH-HOO!” When peoples eyes bulge out of their eye sockets it still makes you laugh and laugh. Even when they know that the “WUH-HOO!” is inevitably coming and their eyes don’t bulge out their eye socket: WUH-HOO! Still you laugh and laugh and laugh.

Right now the “WUH-HOO!” Game has become adapted into the SHUSH SHUSH-finger-on-the-lips silence before the whoop of surprise in the hide-and-ambush-the-grown-ups game that we have just got going. Even when you know that it’s going to happen – still you laugh and laugh and laugh.

The grown-ups ask me:

“Aren’t you completely exhausted trying to keep up with those kids like that”?

When I catch my breath I reply:

” No. No. I’m completely exhilarated“.

It is quite true  that there are moments for me when I feel that I am sinking into the swampy shallows of weariness. I suspect that the kids somehow are able to sense my imminent re-entry into “Grown-ups mode”. Immediately they always seem to respond by crying out:

“Run Uncle John. Run. Run. Off we go again.”

“Run Uncle John. Run. Run. Run!”

As soon as we are on the go again we return to the Deeps. It is like being immersed in magic: any sense of weariness turns out to be nothing but a temporary suspension of the exhilaration!

As we run we sing and the rhythm of the song shifts and changes to match our step patterns. Always though it is a long-short-long-short-pattern that goes: “Dah-Dit-Dah-Dit…” The song goes up-and-down and faster or slower with the ups and downs of the banks of the River Swale, and as we negotiate the tricky, gnarled roots of the ancient trees that crisscross over the river path. In the world of racehorses you will often hear racecourse commentators use the expression: “The Going was soft at Richmond today”. Well, we continually go with the Going – the only difference is that we add another element as well: we sing the Going!

”WUH-HOO!” I love what I am experiencing right now with the whole of my heart.

”WUH-HOO!”I love how my bare feet flow like the river around and over the complex tangle of tree roots.

”WUH-HOO!”I love the warmth of the hands of the four kids in my hand and Miffy the dog is pulling ahead on an elastic bungee leash tied around my waist.

”WUH-HOO!”I love the cold and damp air of North Yorkshire.

”WUH-HOO!”I love the penetrating aroma of wild garlic and the fresh new green leaf-growth of an early English Spring.

”WUH-HOO!”I love the sense of belonging.


What amidst all of this is there not to be exhilarated about?

I take a mental snapshot of these moments: the exhilaration, the river, the tree roots, and the dog, the two kids in either hand. My Eden. My Paradise. It does not get any better!

A whole new way into Natural Running and Walking?

There are number of new green-shoot growths that are developing in my adult running life. It is so exciting. Perhaps it is the Seventh Age of my running life. Maybe I am becoming just like a child again. These fresh shoots of possibility grow out of the soil of a deep curiosity regarding the great distance that we seem to have travelled from our natural living origins, how far away we are now from the way that our natural living and natural moving ancestors moved and lived. A much related deep curiosity focuses on the possibility, in my seventh age, that there may be a whole new entry point into the natural rhythms of walking and running, perhaps a whole new way to explore and discover. Could it be that maybe these kids, we are aged 4,5,6 and 7 and 70, Miffy is 8 years old, are easing open a window for me, into our natural origins. In this exhilarating fluid play we do seem to be truly in our element. Perhaps the kids demonstrate an ancient and expansive, lost connection to all that is around them, centred very much in present moment experience. There is something here much more ancient than the ivy growing up the walls of the ruins of Easby Abbey that we now are passing, something as old or even older, than the geology exposed in the banks of the River Swale.

Recently in my grown-up world I have been massively heartened and encouraged by a research project that has compared the bodies and the lifestyles of natural living peoples to modern-living humans. One conclusion of the research suggests that modern humans have settled into a limited rut that engages only 10% of our natural living heritage. The following is not the researcher’s conclusion but mine: but we seem to have become like hand-reared zoo animals. We are fed and safe and we are well looked after but we have lost 90% that wily-sinewed litheness of our wild ancestors. This research suggests that compared to our natural living counterparts we now on average, have 10% of the range of movement of key joints throughout the modern body. Many times I have suggested in my own area of expertise: the foot, that modern feet use under 10% of the full capacity of a natural foot. I have not contemplated that this 10% figure went through the entire modern body like a stick of Blackpool Rock!

“WUH-HOO!” “Run Uncle John. Run. Run!”

Off we go again: we jump; we leap and skip – all threaded together by a continuous and seamless moving from walking to running. We walk, we run, and skip, we leap and jump: Go with the Going. It is all so centering. Our legs pump away underneath the centre of the body in the same way whether we walk or run, jump, leap, and skip. “Dah-Dit-Dah-Dit…” There is never any evenness or repetitiveness in our movement. The only time that it happens is when we enter from the Deeps into the Swampy Shallows – that is whenever we join the grown-ups. Whenever this possibility looms close, I get WUH-HOOed back into the exhilarating action.

The rules of our games like the movements of our bodies are fluid and ever changing, constantly shifting and bobbing up and down like a ball bobbing around in the eddying currents of the River Swale. A good example is how the “listen to the sounds of silence” Game has been stretched and adapted to the preparation for the WUH-HO loud whoop of surprise in the ambush game. It matters not that we keep repeating this game. Is it perhaps a very effective simple means of freeing the diaphragm from out of its fixed 10% limitation? Laughter has such an extraordinary bonding effect. My GP became sufficiently convinced to try some barefoot running with his wife. He said: “It was amazing we just laughed and giggled- just like little kids!”

You cannot beat a good laugh – or come think about it, a good cry! Injuries happen inevitably with this fluid, unbridled uncertainty combined with such a high-energy output. Quite early on in our riverbank adventure five-year-old Hughie sustains a cut on his knee – It really is only a little more serious than a graze. There is a trickle of blood. He hoikes up the leg of his right shorts with his right-hand and he will never for one moment stop holding it up for the whole of the adventure! When you think about it: hey – this alone is quite a considerable feat of coordination. We are up; we are down on the floor. We are climbing, leaping skipping, we lie ourselves down flat on the floor and instantly we get up from the floor, seamlessly we walk and we run. Imagine doing this and never once letting go of holding-up the leg of your shorts!! Since the leg of the shorts hangs freely way above the bleeding knee there was really no necessity to hold on his way. It didn’t matter! What does matters is that you keep up with the pack and that the game goes on – whatever.

Variety: the spice of life

A spicy variety is the name of the game. Nothing ever gets stuck in the Swamps of the Shallows. There are no mechanical repetitive steps. They only briefly appear whenever we are rejoining the walking adults. This is extraordinarily revealing. Consider what is happening. Such an amazing variety shares-out the muscular efforts of the moving body such that nothing ever gets stuck in any mechanical or habitual rut. This seems to happen only when we enter into the Swampy Shallows. The important feature concerns the way that the whole musculature is continuously engaged in shifting and changing and dealing with different challenges. This variety is truly the way to a naturally healthy heart! Human hearts are designed to be wholly engaged in exactly this way. Is this what it means to be wholeheartedly present? There is a perfect synergy or co-operation: the ‘King Muscle’ of the heart contracts and pushes to perfectly match the playful pull off from the rest of the muscles-fibres who are the many subjects in ‘The Muscle Kingdom’ realm. In the meantime the Queen Muscle: the diaphragm, wisely co-ruling the realm with the King, exquisitely opens up to precisely match the oxygen needs of the exhilarating playful exertions of the subjects in the Muscle Kingdom.


Wow – how I love this: the whole heartedness and the way that our responsive hearts beat unevenly to match the ever-changing terrain and the way that our bodies move in flowing response to the terrain. Often when we stop to prepare the ambush, invariably we will build temporary shelters and dens. We find a hollow tree. On a similar Adventure now many years ago, the then five years old Caspian and myself crawled into the depths of a hollow tree. Within our den Caspian made up the following poem:

Being in the heart of the tree

Being in the heart of the tree

It is the same heart in you that beats in me

It isn’t good and it isn’t bad

It is simply the heart of a tree.

I still have that dank wet-wood smell from the heart of that tree right now in my nostrils. It is as if I am still there and that the 35 intervening years never existed. Safe in our hollow tree den  I try to and I pleaded with Caspian to take out the line of his verse that goes : “It isn’t good and it isn’t bad”. I now realize the profound wisdom in his passionate refusal to do so. I see now what the five year old was trying to say to me about the profoundly important nature of judgment. Certainly on our recent Riverbank Adventure there was never any sense of concern as to whether anyone was any good or not. Much more important was that we move together, stayed together- and that we laughed a lot and cried a little.

The Swampy Shallow and the Deeps

“Run Uncle John. Run. Run!”  “Dah-Dit-Dah-Dit…”

With regard to this whooping, and the singing and laughter, I wonder if the 10% rule may apply to a restricted diaphragm muscle. The“Dah-Dit-Dah-Dit” singing, the whooping and ”WUH-HOing!” and the laughter seem to spring the diaphragm out of its caged restriction. You can breathe so much more freely and easily afterwards! It is so deepening, revitalizing, so liberating. But how do the restrictions come about? We constantly scold young kids to be quiet and the admonition to “STOP RUNNING!” echoes around the corridors of every school. Somehow, little by little, we come to powerfully condition our children to live in the Swampy Shallow lands. Perhaps as adults tragically we sometimes turn to alcohol and drugs to compensate for loss of connection to the depths of our natural heritage. This of course does not in any way address the issue. It only further wrecks physical and mental well-being.

“Listen to the Sound of silence”: “WUH-HOO!” The first time it is scary and surprising. The ensuing laughter is a kind of relief and release of tension: Well! Thank goodness: I am not about to be attacked or ambushed. However why on earth should it remain funny and why do we laugh, when we know that it is about to happen. It is such a curious and odd aspect of comedy and humour that laughter can be created out of a repetitive catchphrase. You know that the catchphrase is coming, it is no surprise but still it raises a lot of laughter and the laughter does not even subside much with repetition. One only has to recall the comedy show: “Hallo Hallo”, which had little more in the way of content other than each character making their entrance with the same catchphrase. Certainly it is not the whole story but perhaps it is the beginning of a very interesting one to consider that humour/laughter springs us out of the necessity to free a restricted and spastic diaphragm.

I must seem such an old “odd bod” to these kids but no worries: I did seem a young “odd bod” to their dads when they were 4,5,6 or 7. When the dad of the two girls, Richard was five years old he explained to a newly introduced little five-year-old friend by reassuringly stating to her:

”This is my uncle John – Don’t worry he’s mad.”

I have no doubt that right now Richard is looking at me cavorting around with these kids and thinking:“He is nuts!”

Nothing ever really much changes!

In many ways on the riverbank adventure, I feel a bit like social anthropologist observing and trying to understand a strange primitive tribe. While maintaining an adult responsibility to manage what happens within important margins of safety, I am endeavoring not to in any way lead what happens but to follow what unfolds on the Riverbank Adventure. I am curious to see it through the lens or window that opens to a lost connection with our evolutionary origins. A number of key aspects seem to standout.

Top of the list: we move together and stay together as a pack and maintain a highly sensitive and responsive concern and care for the others. It seems obvious that in our prehistory maintaining the coherence of a small group and a concern to ensure that everybody keeps up with the pack would be vital to group survival. We are a social animal with much in common with our great 10,000 year old friend and hunting companion: the dog. For sure, Miff is in a state of total tail-wagging joy and delight with all the constant changes of pace. How Miff loves the dodge- and-catch-me-if-you-can games that develop. Certainly we can never catch the dog in this particular game but we are well able to easily out-strategize her!

When we are in the Deeps there is a massive expansion of sensory awareness into the stunning arena of woods fields and riverbanks in which we play: in a responsive and fluid way we mould ourselves into the dips, to the hollows and incessantly we move and play with the strategic advantages of the landscape. In this alert and awake state we are also prepared and ready for a surprise attack. Becoming the hunter or the hunted and the shifting around of these roles forms a significant part of the ever-changing “ball on running water” of our play. The fluid and shifting game-rules incorporate opportunities to explore how best to respond as a hunter or as the hunted. It is clear that there are temperamental preferences in our group and at least as far as this small sample presented: the preferences do not follow any stereotypical gender agenda. The essential feature is the astounding variety in the way we move and the fluid way that the rules change and accommodate to ‘the landscape of differences’ between different individuals and different capabilities and handicaps of injury. This level of extraordinary responsiveness is sometimes close to telepathic in nature and reflects a growing sense of a group mind that is so radically different from the Internet that we have recently created. Is our survival as a pack animal in prehistory dependent on how sensitively we respond to each other? In this sense the chanting, whooping and the ever-present laughter not only serve to release the spastic diaphragm, but also to release bonding hormones. Does this amazing range of responsive movement and thinking really open a window to a lost connectedness and communion that once helped us to prevail in a much more dangerous and threatening environment?

Some reflections on the Riverbank Adventure and modern culture

I want to regard the unfolding tapestry of natural play and natural movement in the Riverbank Adventure as a backdrop against which to look at the different ways that we move and think in contemporary culture. If we look at contemporary exercise culture for example, some very stark differences indeed are revealed. These might serve as indicators as to how far we’ve drifted from our natural origins.

On the riverbank adventure something under 1% of the time was given to concerns to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Even then there was evident concern that we stay together. There was never any sense of the importance becoming the winner that leaves the rest of the pack behind! Surely that could not have been the norm in prehistory or for sure, our predators would have had a feast. It is not that such concerns are wrong. They are occasionally important, appropriate and fun. The plain fact is simply that such a possibility forms only a small part of a much richer and wider spectrum.

The variety is very important here. The shifting variety of movement and pace has a key health axis in a healthy and responsive heart. To push the heart into full flight or flight mode in an adrenaline fuelled rush will automatically bring about a closing down to what is around. When this happens an expanded awareness of what is around and about is replaced by a tunnel-versioned focus on getting to ’the finishing line’ at all costs and as fast as possible.

It is always going to be true there that what we consider in the realm of evolutionary psychology is bound to be speculative in nature. So here is my speculation: it is only a small proportion of time in natural living conditions that the fight or flight adrenaline rush occurs and you have to be ready and prepared for the possibility of it happening. For most of the rest of the time a healthy wholesome heart-beat is not driven up to flight or fight levels of response. It is a significant fact that a key feature of a healthy heartbeat is variety and variability. An index of a healthy heart is a high inter-beat variability. The higher the variability the more responsive the heart becomes. This explains why a healthy heart elides with joy and delight into moving from a position of rest to an energetic run up a flight of steep steps. Perhaps we can usefully think of this against the backdrop of the earnest ruddy-cheeked wholeheartedness that was such a fundamental axis of the riverbank adventure. How far has all that healthy action (followed for me, by such a wonderful replenishing night sleep), drifted from the driven there, straining and striving exercise culture that sees individuals in regimented lines in gyms joylessly and mechanically working-out on running machines as they grind out one mechanical, repetitive step after the other while anxiously glancing at their ‘fit bit# watches to check out their calorie burn so that the session can come to an end.

I sense that few of us ever go willingly and eagerly to abide in the Swampy Shallows. I may be way out on a limb here but I am now passionately convinced that any kind of repetitive and even beat running is quite unnatural. Like shoe wearing it may be normal but this must not be confused with natural

For the past five years I have been imploring runners to observe the typical behavior of young kids walking out with their parents. This has become part of my Mission and what I call the War against “Trudgery”. It is such a familiar choreography: while the adults trudge along taking the same dozen or so mechanical steps, the kids alongside then have taken every opportunity to hop, jump skip, spin, walk, run. They resist the arm that is pulling then into the Swampy Shallows. They are still reveling in the Deeps! Eventually, sadly, they will be conditioned into life in the Swampy Shallows.

There are wide reaching implications for modern cultural beyond the narrow confines of exercise culture alone. There are concerns about Health and well being. There are radical implications for our ideas about work and play/leisure.

The Mammoth in the Space

There is one wildly significant feature missing in the above considerations regarding key features revealed to by the Riverbank Adventure. It is as if there is one huge mammoth or elephant that is being ignored on the paths, and in the fields and riverbanks of this experience. It is this: when you experience exactly what is like to be present in the middle of the Deeps, then it becomes obvious that far and away the most important aspect that makes us human is creative play. This creative play is not present or available to us in the Swampy Shallows. Creative play is present when we are at our human peak of our possibilities and in the depths of our ancestral capacities and connections to our ancestors. If I stop ignoring the Mammoth  in the space then the key question to begin my next inquiry with is: how did we lose connection with the ‘Deeps’ of human creativity and play and how might we help one another to escape the Swampy Shallows and regain our birthright and connection to the profound depths of our origins.

“Listen to the Sound of silence”: “WUH-HOO!”

“Run Uncle John. Run. Run, Run…!”

Let the last words for now come from the ‘Deeps’ of the greatest of our 20th century minds.

“The highest form of human research is play”. Albert Einstein.


John Woodward. May 2017

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