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On running, teamwork and the power of exercise

On running, teamwork and the power of exercise

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Training for this year’s London Marathon, which Chris is running in aid of the Architects Benevolent Society, has given him plenty of time to think… 

I started running at the age of 40 when football injuries from Sunday mornings in Regents Park took the whole week to heal. Knocks and bruises, or twinges from twists and turns. My team were all ageing - not particularly gracefully - whilst the opposition teams were constantly bringing in new fresh and faster talent. Time to move on and take up a non-contact sport. At first I found running boring. I’ve always preferred team sports - working as a group - the camaraderie similar to working in a design studio, trying to encourage and bring out the best in each other.

I had started a cricket team when I was at Michael Hopkins. I had suggested to Michael that we enter a competition and agreed that if we won any prize money to spend £200 on cricket gear and arrange matches against other architects on Wednesday evenings. 35 years later the team is still going, though any other architects gave up after the second season. The cricket team became a football team in the winter and we have attracted some illustrious players and interesting characters along the way.

Working and playing together

I’ve always loved how teams work together, whether in sport, in the arts, in science or in business. I love the way people think differently and how they can combine to create something wonderful. And how different managers can transform the same team. Some people are always striving to improve, learn or change their behaviours whilst others go through life saying “This is who I am”. I have interesting discussions about Matthew Syed's assertion in ‘Bounce” that anyone can be anything they choose to be if they work hard and with the correct training. Someone with the build of a Sumo wrestler would find it difficult as a jockey but for the most part I think Syed is correct.

Running is solitary but gradually I came to love it. I find it like meditating, which I’ve also tried and find more difficult. Running is my time to think, without thinking. I’m lucky to work close to the Thames and my favourite route is between Westminster and Tower Bridge. I feel privileged to be able to run in such a fantastic setting and I get many of my best ideas running - I often find problems solve themselves.  

I’m not fast. It’s almost comical that I’m almost exactly in the middle when the results come out. If there are 20,000 runners I will be around the 10,000 mark. Usually in the middle of my age group also. But then I’m like that with most sports. I am always in the middle of the batting averages at cricket. And my local tennis club has 30 leagues in the ladder and I have moved between 12 and 14 for the last 4 years.  

I quite like the enjoyment of engaging in a number of sports. I find it’s best not to compare yourself with others. It can be a cause of great unhappiness. For about a year after Andrew Weston and I were chosen in the RIBA 40 under 40 exhibition in 1985 and we started our practice, I kept a league table of where we stood alongside the other 39, based on press coverage and the jobs they and we had won. Totally pointless and totally irrelevant. Looking back on that 40 now the key thing for me is that there is only one other practice that is still together. Many have fantastic careers individually or with others but only Bob Allies and Graham Morrison and also Andrew and I are still together. I now realise that is success. Focus on what is under your control. Someone else’s perceived success might not be fact. Or it might come at a heavy price. Having said that I wish I was better at everything and particularly tennis - perhaps I should find myself a brilliant doubles partner. Note to self.

I try to encourage everyone at WW+P to do something other than work. There are usually around 25 of us running the London 10k every July. We have five a side football every Wednesday and have netball and softball teams.  We play tenpin bowling but also have a book club, film club, life drawing and cookery classes and other cultural activities such as karaoke; I’m aware that sport is not for everyone. 

Exercise for the mind

I’ve always thought that physical exercise and mental health are interlinked. My PE teacher Arthur Brown certainly thought so and I guess I just bought into that. And my Grandma. Any thoughts of being ‘out of sorts’ would be best dealt with by some sort of physical exertion. “You need to be put in a bag and shaken”. It was the post war generation where any sign of weakness, whether physical or mental, was just not toleratedWe kidded ourselves that it worked. But I actually think it did for me, but by no means for everyone. Now half a dozen graduates I know in North London are on prescribed anti-depressants. They are smart and beautiful and for me it’s hard to understand. But to them their anxieties are real. A friend who I’ve always envied because of his social, affable, confident personality lost his job at the age of 55 and almost overnight became a timid shadow of his larger than life self.

On a smaller scale but still important - a female architect colleague can no longer drive over the Westway or other flyovers, a journey she used to make twice a day for 20 years. The mind is fragile and complex and we are gradually finding out more about how it functions and why we are all so different. But somehow we still treat mental issues completely differently from physical illness. Yet a broken mind takes longer to heal than a broken leg and is more complex. Only gradually are we learning to deal with these sensitive issues. Grandma’s advice no longer holds. At Weston Williamson we offer counselling and are sensitive to the pressures we put on ourselves. Attitudes change and some of the practices which were in place when I started work would now be seen as bullying and intolerable. Student debt, the relentless attachment to social media, feeling constantly accessible via smart phones plus the pressures of living in London - which can feel unaffordable and unfriendly- can be intolerable burdens. 

It helps not to take yourself too seriously. Social media encourages us to create an inflated persona. Young musicians, artists, writers, actors expect overnight success rather than putting in the 10,000 hours. The views of celebrities are of equal value to those of the experts. Having friends who keep your feet on the ground helps. Being the only architect in the cricket team means there’s only superficial interest in what I do during the week. My teammates are more interested in whether I can catch or score some runs. Otherwise being shortlisted for a prize or being on TV is an opportunity for ridicule. Impressions are deceptive. My friends call me a “dour northern bastard”. I guess they are a third right. I’m from Derby (Midlands) but I am genuinely the happiest person I know. Every day I jump out of bed enthusiastic about the day ahead. I feel immensely fortunate to have another opportunity to make a mark in this fantastic and fascinating world. When I do have worries I’m a maker of lists. Without a list my worries in the middle of the night seem endless, but if I write them down I realise there are only a handful and I can deal with them one at a time. Running is a great opportunity to work through the list. There's certainly time.

Of course exercise is not a panacea for mental well-being.  There are a few English cricketers who have had difficulties performing in Australia and elsewhere.  Also some professional footballers outwardly at the top of their game and the envy of many schoolboys for whom the pressure or injuries or constant attention is just too much.  We are at last talking about it. 

Nor is excessive exercise good.  A heart specialist I know admitted he sees just as many patients who perform extreme sports as he does those who sit on the couch eating crisps.  He reminded me we are not designed to run marathons.  A cave man would chase an animal for food for maybe 5k.  After that it is impossible to drag it back to the family.  It’s amazing how strong that voice sounds when the 20 mile marker looms and there’s still another six to go.  

Depression and anxiety can strike anyone. Without concern for income, class, race or gender. Everyone is vulnerable. In his new book the brilliant Yuval Noah Harari makes some interesting points about happiness. We have the ability to make everyone content the whole time. Huxley imagined this in Brave New World with the drug SOMA. Genetic engineering could do the same. But without being unhappy would we truly know the joy of happiness? It’s easy for me. I’ve never felt down for more than a few hours but I do realise how fortunate I am and do think about it a lot. I always get emotional at the start of a long run, so pleased that I have the good health to be able to do this. And at the end I wish I believed in God, so I would have someone to thank, so I end up thanking my Dad who also loved sport. He once took 9 wickets for 13 runs playing for Stanley Cricket Club. I still have the Ilkeston Advertiser to prove it. I was 3 years old when he died at the age of 38 and have now outlived him by 22 years. Come to think of it that's just when I started running. Sometimes I’m pleased I don’t think too much.  

If you’d like to sponsor Chris please go to his donations page



Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.