Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A path dependent run around the lake

Here is a story of how I managed to inadvertently (or accidentally or mistakenly) run a two-thirds marathon mostly in the dark when all I wanted to do was run a 5k in daylight.  There is a (n albeit tenuous) academic link, since it was during a work trip that it happened and I will segue neatly into a discussion of path dependence at the end of the story.  I went to the Australian Political Studies Association conference to give a public policy paper (as part of the UK-Australia PSA exchange, host Richard Eccleston) in Hobart, then up to Brisbane to give a policy paper at the University of Queensland (host:  Alastair Stark) and, finally, to give a paper on Scottish minority government at the Australian National University in Canberra (hosts: Ian Marsh and John Wanna). This thing happened on my first night in Canberra. 

I was staying one night at the Diplomat hotel in Canberra before heading to University House at the ANU (yes, it sounds warm, but think Scottish weather on this day). I went for a run from the hotel down by the lake (Lake Griffin Burley).  So far so good.  I ran past some black swans (which, of course, always remind the (pretentious ) me of Popper) and then ran past what I think is the national portrait gallery (which is a lovely looking building surrounded by flags; on this day there was a wedding taking place inside and out).  I was generally marvelling at how beautiful the lake and its surroundings were.  So, my 2-3k each way run soon turned into maybe 6k, one way, so far.  Then I got to a sign which said that I could run on a nice loop round a part of the lake.  It was called the ‘west’ loop.  The sign told me that I had 2 main choices: run the west loop on its own (a mere 16k, or 10 miles in old money) or the whole lake, consisting  of the west, central and east loops (28k).  I had been to the gym to do some weights, so decided to keep it short.  The sign told me that the ground was marked with the distance (good, because I didn’t take my GPS watch) and, I thought, since I had already run about 6k along the west route,  I only needed to run another 10k to do the full loop (incorrect).  When I got to the marked 10k spot, I initially thought ‘any minute now’ but the distance kept going up and up.  It was also dark by now. To cut a long story a bit less long, it turned out that the 6k I had already run was on the central loop, meaning that I had to run the 6k, then the 16k, then the 6k back to the hotel.  This is about two-thirds of a marathon.  Perhaps the only saving grace is that it was not 32k (20 miles), which is the point at which my legs generally start to give up (it was also cold, so good for keeping the sweat down).

Here are the various thoughts that went through my head on this route (think maybe 3 hours of running – I am not quick – with one hour of light and the rest in fading light then darkness punctuated by a full moon):

1.      This is really nice.

2.      What a beautiful lake.

3.      Hey, black swans (must remember to tweet something about Popper).

4.      Hey, nice flags at that museum (and it that a wedding?  How uplifting – maybe run some more to celebrate life).

5.      Hey, an interesting loop with landmarks and signs telling you what they are.  Why not?  I’m on my own and no-one is waiting for me to get back (yes, that is a double edged sword).

6.      Those birds are beautiful – bright blue and red.

7.      Oh dear, those other birds look like vultures and they sound pretty vicious (I am told they were probably cockatoos).

8.      It’s getting dark, but I should be OK – nearly there (I wasn’t).

9.      Oh, there’s Government House.  It’s almost dark but I wonder if can go in (no.  At this point I also daydreamed about a secret service officer offering me a lift to my hotel, but that didn’t happen either).

10.  10K?  I should be back by now.

11.  Why does the map say that I am getting further away? Should I turn back (yes, but I didn’t)?

12.  It is really dark now.  Thank goodness for the moonlight.

13.  Can I really hear lions roaring (yes, I was running past the zoo – but it is only less worrying in retrospect)?

14.  Well done, Paul – all that marathon training is coming in handy now, eh?

15.  Tut – another interesting landmark. Another  museum. So what? I want to go home.

16.  Why can I only see hills – where did all the lights and buildings go?

17.  Quick pee while no one is around (yes)?

18.  I wonder how long it takes for your body to give up on your hands/ arms and just heat up the rest.

19.  I wonder if I can get a blog out of this (yes).

20.  Oh good, there’s something that looks like CN Tower (it turns out you can see this from anywhere in Canberra, so not as much help as I thought).

21.  People cycling past with lights on – good sign.

22.  A guy running past me at twice the speed – even better sign (this is usually quite dispiriting, but not tonight).

23.  Another gallery or library?  Yes, very interesting.

24.  Oh, so that’s where the ANU (Australian National University ) is.

25.  I have definitely run too much.  Brainwave – I must have run along the central route, so it’s 16k and the rest.

26.  Oh good, there’s the central route.  22k down and only 6k to go.

27.  There are the flags.

28.  Is that really a disco going on, on the boat going round the lake (yes – I think it was part of the life-affirming wedding)?

Sadly, one other thought was this: ‘this would be a good way to explain the idea of path dependence’ (often discussed by scholars studying historical institutionalism).  Probably the most cited article on this is by Paul Pierson, who describes the idea of increasing returns; that an initial policy decision may have long term consequences; institutions develop and it becomes increasingly valuable to maintain that policy rather than reject it and begin again (a relatively costly process).  Or, as I say in Understanding Public Policy: “Path dependence suggests that when a commitment to an institution has been established and resources devoted to it, over time it produces ‘increasing returns’ and it effectively becomes increasingly costly to choose a different path. 

To use the usual example, as soon as the QWERTY keyboard became popular, better options were not adopted because it would be a too-expensive process to replace the current stock and persuade people to use something else. The term ‘path dependence’ is apt, because it highlights an image of going down a path and finding it difficult to consider going back in the opposite direction.  This is exactly what I was doing – questioning at various points if I should just turn round and go back, but always answering to myself that it would be better to keep going forwards.  Note the psychological aspect to this process.  I was invested in this particular path and would, at least, have felt silly for going against my original decision.  At various stages, it would have made sense to go back, but I never did, so I ended up running 28k to get back.  In policymaking or institutional terms, there may not be the equivalent sense of personal investment in a chosen path (in fact, a change of government might often produce the opposite effect), but institutions are really collections of rules and norms which maintain some sort of commitment to an initial policy decision.  This is often akin to a personal investment in an outcome (indeed, many members of organisations may reproduce rules to maintain their own position). Consequently, they are often difficult or costly to challenge and the initial decision is costly and difficult to reverse (particularly if organisations reproduce rules and behaviour without many people paying attention).   After a few days, I went to the same lake and did a quick 5k in the sunny daylight, but I’m afraid I don’t know what theory or concept that would demonstrate (policy learning?).


  1. You need to work your sat nav app on smart phone. It is a nice lake though!

  2. But I don't have a smart phone and I would have been too tight to pay the roaming charges. Plus the lake does tell you where you are - I mostly chose to ignore it. And yes, in retrospect, it was a great experience because the lake is so nice.