Back on the startline

During lockdown running became a form of solace from the overriding sense of doom brought by the pandemic, a way to get outside, to get away from the news, and to explore local surroundings. Many new runners took it up for this reason. But something was also missing: racing. For those of us who like to set ourselves a goal, and use it as the motivation to get out and run, to build up our fitness, things were a little tough.

Running author Michael Crawley summed it up nicely on Twitter when he wrote: “Anyone else oscillating between ‘wow I don’t know how anyone’s coping with this [pandemic] without running’ and ‘what’s the point in running 10 miles a day when there probably won’t be any races for six months?’”

Lots of people nodded in agreement.

In some ways, without any races I discovered another side of running, where each run was not part of a process or journey towards anything, but was it’s own self-contained experience and joy. That was nice.

But deep down, I still love the frisson of race day, the build-up, the excitement. I love the way the adrenaline kicks in when you start racing, and you find yourself moving at a speed and with an urgency almost impossible in training. It’s like running gets real suddenly. The stakes are raised and so is the buzz.

So it was with great excitement that I recently found myself, 15 months after my last race, packing my bag the night before a trail marathon, the EnduranceLife South Devon Coastal Trail Series marathon.

Due to the lingering Covid restrictions, we were given individual start times spread out across the morning. I had an early one, so my alarm buzzed at 5:30am. It’s funny how easy I find it to wake up on a race day, like I’ve been jabbed awake with a cattle prod. The adrenaline must be already kicking it.

The staggered starts meant that this first race back was more of a marathon time trial than a normal race. However, that didn’t stop me almost immediately slipping into my old familiar race mode, picking up the pace to chase down the runners in front, trying my best to stay ahead of those behind.

Being out of practice and a little under-trained, I had told myself in the days leading up to the event that I would “take it easy” and “just enjoy it”, but as always, those were famous last words. No matter how many times I try to tell myself to take it easy in a race, it’s too ingrained in me after all these years, that a race is a race is a race. And when you’re in a race, you race.

Adharanand Finn at the Endurancelife South Devon, February 2020.

And so, as usual, I ended up pushing too hard in the first half, feeling invincible, skipping over the rocky outcrops and down the steep, cliffside descents, and then paying for it later, hitting the wall around mile 20 and swearing never to run another race this tough again. And then, finally, finding the sweet relief of the finishing arch and stopping, sinking down into the soft grass with an energy bar and clutching that little hard-won medal.

As much as I love racing, I really love stopping at the end. It’s like crashing through the gateway to a small slice of heaven. For the next few hours, your body oozes relief and satisfaction, while every sense is heightened. As I waited for my friends to finish, I found a cafe down by the seafront and tucked into a bean burger and chips. It tasted like the best meal I’d ever had. Even just sitting in the back of a warm car on the drive home felt like a wondrous pleasure.

Maybe you can get all of this without a race, but somehow it is different. In a race, people rally around you, they cheer you on, someone marks out the route, people stand there and hand you drinks. There is something special about that collective effort, and that friendly competitiveness - the bristle of energy as you catch the person in front, or the pang of dismay as another runner skips past you. For me at least, in a race the emotions you get from running are heightened, the effort is deeper, and as a result the rewards are that bit more satisfying.

Now I’m back racing, I haven’t forgotten the lessons from lockdown, that each and every run has its own inherent enjoyment. That it is not just a step towards a distant goal, but that it is a self-encapsulated, mini adventure right on your doorstep, ready to be grabbed at any moment. Deep down I always knew that, of course, but living through the pandemic has made me more appreciative of the simple pleasure of each run.

The great thing, however, is that you don’t have to lose that by racing. You can have both. You can enjoy running for its own sake, and then, on race day, you can up the stakes and give it your all for a few hours.

So once the ache in the legs has worn off, the next question inevitably becomes, which race next? It was less than 24 hours after my marathon that my phone pinged with a friend suggesting another trail race in just three weeks time. The cycle of training and racing is back, except now, post-lockdown, with an enhanced appreciation of both.

Adharanand Finn is the author of The Rise of the Ultra Runners. He hosts running adventures and retreats in Dartmoor, Chamonix and Kenya. For full details visit: thewayoftherunner.com

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