Runner's World (UK)

For Sam, running has been reduced to its essence


The rapeseed is in bloom, turning the fields into a sea of primary yellow, lapping verdant hills. Wisps of cloud drift across a cerulean sky. Birds flit busily among the branches of a huddle of trees, their song the only sound above the whisper of the breeze. It is through this ridiculous­ly beautiful snapshot of spring that I find myself running these days – solo, of course. I marvel at how the world keeps turning, how the seasons advance, nature shrugging her shoulders in the face of this uniquely human global crisis. Everything looks the same, yet feels so different. In these uncertain, troubling times, running is the one constant – somewhere we might look for comfort and solace. A mile is still a mile, a hill is still a hill. Running forces us out of our heads and into our bodies with its familiar rhythm of breath and footfall. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to carry on. There have been recent times when I’ve had to prise open that window of opportunit­y for exercise. Days when I haven’t been able to summon up the effort to do so. Maybe you’ve felt the same…?

It is grief that we are experienci­ng, if you’ll allow me to use ‘intense sorrow, caused by loss’ as my definition. We’ve lost so many of the things that give our running meaning. There are no races to train for, so we’ve lost our goals and deadlines. There are no friends or clubmates to run with, so we mourn the loss of our shared experience. There are no new routes or destinatio­ns to explore, confined as we are to running from our own front doors. As a coach, there’s no one to, well, coach.

With any loss, we experience a common cycle of emotions: denial (this virus won’t affect the UK/my area/my lifestyle very much); anger (I can’t believe they’ve cancelled my race after all the hard work I put in); bargaining (as long as I know it’ll all be over by autumn, I’ll keep training); depression (what’s the point?). For me, running fell off the agenda completely for a few days when the lockdown began as I battled to find a reason to get out of bed. But then came acceptance, the fifth stage of the grief cycle. Yes, we can still go outside and run (at time of writing, though who knows what is to come) and for that I feel grateful. Some of the time, at least. But grief isn’t a one-off experience.

For me, each new restrictio­n imposed has set the process in motion anew. And the cycle of grief doesn’t always run clockwise – I’ve backtracke­d to anger and depression on many occasions, overwhelme­d by the stark realisatio­n of the lasting impact the virus will have on so many lives and livelihood­s, mine included.

Coronaviru­s has raised a question that I’m finding difficult to answer: what does running really mean to me?

When we say we ‘love running’, is it truly the act of running – the process of putting one foot in front of the other – that we mean? Or is it the end goal that drives us? The shiny medal, the time on the clock? Perhaps it’s more about the opportunit­y it affords to connect and belong somewhere. Or maybe it is the need for a sense of accomplish­ment or release.

For most of us, there are myriad reasons. And, in normal times, that’s what keeps us going – you might not feel like doing speedwork, but you will anyway because you know you must if you want to crack that PB. You don’t mind running on your own on Tuesday because you’ll be chewing the fat with the gang on Sunday’s long run. But in these difficult far-fromnormal times, running has become distilled to its very essence. It is just running, for its own sake, for better or worse.

Perhaps part of ‘acceptance’ is acknowledg­ing this fact without judgment. On some runs, you’ll feel graceless and breathless and heavy – so be it. Other times, you will fly. Whichever run it is, pause along the way to marvel at your own spring landscape and think of me – and every other runner – doing the same thing.

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