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On running alone, in a pandemic

21 December 2020

Nobody likes to feel left out. Last week, my daughter was describing her friends choosing to play with other people at breakfast club. She described the feeling really well saying, “I don’t know where am I now. Where’s the space for me?”

We talked about why her friends might want to play with others, and about how she also chooses who to play with – and who not to play with. Everyone is left out sometimes. But that didn’t make her feel better.

I’m feeling left out too. Before Corona, I felt part of the “running community” through my club, and through parkrun. I could never make the Monday club night, but I did regular races and met up weekly at parkrun. I didn’t have to make an effort, the running community was just there for me and I took it for granted. Lately, I feel increasingly cut off and I’ve been thinking about why.

I like running alone

I run alone, almost always. Since March, I’ve had to start most runs before 6am just to be able fit them in. I live with my husband and 7 year old daughter, so one of us is on child duty when she is not at school. He also runs, also alone. We have done one run together this year: a half marathon on my birthday.

I like running alone. Before I joined a running club I assumed everyone ran solo all the time, because I always had. I like being alone with my thoughts. I like listening to podcasts. I like stopping to take photos or look at birds. I like being silent. I like not feeling embarrassed about how often I blow my nose. I like going faster or slower when I feel like it. I like running at my own speed.

Other people don’t

Most other runners I have spoken to, especially women, find it more motivating to run with other people. The time passes more quickly, on an easy run it’s fun to chat, and on a tough run you can share the pain together. It’s also much harder to cancel a run when you know you are someone else’s reason to turn up.

This year, I am aware that groups of my running friends are going out to run together regularly, and that it’s been a source of joy for them during the pandemic. They’re keeping each other company and keeping each other running.

I was invited, and joined in a couple of times, but now I’m out of the loop – mostly because I deactivated facebook, which I recommend to everyone.

I have done a handful of runs with other people – with my sister, and with my nephew. But when it comes to setting up runs with those I know less well, I haven’t made an effort. It’s hard to make the first move, and am I really prepared to break out of my solo running bubble?

If I run with a slower group, will I find it hard to stick to the pace, and will the group feel less comfortable because I am there? If I set up a run with a faster runner, will I feel under pressure to match their pace?

I hate running fast at the moment. I hate the feeling. The laboured breath, the painful chest, the burning legs, the mental effort. All of it. I can barely remember the strength that speed training gave me when it kicked in during a race: the flying feet, the bounding knees, the leap and push. No more.

This year, I am running just to keep running.

So where am I now? Where’s the space for me?

This week I got an email about a marathon squad, which made it clear it was not for me: “this is a group for those in the mid to back of the race. Nobody is too slow to join us. If you are a regular marathoner or expecting a time of 3.45 or faster, this is probably not the group for you.” I completely respect this response – I’m not the person this is aimed at. I don’t need a group to motivate me to run, and if my pace might put other people off, then that would be bad.

But the message also gave me the bad feeling that my daughter talked about. Where is the space for me? I don’t want to get faster, or stronger, or go longer. I’m not welcome with the slower group. So where am I?

This is where I’ll be: out on the trails, in the mud. Stopping to walk or dashing up a hill. Breathing it in. Looking around. In the dark. In the rain. Watching for the light. Running.

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