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Racing in a vaccinated world – it’s time to get out there again

19 September 2021

Perspective is an odd thing. When parkrun were pushing for a return in England in September 2020 it felt too soon, and that turned out to be correct. I didn’t want to be Run Director responsible for a junior parkrun event when cases in Peterborough were rising and a friend or family member of a volunteer could potentially catch COVID and die as a result. Back then there were 10 new cases in P-town every day (about 36 per 100,000 people). This week, the rate is ten times higher – 360 per 100,000 people, and yet I’ve been happily running and volunteering at parkrun and junior parkrun for a few weeks now.

It’s obvious what’s changed. I am vaccinated, along with most “at risk” older and vulnerable people in the UK (though maybe not in Peteborough?). And vaccination is preventing severe illness and death. But coming back to racing and parkrun is still something I’m getting used to, and I wanted to write down how I’m feeling so that, in a year’s time, I can look back at this as Captain Hindsight and point out all the things I got wrong. Or hopefully not! Anyway:

Running outside with other people now feels safer

Remember in the early days of COVID when we weren’t sure whether we should even be outside at all? People in my local facebook group warned of particles of virus floating about like giant snowflakes in the air, and complained about joggers – our dangerous breath and sweat and snot and spit. I wore a buff for my runs and raised it over my nose and mouth when I passed people, but that didn’t stop them looking scared and moving away.

To be honest, I still hold my breath when I pass someone on a narrow path. Maybe I’ll always do it? But I know that outside transmission is much less likely, and as long as I’m not stuck running one metre behind the same person for 15 minutes, I feel comfortable.

I think COVID has made us more considerate runners. I will happily miss out on high fives if it means never being accidentally spat on or elbowed out of the way in a race, thank you very much. And as for the man I once saw sitting on a cafe chair in his sweaty pants merrily changing his trousers after parkrun, some things are best left behind.

I am ready to run a bit faster

When races started coming back in England, I was unfit, unhappy, and unready to race. Running saved my life hundreds of times over the past 18 months, but walking was also a big part of that and, for me, walking and racing don’t mix. Over the summer, many of my friends and family have been marathon training (and running! Shout out to Chris conquering the terrifyingly hilly Bath marathon) and inevitably I got fomo and signed up for a race.

I wanted to start with a race I would love, so I chose my favourite distance – a half marathon – and my favourite format – rolling country lanes. The Wissey Half Marathon takes place in “the idyllic Norfolk countryside, starting and finishing in the historic village of Oxborough”. It is advertised as fast and flat, but I wasn’t looking for a pb. I just wanted to enjoy it and push myself a tiny bit in the run-up and on the day.

I didn’t do much specific training. I was already running 30-35 miles a week, including a long run at the weekend. I did introduce a tiny bit of speed and hill work and what little I did, I enjoyed. I used David Roche’s 6 week re-introduction to speed and enjoyed the power hill strides, though finding an actual hill for them in Peterborough was the hardest bit!

I remember why I love races

After a month of grey skies and 18 degree damp, 5th September was of course warm and sunny. It was a perfect day for a picnic in the park, less perfect for racing 13.1 miles. On the car journey to Norfolk, I was surprised to find that I didn’t care. I was happy to slow down if I needed to, delighted to look at the views, and excited to get out in the countryside. I ran 11 of the 13 miles with a huge grin on my face, and yes the grin turned to a slight grimace in the last two, but we can gloss over that. My target was 8 minute miles, and I made it: 1 hour and 43 minutes on the clock, 12 minutes slower than my best, but I felt like I’d won.

I loved everything about the race: the parking on the village green; every single runner saying hello as we walked to the start; the terrible instant coffee in the village hall; fields of sunflowers either side of the road; rolling fields and combine harvesters; tractors waiting for the runners to pass; friendly marshals and their kids helping out; chats with fellow runners. My favourite moment was about 5 miles in: I was running with an older man who was run/walking (fast!) and we passed a “public footpath” sign pointing the way to a smooth grassy path along the side of a field, heading over a hill into the distance. “I wonder where that goes?” we both asked, in unison.

It’s great to be out there again.

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