The Olympics and the Premier League had the attention, but the coronavirus lockdown has abolished a hidden world of amateur sport. The participants may not be glamorous figures. Let me recast that sentence: we are not glamorous figures.
But the rhythm of our lives was determined by Sunday football leagues or amateur cricket matches, or in the case of readers of this column — who have surely completed their couch-to- 5k programme — with running races.
On the face of it, runners are the last people with a right to complain. At the time of writing, running was still permitted. Unlike the French and Italian governments, the British government has not limited movement to one or two kilometres from the house. I can still run 20 miles and not be arrested.
Runners are distraught because the hopeless amateurs among us cannot think of running 20 miles. We would have been able to if we were still training for a marathon. We would have built up from January through April, fitting in three, maybe more, 20-mile runs before arriving at the start line as ready as we were ever going to be.
Now every marathon, half-marathon, 10k and parkrun has been cancelled, what’s the point? If I were running a late spring marathon in London, Manchester or Edinburgh, I would be covering 50 miles a week by now. (Decent club athletes would be running 80. Athletes, 100-plus.) The prospect of a race made us risk our relationships by disappearing for a run five or six days a week.
It made our calves ache, quadriceps sting and hip flexors tighten, as we turned ourselves into running bores no one except other runners wanted to be near, even before social distancing began.
Old runners always advise new enthusiasts to book themselves a place in a race. It’s the surest way to make you train harder and run faster. The virus has killed the urgency. I woke up this morning meaning to run six miles with five 800m sprints included.
But I had overslept and a calf muscle was protesting before I’d even got out of the bedroom, so I stayed home, and contemplated an existential question far more searing than anything pampered Parisian philosophers could imagine: “Are runners no better than joggers now?” The casual observer may not be able to tell the difference between me, for instance, puffing up a hill and a jogger. To the initiated, however, the distinction is everything.
“Runners run because they love running,” declared the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage. “Joggers jog because they love cake,” and want to be able to eat more of it while still fitting into their trousers. Joggers have personal trainers. Runners have coaches. Joggers don’t race, or if they do they stroll round the course talking to their companions. Runners “leave nothing out there”. Joggers enjoy themselves. Runners half kill themselves for a higher cause no one else understands. Jogging is a hobby. Running is a life.
Without a race to aim for we are free to run because we want to, not because we have to. You’d think we’d welcome the release from the tyranny of the training schedule. Instead, we hate it. The more maniacal among my friends are carrying on training for races that will never happen — speed runs, tempo runs, long runs, the works. Better that than facing the emptiness of a world without races.
Others have signed up for virtual races, which are as satisfying as alcohol-free beer. Allow me to explain. You plot, say, a half-marathon route of 13.1 miles round your neighbourhood. You run the prescribed distance on your own, maintaining your distance from anyone you come across, of course.
At the end, you stop your runner’s watch, which will automatically log your time and distance on Strava or one of the other running apps, and provide evidence to the organisers. Finally — and I am not making this up — the organisers send you a medal. It strikes me as a banal experience, but runners would rather pretend to race when there’s no one there than go for a run and just enjoy themselves.
For it remains an open question, whether runners enjoy running. That word feels too feeble. To say runners enjoy running is like saying junkies enjoy heroin, and that comparison is not far-fetched. The runner’s “high” comes from the body’s production of endorphins — an opiate, which is also released when you are in love — and endocannabinoids. Put them together and you have what we called in my days on the tabloids “a dangerous cocktail of illegal drugs”. Runners get their cocktails from training and pushing themselves harder. And now there are no races to train for.
We will not be happy until we can go back to not enjoying it again.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe