Training for nothing

Nick Cohen laments the pandemic’s effect on competitions

Running Repairs

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Isolation feels normal now. Earlier this year you could think that one day you would tell children about how strange life was in 2020. Now you wonder if you will tell them how strange it was in 2019: “You can’t imagine what we used to do!”

I used to worry about writing on Covid. An issue of The Critic is on the newsstands for a month and there was a danger I’d be boring readers with an old story by the time they reached my column. No such luck, and no danger of that now and for as far ahead as anyone can see. The pandemic has little to commend it, but it has made running as close to fashionable as any activity that involves men and women heaving their aching carcasses through the streets can be.

Running is the perfect solipsistic exercise for a pandemic

There are so many out there that I meet bottlenecks trying to get into and out of London parks. When the urge to run is on you, middle-class politeness vanishes and the brute beneath the veneer of civilisation asserts itself.

Instead of standing to one side, and spending a minute or more on “After you,” “No, after you,” “I insist,” “No really, you were here first”, as we were brought up to do, all standards vanish.

Everyone calculates how to scamper through without making it too obvious, and without breaking our stride. No one wants to look at their watch at the end of the run and realise they could have been three seconds per kilometre faster if they hadn’t been so damn polite.

When i’m not running, I watch the new runners going by. Is he faster than me? (Obviously he is, unless he is clinically dead.) Is it wrong to ogle that woman? (Not if I am staring at her trainers and trying to work out which brand she’s using.)

Speaking of which, Sports Direct said in June that sales were up by 218 per cent. Meanwhile, the running app Strava saw data usage more than triple during lockdown.

Strava is a Facebook for runners. It shows a map of where you have been, and your time and speed in minutes per km. Other runners like your posts and offer you encouraging remarks. There is a sadness in Strava now as there is beneath the whole running boom.

Running is fashionable because you run by yourself, headphones plugged in so you can find company from Spotify and podcasts. Running is the perfect solipsistic exercise for a pandemic. It removes closeness to the potentially infected other. Strava is the only safe contact left. The likes and cheery comments are now the nearest we get to the camaraderie we once took for granted.

The loneliness of the long-distance runner is meant to be broken by a race. Every book I have read in my fruitless quest to become a better runner assumes the reader is training for a race. Maybe a 10k in eight weeks, maybe a marathon four months away.Whatever it is, you must be building yourself up for a big day when you bounce on to a course with hundreds of other runners. The race is the reward you receive at the end of training. You have to race to be a runner.

When I began this column, I offered a four-point plan to overweight readers.

First, walk rather than drive whenever you could — and this remains the best advice anyone can give. Second, do some gentle strength training to build up your muscles. Third, download a couch-to-5km programme, learn how to run three miles, and then try one of the hundreds of Parkruns around Britain.

They’re lovely. Athletes run the three miles in 15 minutes or less but you can take up to an hour. Everyone is welcome, or at least they were. Now there are no Parkruns, no races, no London Marathon, nothing.

Race organisers are still trying their best. I almost signed up for the Loch Ness Marathon in October. The effort would have half killed me but it looked like a smashing run. The organisers load you up into coaches in Inverness, dump you 26.2 miles down the loch, and tell you to run back in as good an order as you can manage. As has happened in every other race I have thought about running, a message duly appeared that the race was cancelled.

I don’t know when races will start again, just as I don’t know when theatres will reopen or I’ll be able to go to the office. Nor I suspect do many others, for all the government’s bold talk of sending workers back into city centres. The greatest success of cancel culture has been to cancel 2020. It may yet top that achievement by cancelling 2021 as well.

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