This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 11 January 2021, as the UK went into its third lockdown
The fear is back. Here in the UK, this was the first weekend of Lockdown III. Like in the early days of Lockdown I, people are again jumping out of the way as I run towards them, turning their heads away. I may be imagining it, but I feel constantly judged. Those sideways looks, like daggers. “Why is he out running, breathing his germs everywhere?” I imagine people thinking.
"Well, you’re out here too, walking," I think back.
But it does put me off. I try to think of places I can run where the paths are wider, where there are fewer people. But people are everywhere, and the paths are never that wide.
But I won’t be stopping. Running brings health, sanity, a sense of calmness. It also helps me write. I don’t know exactly why, but after a run the words flow more easily. I wrote about this for Meter magazine last year:
“Worries and thoughts about the coronavirus had been preoccupying me for days, getting more and more confusing and making me feel more and more anxious. But while I was out racing along by the seafront, in 45mph winds, the waves crashing against the rocks and spraying over me, everything got shaken up, and the important stuff rose to the surface. Afterwards, as I stood on the shore watching the sky turn pink, I had a fleeting sense of clarity. It felt like a good time to write.”
I go on in that piece to talk about the value of writing, as well as running, in helping to order your thoughts, to clear your mind. I’m lucky in a way that writing is my job, but just keeping a private journal, writing down your thoughts at the end of the day, just for you, can be a huge help in these difficult times. I recommend it.
So this weekend I found out that my next race - a trail marathon in February - has, not surprisingly, been postponed, and so I’m back to just running. Which is really fine. As I wrote before, I’m learning to run without goals. But on Saturday, somewhere around my 7-mile trail run, I remembered another reason why I run.
I felt sprightly as soon as I started, and after about three miles I found myself coming down a short hill and onto a flat, wide field. Taking the momentum from the hill, I kicked on, picking up the pace. I didn’t plan it, I wasn’t doing a fartlek, it just happened. My first thought was that I needed to slow down. But my legs weren’t having it. They wanted more. They felt strong and wanted to go. So I kept it up, down and up a small dip, pushing the pace, just because I could.
OK, I wasn’t breaking any records, or even going that fast, but what I was experiencing was the very edge of what the Kenyans call “shape”. They talk about “getting in shape”, but they also talk of it as something almost mystical, that comes to you, if you just keep training, keep believing. “Shape is coming,” they will say, smiling and nodding, after a good run. Or they will advise: “Keep training, shape will come.” And when it comes, it feels great. Your body starts surprising you. It decides to go faster suddenly, for no reason. It feels stronger than you’re expecting. And I realise that that feeling has always been something I’ve chased, through all the years I’ve run - and it has been a while since I last felt it.
I remember as a kid, picking up the pace towards the end of a run with my best friend and training partner Damien. He would respond, pushing harder, and we’d run side by side. And when we were both in shape, we would keep picking up the pace, almost laughing at how fast we were going, neither of us wanting to be the first to slacken, and both of us realising we had plenty more to give. I can still remember the feeling, the whistle of disbelief when we finished. The grins as we shook hands. “Nice work,” we’d say, completely buzzing.
That’s why, race or no race, I still like to push the pace on my runs sometimes. To do intervals, hill repeats and tempo runs. As well as enjoying the slow ambles, skipping through the woods and taking in the day, I also love to chase that elusive “shape”, and the tiny power surge of strength it gives you.
Of course, the next day, on Sunday, I felt sluggish and slow - probably as a result of Saturday’s exuberance. But it didn’t matter. I was happy to go slow. I was still buzzing from Saturday.