To race or not to race
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 23 November 2020
This weekend saw the JFK 50 Mile in Maryland, the oldest ultra race in the US. It was held against the backdrop of soaring coronavirus cases in the country and in Washington county where the race was held - which led a fair few people in the media and online to question the wisdom of the race taking place.
Dean Karnazes was one of the many dissenting voices, asking on Twitter: “Is now an appropriate (or even acceptable) time to be participating in #running races?”, before linking to an article about the race in the Washington Post, which clearly made the case that the event was not a good idea. It quoted one runner who had pulled out, saying: “It seemed selfish to me to engage in nonessential travel to the race and potentially put myself and others at risk.”
As far as I could tell, those taking part were keeping quiet in the run-up, and not engaging in the debate online, where most comments were negative, calling the runners and organisers irresponsible (and worse things!).
In the event, the race went ahead. Hayden Hawks added to 2020’s barely believable list of FKTs, world, national and course records by beating the JFK50 record set by Jim Walmsley in 2016. He ran an average pace of 6m 37s a mile (just under 4 minutes per km) for 50 miles straight, on trails. That’s pretty impressive running. The women’s race was won by the always smiling Camille Herron (who had to pause at a level crossing one point for a train to cross the trail). They both finished wearing masks, elbow bumping instead of high five-ing - but nevertheless, racing on in the time of coronavirus.
What do I make of it all? I long ago realised that I could never be an opinion writer as too often, like now, I can see both sides of the story. I can see that we have to act to stop people dying. That we don’t need to race - I haven’t done a race since February - and that to do so is taking unnecessary risks. But I also understand the view that life is inherently risky, and that every other risk we mitigate as far as we decide we need to without bringing our lives to a complete halt. I grew up dancing in nightclubs full of cigarette smoke. I knew it could possibly kill me, but I wanted to listen to music live with friends. Every time I get in my car I risk not only my own life but that of others, but I want to go places. And some people, despite the risks, still really want to race.
I realise this is an emotive issue on both sides, and personally I’m on the side of caution. I probably wouldn’t have taken the risk and run the JFK50 if I’d had the option to do it. But I can also understand the burning desire to get out there competing, pushing, hurting again. You can do that on your own, I know. In theory. But in practice, it is not quite the same.
So congratulations to Hawks and Herron, and let’s hope we can all get back to fully safe racing and running together soon. I love running alone, as I did again this weekend, but there is also something wonderful and fulfilling about the communality of running.
Both Hawks and Herron, incidentally, appear in my book The Rise of the Ultra Runners. Herron wins the Comrades Marathon the year I do it, and I get to interview her, while Hawks is the winner of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail race I do in Italy. I remember his run being particularly impressive as he was feeling sick and dropping off the pace halfway through, and somehow rallied to haul in the leaders over the final section. I had some amazing revivals in my ultras, but a revival strong enough to catch and overtake the best runners in the race must have been something to behold.