Why races really suck

Races. They’re not happening this year, are they? Or, not really. All the big ones — the London, Paris, and Boston marathons, to name just three — have been postponed, and I don’t think many people really believe the world will be normal enough at any point before 2021 for the sort of crowds and crush and lack of social distancing that is an inevitable part and parcel of a large organised running event. (Although, after this last weekend, who knows? Maybe we could somehow use the excuses of a) parental instinct b) testing our eyesight or c) childcare to conjure up and organise the sort of events we used to enjoy. No? Oh yeah, cos we’re not Cummings).

Anyway. I would never, ever have thought this sort of a race-free year would be disappointing to me. I don’t see the running I do day to day as “training.” It’s just me, running – listening to my thoughts and my music, or chatting to a friend, and feeling my body respond to what my brain tells it to do (sometimes successfully, sometimes…very much not). I generally feel that for the duration of a run, my mind and body are working together, which is rare in everyday life and very peaceful in and of itself. And then afterwards you get all that endorphin-y happiness. Love it.

What I don’t love, usually, are races. Races make me nervous and panicky. There is, after all, so very much to dislike. Here’s a short and non-exhaustive list:

I dislike having carefully to plan my meal the night before, making sure it’s nicely carby but not too oily, avoiding delicious wine or a nice g&t. I dislike the decision about what to have for breakfast and when to have it. (FYI, my usual choice: for anything under a half marathon, 2 slices of white toast and a banana. For half-marathons or more, 4 slices of white toast and a banana. In each case, they need to be eaten at least 2 hours before running, preferably 3).

I dislike the smell of Deep Heat that souses every bit of air from the carpark onwards, and the mild bickering over safety pins, and the queues for the Portaloos. I dislike the Portaloos and those clear gel things that definitely don’t replace soap.

I dislike the anxious foot-to-foot pacing on the start line, the checking and re-checking of laces and headphones and the GPS on my sports watch. I dislike the signs on the labelled pens for different paces, because I know I should really push myself into the pen for a time I can barely hope for, but inevitably my instinct will urge me into a pen for a time I comfortably know I can achieve, even though I’ll probably be stepping impatiently on heels once we actually get moving and cursing my choice.

I dislike the cheery warm-up dudes, jumping around and encouraging us as runners to attempt random stretches we’d never usually do before running, risking unusual and unanticipated injuries. I dislike the feedbacky megaphones and loudspeakers and their jumbled, garbled announcements which I can never properly hear. I dislike the cheery banners from sponsors.

I dislike the countdown, the hot panicky seconds to the terrifying blast of the air horn or starting gun. I dislike the crush of everyone suddenly jogging forward, that mutual surge of fear and adrenaline, the throb of blood in my ears as I set off at an inevitably overenthusiastic and unsustainable pace. I dislike the way it always feels like a full calendar year before the first mile marker appears, whatever the distance I’m racing. I dislike how much I care about that first mile’s pace and time.

I dislike the boring miles in the middle of the race, stuck in housing estates or on the fringes of cities, feeling like it’ll never be over. I dislike the glum feeling of knowing my pace has died off a bit, of accepting I might not get a PB and feeling the race has become pointless. I dislike needing a wee and wondering if I’ll wet myself and whether it even matters when I’m so uncomfortable anyway. I strongly dislike energy gels. I also dislike the discarded gel sachets making the pavements slippery. I dislike the awkward juggle of trying to get a drink from a helpful marshall at the water stations.

I dislike the last mile, the desperation to find the 400m, 200m, 100m markers, the way my chest feels like it’ll burst as I wring every bit of myself into a tight knot for a sprint finish. I dislike the ugly effort face I’m always pulling in the finishing line photo. I dislike the hot salty crystals of sweat that burst through and settle onto my bare skin at the moment I cross the line and stop running. I dislike the gasping hunt for a bottle of water and the queue to get a medal and the fact that the T-shirts are not consistently sized and the fact that there is never any phone reception at this point, so I can’t find my travel companions or family. I dislike the way my running clothes stick sweatily to my skin.

Yep. I dislike all of these things. With every race I sign up for, I spend a bit of time thinking “yay!” but then it gets closer and the days tick down and I remember what it’s like, everything listed above, and I dread it a bit. I wonder why I’m doing it and I sometimes wish for a mild hurricane or some other unforeseen event to intervene and allow me a guilt-free reprieve from the stress of it.

On the other hand, though. On the other hand. It’s a bit marvellous, isn’t it? Everyone all gathered together quite peacably, being quietly supportive of each other, sharing (eventually) their safety pins and Lucozade Sport. No one judging. Everyone running their own race in their own mind, beating their own goals and demons. All the volunteers who smile and direct the runners and hand out water and jelly babies and words of kind encouragement. All of us runners heading to a common goal out on the course, exploring bits of cities and towns we might not ever have visited before, pushing ourselves to our own personal limits. The camaraderie at the finish line, the disproportionate joy of an ill-fitting T-shirt and cheap medal from a big box of identical ones. The absolute thrill and bliss of a free chocolate bar in the finisher’s goodie bag. The relaxed, post-exercise buzz of the rest of that day, and the smooth delight of a post-race beer or shandy. The warm sting of a palmful of Deep Heat. The relief of a portaloo wee after a half-hour queue.

I miss races. I hope we get them back in a new normal.

Me holding a medal from London's Vitality 10k race.

Cheap but priceless medals
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