Socially Distant Runner

Over the last few weeks, presumably because everyone has finished the internet and is desperate for things to read, I’ve been getting notifications that new people are following my blog. I haven’t written much of anything lately so this has made me feel a bit guilty. Usually if I’m not writing it’s because I’m busier than usual. Clearly that’s not the case at the moment. No – this time it’s quite simply that for the last few weeks I just haven’t known what to say.

I don’t need to tell you what I’m talking about. I think even the real hermits of the world who HAVE been living under a rock may have noticed that something is happening. But I haven’t wanted to write about it, because it feels like the sort of subject where the people who get to have a say ought to really know what they’re talking about.

In general I am not a fan of live animal markets, but I have never visited China and I’m also not a fan of commenting on anyone’s culture that isn’t mine and that I don’t know about.

Most people who know me will confirm that I am most definitely not a fan of Boris Johnson and his merry band of old Etonians. But they are who we’ve got and that just is what it is for now. Yes, they should be held to account for crucial things like providing enough PPE to hospitals and making sure no one starves, but I’m not interested in politics beyond that at the moment because my head is too busy concentrating on survival. I mean fair’s fair guys, at least they haven’t let Rees-Mogg out to do an afternoon briefing from atop his penny farthing.

What I’m getting at is that my way of coping with this entire global shitstorm of a situation has pretty much been to follow the rules and do what I’m told by Chris Whitty and the other actual experts. Special bonus points to Mr. Whitty for his regular shooting down of absolute nonsense from journalists on a near daily basis. The number of ways this man has found to politely say ‘I have just told you that you utter idiot, please desist from wilful misunderstanding’ is genuinely impressive.

I’m also in quite a privileged position in the game of lockdown top trumps so there’s very little I had to grumble about at the moment. I am working from home, so I still have a Monday to Friday structure, video calls with my colleagues and the security and normality that feels like it brings with it. We are not home schooling small people. We live in a house large enough for both of us to have ‘offices’ and we still have two whole rooms downstairs for lounging or doing various lockdown hobbies in.

Ah, the lockdown hobbies. So many lockdown hobbies.

Over the last 5 weeks I have made:

  • Two dresses, a kimono jacket and a rainbow banner
  • Just…so much bread. Also cake, cookies, flapjacks and scones.
  • Jam from scratch with stuff I had forgotten I had in the cupboards.
  • A racket with my flute.
  • Lots of poached eggs, for the purposes of pretending to be out at brunch.

Brunch

  • A complete pig’s ear of a very difficult jigsaw, which I still haven’t finished four weeks in.
  • Friends with an older lady and her dog from a few streets away who I see on my state sanctioned daily exercise.

And this is where we get to one of the main reasons why I have been keeping quiet during lockdown.

It’s not exactly a spoiler that my state sanctioned exercise of choice is running. And in the first few weeks of lockdown something really bizarre and horrible happened – for some reason, runners suddenly became the enemy of the people.

For those of us who run, it was very confusing. Social media was suddenly awash with people who had gone for a walk in a park only to be horrified that other people had also decided to go to the park. There were reports of runners ignoring social distancing and barging past folk, breathing all over them. This would be poor form even if we weren’t in the midst of a global health crisis, so why all these runners would decide this was the perfect time to play personal space invaders was bewildering. I was certain no runners I call friends would behave like this so where were all these people coming out of the woodwork from? It was almost like people were exaggerating just a little bit…

This online outrage got to such a worrying peak that there was a genuine concern amongst the running community that outdoor exercise would be completely banned. Whilst others were stockpiling bog roll, in this house we panic bought a treadmill.

Treadmill

I have plenty of friends who are not runners, and whilst I knew that most of this was only really going on in the peculiar world of neighbourhood Facebook groups I started to worry. What if someone out running had been very inconsiderate and got too close to one of my non-running friends, freaking them out? I would hate to think that they would ever agree that runners are terrible selfish people who go about coughing on their neighbours for sport.

And then I remembered that the majority of my friends are sensible people who would not look at the actions of one idiot and think ‘oh that person is running and behaving selfishly, therefore all runners are selfish’.

That was my main frustration with the whole runners vs walkers mess; it was like there was a small group of people out there determined to turn it into some weird form of tribalism, and it was completely unnecessary. A runner may be a runner, a walker may be a walker, but both of them are also people. Some people are nice, regardless of what activity they are doing at any given time. Some people are arseholes, regardless of what activity they are doing at any given time. So if you are not a running person and you see a runner not actively getting out of the way as they pass you, please know that this is not because they are a runner. It’s because they are being an arsehole.

Common sense aside, the negative feeling did have an impact. I started to feel a bit scared of heading out – friends had shared that they had been shouted at, people screaming ‘keep your distance’ when they had already moved about ten feet off the pavement to give the person space. The idea that everyone you pass might be thinking nasty things about you is quite challenging. I started going for runs earlier, but I was finding it tough and wasn’t able to run as far because my brain was worried about going too far away from home.

I have now managed to get past this, thank goodness, because I had a few days where I just didn’t want to leave the house and that way madness lies. There were a couple of things which helped.

The first thing was hearing via an England Athletics webinar about other clubs doing ‘rainbow running’. This is such a simple idea; go through your kit and find seven tops – red, orange, yellow (hi vis is an acceptable yellow), green, blue, indigo and violet. Then wear them over your next seven runs, taking a picture of yourself on each run. Once you’re finished you’ll have a lovely collage of yourself as a beautiful rainbow! We shared this idea with our club and I acted as Rainbow Leader (I love this title!), in charge of creating group posts for people to share their pictures to. It was fantastic motivation and it’s been genuinely uplifting seeing everyone’s bright colourful selfies and big smiles. I’m just continuing to work my way through the rainbow, it’s lots of fun.

Full Rainbow

The second thing was even simpler. I have started being really overt about smiling at people if I nip wide into the road to pass them, saying a proper thank you if people wait to let me by, saying good morning and just generally acknowledging people. Actually, this seems to be happening more naturally within the last couple of weeks – maybe it’s the sunshine, but people do seem to be trying their best to be nice. I’ve been sticking mainly to the same routes and I now have a few regular faces I see on most runs, and we say good morning and smile and enjoy the moment. I ordered a new parkrun top with a personalised slogan on it saying ‘Socially Distant Runner’ and that’s raised a few grins, which was the intention.

Socially Distant

Maybe what happened to cause all the strife in the first place is that everyone was just very scared, and when you’re scared you shrink back to your immediate personal bubble and it can be quite difficult to look beyond that. As we’re all getting used to the new way of doing things people have started to recognise each other as neighbours, not different tribes out to steal bits of pavement from each other.

At the weekend I had a moment of genuine happiness amongst the uncertainty.

I’d just finished a tough session which had gone well, and everyone I had passed had been smiley and kind. I was walking home through the park and the sun was shining bright. There were a few people out walking their dogs, including two ladies I recognised doing laps of the park – they are always very kind about waiting if they need to for people to pass. I looked up to enjoy the trees against the blue sky and I realised I had been shrinking myself in lately as well, trying not to take up any space and to stay well under the radar (whose radar, I don’t know. I’m sure the virus doesn’t have a radar. Let’s hope not). I decided to walk onto the grass a short way, and I went to stand next to the biggest tree. I took a bit of time there, taking deep breaths and enjoying the sunshine. I got an urge to stretch right out and make myself physically quite big. It felt very liberating after five weeks of making myself as small as possible in the world. My favourite song came on, and I danced myself home.

All of this is scary. It’s fine to feel scared. We’re in the sort of situation which makes us feel uncertain and small. Maybe we are small. That’s ok though, because we’re still here.

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