This Is For All The Lonely People

by Greg Rickes

(A very ‘70s cultural reference,

Could it really be just five months ago that I got a shirt emblazoned “New Year, New Me”? The occasion was the Resolution Run on January 1, 2020 in Cedar Park Texas. If only I’d known….

So much has changed, in ways that weren’t apparent to me when the whole notion of shelter-in-place first engulfed us. A recent newsletter arrived in my email extolling five alternatives to take the place of racing. Not one of them mentioned the social side of the sport. I had only a vague awareness of how much the personal interaction found in running played in my motivation, until it wasn’t there.

I’ve always trained alone; for my almost 25 years of involvement group runs just never fit my schedule or my temperament. But racing was the counterpoint to my otherwise solitary pursuit. I concentrate on the shorter distances, mostly 5ks. At my peak I did about 30 races per year. I’ve scaled back a bit, but in 2019 it was 20, and the year before 22. This year, thanks to a couple of travel opportunities, I even got in 4 races before everything ground to a halt.

I’m no front-runner, not even in my age group, but in their absence, I’m now discovering how much the occasions, and the rituals, have come to mean to me.

My long-standing training route lies just outside my door, looping 2.3 miles through my Latham neighborhood. The area’s abundant racing calendar has provided the allure of exploring new landscapes. Now the neighborhood run seems the road to ennui.

Shirts? I’ve got drawers overflowing, yet there was always the anticipation that another race shirt might be a “keeper,” and if not, it could go into the donation pile and provide a small bit of relief to someone less fortunate.

Gone by the wayside are endearing rituals: greeting familiar faces, friends and acquaintances, sharing the latest news, hopes, and dreams. The hush of silence just before the starting gun. At the finish, bananas and bagels, accompanied by the recap of individual performances, good, bad, or indifferent. 

Isn’t it ironic that with another potential boom in running brought on by self-isolation and social distance all these newly-minted runners are unable to experience the great camaraderie that racing events offer? New reality it may be, but I’m not yet prepared to embrace it as the “new normal.”

It’s hard to imagine what race directors like Josh Merlis, Phil Carducci, Maureen Cox, and countless others are going through, with so many of the familiar and successful lessons out the window.  Administrative functions like packet pick-up are only the first new hurdle. What about volunteers? Water stops?

In the near term it’s hard to picture massed starts of runners elbow-to-elbow. Could there be staged starts, runners sent off at intervals like in bicycle time trials?  In shorter races it could mean the fastest runners are across the finish lines before those at a lesser pace have even started. For longer races the total time of the event could extend exponentially. The bigger the race in terms of entries, the bigger the problem

Bathrooms? I bet you took them for granted, even the dreaded porta-potty.  Do you know a runner who doesn’t need to empty their bladder before a race? With social distancing, how much longer would those lines be?  And then there’s the herculean task of periodic and thorough sanitizing.

Even post-race awards face the context of being de-personalized.

Am I being too dystopian?  My heart wants to say yes, that we’ll be back to the our comfortably familiar ways sooner than rather than later, but my glass-half-full persona isn’t so certain.  The virus is still out there, even if it’s been tempered (perhaps temporarily). In one useful analogy, we may have survived the withering cross-fire, but there’s still a sniper lurking. We’ll each have to assess the risks we’re willing to take with running, just like with so many other aspects of our lives. For those of us in upper age-groups there’s bound to be some serious soul-searching.

There are those who’ve risen to the occasion, setting new goals, and then getting it done. Like Ellen Snee, who came back from some discouraging injuries to complete the trifecta (5k,10k, Half-Marathon) in the ARE Social Distance Running Challenge, and Erin Rightmyer, notching a p.r. in her personal marathon. So many of you have my admiration for your focus and dedication. Meanwhile I’m struggling to just start my watch for a virtual race; I never realized how much the pack of runners energized me and carried me along.

 Maybe you’re like me, running, but wondering if you’re still a “runner,” missing out on the elusive “runner’s high,” feeling it’s more like taking medicine, an on-going obligation.  If any of that rings true to you, I hope you’ll find some comfort in knowing you’re not alone.

What keeps coming back to me, what keeps me going, is a phrase from one of my favorite movies, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” --- “(In India we have a saying): Everything will be alright in the end. So, if it is not yet alright, it is not yet the end”.

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