Back in the (Human) Race

At the Purple Ladies 5K on 24 April 2019

I’m about 6 weeks away from my first track meet (for my 400m/800m sprinting adventures) and training is going well: I’m injury-free and still enjoying it – and I’ve no problems motivating myself to get out of the door and onto the road.

To spice up my training, I decided to enter a local 5K race. I’ve never raced at this distance before (the shortest I’ve raced is 10K – and the last time I raced at that distance was 1995 in Coventry). One of my current weekly runs is a speed-endurance session and I thought I’d hop along to this local 5K event and run a pacey 2K and jog the rest (which is all I needed to do to keep on track with my schedule).

Just before starting the Mourne Way Ultra in 2010

The last time I raced was in 2010: the Mourne Way Ultra in County Down, Northern Ireland. After that I went rogue and did all of my running on my own (or, when I was working towards a very tight writing deadline, not at all!). Turning up at the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre in Ballymoney to pick up my race number for the Purple Ladies 5K  this Wednesday evening was a bit of a shock to the system after such a long time ‘off the circuit’.

The registration hall was a sea of club colours and I felt a bit intimidated and out of place. My nerves were calmed by the brilliant organisation of the host running club (Springwell). All competitors were given a very warm welcome and a lovely pep talk at the start line.

The man with the starter gun encouraged those aiming for a 20-minute finish time to move to the front. I thought I’d shadow the front runners as best I could for the first 2K and then ease off the pedal. I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of keeping up, but I knew that even if I could only see those front runners as specks on the horizon, just having them in my sights would keep me pushing on.

I don’t run with a wrist watch (I’m allergic to most straps and buckles), so I usually carry a stopwatch. Unfortunately, I’d left my stopwatch in the car, so I’d just have to rely on the faster runners to keep me going at a demanding pace for 2K and not worry too much about the time.

I stood back and let a layer of runners move up to the start line. The gun went and we were off! I’d warmed up really well and couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying the pace. During the first kilometre I was actually worried that something was terribly wrong. I kept asking myself ‘Why aren’t they running faster?’ and ‘Why isn’t anyone overtaking me?’ and ‘Was there actually a false start?’

After the first kilometre I thought I’d try having a wee chat with the runners next to me. (Having BIG chats is the norm in marathons and ultras, by the way.) The chatting didn’t work (as in, no one seemed that keen to chat back) so, in the end, I settled into (relatively) quiet running. (Okay. Okay. I did randomly chat every now and again. I’m a chatter, okay ? 😉 It’s what I do: chat.)

Shelagh (in the top picture) and I ran together for about the first 3K. In the absence of chatting, I focused on the rhythm of my own breathing – and I realised that Shelagh and I were breathing synchronously. In the moment of recognising how our breathing was harmonised, I felt a lovely connection with my fellow runner. The synchronous breathing was the equivalent of chatting. We were telling each other how hard we were working, how we were doing, that we were ‘fully in the game’, that we were in this together. And in that moment I suddenly felt ‘back in the race’.

I’d say I’ve been ‘out of the race’ for the last couple of years. The human race, that is. As a writer, it’s easy to feel ‘cut off’. It’s easy to move into a different world and stay there until the job is done. It’s easy to get so used to being by yourself, that being with others feels odd. Running this 5K race, alongside Shelagh, I suddenly felt part of things again. Part of something bigger. Part of something more joyful. Part of something wildly alive.

Unfortunately, Shelagh dropped behind a little. I decided to push on and get the job done (with a sprinkling of light chat 😉 ). I missed the 2K sign and just kept at a comfortable pace, crossing the finish line without knowing how long the 5K had taken. Shelagh came in just behind me and reckoned we’d done it in 22-something, which I was quite pleased with.

While there was very little in the way of in-race chatting, there was plenty of post-race chatting. It was lovely to talk to other runners and share congratulations. It was lovely to clap other runners across the line. I was really enjoying the whole experience! (I now realise the absence of chatting was due to the hard work being done!)

I decided to stay for the refreshments (the spread was AMAZING) and prize giving (something I’d usually avoid in my running past). I was enjoying the feeling of connection and of community – and I really wanted to stay and clap the prize winners too.

You can imagine my surprise when my name was called out as the second lady finisher in the 50+ category! I’d actually managed to clock a time of 22:26 – I was delighted 🙂 . And I’d managed to finish 17th in a field of 258 runners 🙂 .

I’ll tell you something for free: that old dog was wagging her tail rightly 😉 😉 😉 .

I’m sure something changed for me as I crossed that finish line on Wednesday. I’m not exactly sure what it is yet. I feel more open to connecting with other people, that’s for sure. I feel there is less of a gap between me and the outside world. I feel closer to the surface of myself, while still being deeply rooted somewhere inside. And there’s something else … an urge to reach out, I think (I even thought about joining the local running club … and I haven’t been a club runner for about 15 years!). Something big is on the move, anyway. I’ll let you know what it is when it shows itself 🙂 .

In the meantime, I’m just going outside and may be some time. (By the way, if you’re new to my blog, you can find more out about my #OldDogNewTricks project here.)

JT 🙂