A Nostalgic Celebration of In-Person Races

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by Katelyn Palmer

With the one-year anniversary of “cancellations” approaching, I’m increasingly nostalgic for those far-too early in the morning race day wake-up alarms. The giddiness and anticipation that months of training may (or may not) result in personal bests (PB) or stretch goal accomplishments. The near universal experience of pricking a finger while trying to safely pin a bib to our chosen shirts. Those moments on the course when you realize the only barrier between the here and now and crossing that finish line is in fact you. Heck, I even miss complaining about the anatomical advantage of cis-gendered male racers who can avoid the unending queues to the porta potties. So, this is a celebration of our deeply beloved but not forgotten in-person races.

The last time I hitched my worn-in running shoes onto a makeshift fence to jump ahead in a corral surrounded by nearly 2000 strangers and a handful of friends with a bib crookedly attached to my favourite long-sleeved blue shirt was February 23, 2020. I was in New York City for the fifth time, running my fifth half-marathon – a 2.5 times loop around Central Park. Naively, as we all were in those final pre-Covid moments, I had two goals for this “first race of the season”: to smile throughout and to finish. Looking back, it seems fitting yet also eerily ominous that my mindset was focused on having a good time, as if somewhere deep in the confines of my subconscious I knew this might be my last race for quite some time.

Perhaps more than the intrinsic pride of a PB, I miss the sense of community and camaraderie that makes races so special for amateurs, veterans and elites. I have benefited from so much positive role modelling at these events over the years. For instance, during my first half-marathon – through the Toronto Women’s Run Series – I was concerned about layers for this slightly chilly May morning. I asked the woman sitting next to my cheerleaders and I at the picnic table for advice, admitting it was my first longer race. Not only did she provide sound advice and offer an encouraging word pre-race, but after finishing her own half-marathon, she waited at the finish line to cheer for me. Tell me, in what other spaces does this type of magic happen where we relinquish our tendencies towards busyness to pause and support complete strangers?

Running is one of my life’s key coping strategies, so its no surprise that despite the cancellation of in-person races, I lace up daily and run as far as I can. I try to carry the spirit of the running / racing community with me. This means when I see a runner struggling to run up that hill, I offer an encouraging thumb’s up. Or when I see someone interchanging between walks and runs, I smile and praise their efforts. In these moments, I think of all the runners who on various courses have encouraged me not to give up over the past eight years of my running life. To keep moving forward. To cross that finish line.

I admit, I haven’t pivoted to virtual races. I thrive on the energy and momentum of in-person ones, even when it includes others unintentionally running into my heels or my tripping over a pylon. Yet, as this pandemic persists my longing for a good old fashion race intensifies. It may come as no surprise then that on my Sunday morning long runs, I have begun dreaming of setting up my own race and asking family members to cheer me on at various mileage points. In this vision, I adorn myself with a technical shirt that says something along the lines of, “If you can read this, honk.”

In this state of nostalgia, I also think of the tens of thousands of volunteers who have dedicated their early Sunday mornings to set up race courses, nourish us racers with water/Gatorade on the course, present us with our finishers’ medals, and tend to our injuries with such care. How are they coping during this pandemic? Are they also runners who can find strength in this hobby – or perhaps more accurately – this lifeline? If not, where are they turning to, and how can I pay it forward?

For starters, I will continue to run as it produces my best self. I also will cheer on fellow runners in my neighbourhood – it’s a lifeline. I hope you do the same – its what makes the running community so special, after all, knowing we are not and cannot be cancelled.

In running solidarity.

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