As we reach the finishing stretch of a year of the strange, we are still going, though perhaps dragging ourselves along now.
At the end of last Sunday’s run, glancing to my left I spotted a man stood on his balcony overlooking the overground railway running under Caledonian Road. Drinking from a mug, he seemed to glance in my direction. In a scene, strangely reminiscent of a late part of the Fantastic Mr Fox film by Wes Anderson, I raised my arm, a wave. He waved back in a similar one arm recognition. We were connected in that short moment, solidarity in our separated moments of celebration. For me, the near end of my long run (though Hornsey Rise remained!). For him, consummate mug use skills and a focus on the bright, chilly, Sunday vista across the north London skyline with eyes alighting on the ‘soon to be defunct’ Pentonville prison. Breath-taking.
That ‘connection’ felt great when our Tier 4 restrictions meant that separation from others is the main order of the day as we careered towards the strangest of Christmases, now complete. It is a prelude to a hard winter ahead, not that it was that insight I gained from the distanced connection made on that Sunday morning. It was rather the culmination of lots of moments that led to this latest blog entry.
With three races scheduled for this year (Manchester and Bolton marathons, and the Royal Parks Half), their cancellation has reduced the running experience I usually draw on for these blogs, though the much bigger global events reduced these to piffling concerns.
Still, the virtual London Marathon in October 2020 offered one race opportunity and it was different, run with others, rather than racing, and to observe the social distancing rules, in a group of less than six. In conditions that were just a prelude of the wetness we were to experience all the way round the self-prepared route Narendra, Nipun, Suman and myself left a wet Crouch End at 7am. As we homed in on central London and the Thames, it was amazing to see the camaraderie of other virtual runners out on the route that day as we each completed our ‘race’, our marathon run logging our details via the obligatory London Marathon app to evidence completion, on the wettest and coldest of days.
Joined for the latter stages by Giles and Keith, the welcome boost brought us home in a time that did not matter (my slowest ever) but brought even greater connection in our group endeavour. And in a demonstration of ‘milking’ a crowd perhaps unprecedented in modern times the group completed six finishes round the clocktower in Crouch End as Nipun’s watch failed to register the completion of the full distance until the sixth ‘flypast’ from the increasingly bemused friends and family who had gathered to see us across the ‘finish line’.
On reflection, this was the best alternative ‘race’ we could have had. The race bling (lovely gold medal, and celebration finishers t-shirt (technical fabric of course)) were truly well worth our efforts, and the race arrangements were smooth and effective. It was an honour to be able to participate in the 40th anniversary event for the London Marathon and complete it with others who have been there for the training was a great feeling. Whether this alternative will find a post-COVID future is an interesting question, perhaps not for the London Marathon as part of its major appeal (for some, for many others not) are the crowds and the sheer scale of it, the opportunity to participate in this iconic event should never be underestimated. And yet, circumstances meant an alternative was found, and it worked out ok. This could be an alternative for some future events with potential to organise virtual race series like those currently held in the Strava stats. Though if it does not lead to those frustratingly dull ‘here’s your year of activity’ videos this and other activity platforms insist on shoving out I’d be very happy.
Maybe it was not the solution for everyone, but for the thousands (nearly 43,000) who logged their results via the London Marathon app it was something given that this year there was no goody bag, meaning this house remains short of brown basmati rice and curious crunchy recovery bars.
Running has brought significant solace this year and a route to mental wellbeing that on occasion did not always seem possible. Trots through central London on sunny Sunday mornings (didn’t the first lockdown seem marked by extraordinarily beautiful weather?) were notable for just how quiet its streets were, even the most central of visitor destinations were striking in their desertedness, lovely though the clear and wide pavements were.
Some days running was a good solution to the day’s devils, others less so when it became a chore to get through and complete rather than extracting a joy to revel and wallow. Though here, the lack of target, remember no races, meant my search for a purpose beyond the admittedly great wellbeing benefits was often fruitless meaning I would drop out of this activity for a time. In recent months that (mojo?) has returned as the social contact it has enabled has proved especially valuable around the 2nd (and 3rd) lockdowns
We continue to face something that is out of control, something systemic, unfair in its effects on individuals and families, life altering for many, insurmountable for some. Yet for others, it is only about restriction, prevention of a ‘normal’, a challenge to their own way of ‘being’ that many find difficult to accept or to change or accept responsibility for. Waiting instead, for others to offer solutions, positions to take, ‘evidence’, so something can be done to offer a way forward, a resolution so we can ‘move’ on with our lives.
These recent months have brought into sharp focus an intersection of circumstances I find deeply problematic for their effect on other people yet striking in the challenges they bring me and the realisation that I have plenty more to do to understand the change needed, and the role I have played in being part of the systemic issues there in plain sight. It has brought new awareness of the benefits, or rather privilege, it has brought me, and the fragility that I face when confronted with that understanding.
However, the fragility in others is in many cases perplexing, and understandable in the face of them defending the systems that bestow on them privilege they have become so used to. A system now facing an existential challenge that has been so confronting in recent months. It brings a challenge that should be welcomed, that provides an opportunity to reshape, rescope, and most importantly to bring a revolution to society that I know is my responsibility to be part of, to use my privilege for change and not simply maintain the status quo
Recreational sport must face its truths from the Black Lives Matter movement (if you don’t know enough about it go look it up, and don’t ask one of your black or brown friends to ‘find’ things easily found if you do your googles). Inactivity levels according to data and analysis published in January 2020 from Sport England’s Active Lives survey 2016-2018 shows that non-white ethnic groups have higher inactivity rates, are underrepresented amongst the participants in some sports (again look it up yourself, white people). People of colour are less likely to occupy positions of power in the bodies that run recreational sport at national governing body, and the multitude of leagues, competitions, and other recreational sports structures and systems that provide the opportunities for people to be active via these routes. As a white British, middle class male I have contributed to this and the system that enables it to still be in place, and the privilege it has bestowed on me has meant I have not had to face any ill effects from that.
But “don’t mix politics and sport” I hear some say.
I say, when others do not experience bigotry, discrimination, segregation, unfairness because they are black or brown then we can move on to the next debate around politics and sport, a debate that can never separate the two.
I will do more in my own life to contribute to taking apart the system, structures, and culture that maintains racial oppression that I have not done enough of to date.
Yet the ‘majority’ need to do the same (yes all of us), not sit back and accept an ongoing ‘hard winter’, rather pause, and really see what is happening to society’s black and brown people. Instead of looking the other way, stop, acknowledge what is happening, understand the cognitive dissonance (again look it up!), and accept the evidence of an ‘alternative’ world view.
Be anti-racist, and do the hard yards yourself this is your race to run. Do not fall into protecting the systems by placing the onus on those racially oppressed to solve the problems you have created, systematised, and defend without question. I am acknowledging my own conflicts, the defensive manoeuvres, the unease, and tensions that will be thrown up to bring about change.