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Lifestyle13 Oct 2020

The Athletic Life: taking on new challenges in challenging times



Kate CarterIf you've only ever contested road or cross-country races, now is the perfect time to head to the track and try something new.

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


I’ve always felt that the pages of the calendar lie, and that autumn should really mark the beginning of the year. Or perhaps that’s a northern hemisphere-centric way of putting it, and anyway, it’s not so much the season or the weather, as that the noise of September and October loudly ringing in the start of another school year never quite seems to fade for me.

In rather more recent years, it’s also signalled a transition in running too – the end of one season, moving into a whole different mind-set, whether that be the big push towards an autumn marathon or bracing myself for a winter of mud-splattered cross country.

This year seems different though: the uncertainty so many of us feel going into the next season, and whatever it may hold, feels less like the usual seasonal shift of training focus, and something more unsettled and unsure. What, after all, are most of us training for?

My running friends seem to divide more or less evenly between those who feel more committed than ever – albeit to the benefits rather than the outcome – and those who are struggling with motivation in the face of so many race cancellations and such strange conditions. Fortunately for my sanity, I fall firmly into the first camp, and have managed to happily marry a general apathy about marathons and longer distance races – previously my poison of choice – with the fact that it’s really only short stuff that’s available to race at the moment.

I’ve done more track meets in the past month or two than ever before, and have absolutely loved them: you cannot beat the quirkiness and off-key warmth of a local, low-key club meet where the long jump is contested by a field of eight, with 65 years between the youngest and the oldest. Where you race a mile against kids young enough to be your own – who almost without exception have yet to learn that going out too fast will come back and bite you, and fast. One of the few areas where experience can occasionally beat youth…

Before I did any of these meets, I thought they would be daunting at best, terrifying at worst: full of lithe youngsters considerably faster than me, where I would trail in last, red-faced in both effort and embarrassment. Far from it: as so often the case with running, most people are focused entirely on their own goal or race and barely notice you unless it’s a back to try to catch up with, or a target to be passed. 50 metres away in a track race might as well be a different country, whether it’s ahead or behind.

And aside from your own race, watching the others is utterly fascinating – the differences in stride, in height, in technique. Will those young speedy kids still be running in five years, let alone 15? What is their potential, and how can they reach it without falling out of love with the sport?

Last Saturday I raced a 3000m and a mile and in between the two, watched a whole series of 800m heats, many if not most of them contested by under-18s. One performance stood out: a slight girl, about 13 or 14, cruising the first 600m on the shoulder of a taller boy with an effortless grace. 200m from the end, a visible gear change, her stride lengthening out, she sailed past his actually admirably-even effort, to win by a large margin. It was an astonishingly sophisticated race performance – not so much the time, which I forgot to even look at – just in terms of pure racing strategy. That girl, I hope, will go far – and fast.

I’ve also never felt so grateful to the organisers who have been able to put on these events, in the face of complicated conditions and restrictions, and the need for more volunteers than ever. While I’ve never lacked commitment to my own personal training, such as it is, I do seem to need races in order to push that little extra – hardly, of course, an unusual characteristic.

For those who haven’t raced for a while or who have no immediate goals, I know it can feel a little flat. I’ve written before that while elite races are awe-inspiring to watch, it’s often the people closest to you – in age, in geography, in friendship – who actually inspire you. And without a season full of club mates lining up for big city races, pushing you on in what you believe you yourself can achieve, it’s a little hard to know where to go. So if you can, do try out something different and local – enter yourself in a distance you’ve never run before. Just to see how it feels. You might surprise yourself.