Running in the time of coronavirus, and why it matters by Adharanand Finn

Throughout all the anxiety, the lockdowns and the restrictions of 2020, running was one of the few things we could still get out and do. Sure, races were cancelled, and the number of people we could meet up and run with fluctuated, but at least, through it all, we could run. It was more than a crumb of comfort.

For some people who had races lined up, it was difficult at first to adjust to running without a goal. A few people, no doubt, gave up. However, many others who had never run before, suddenly found they had the time and inclination to give it a go. Such was the uptake, that a running friend told me he was going to print a T-shirt that said: “I was a runner before the coronavirus.”

For those who needed something to train for, virtual races became a thing. You could still run hard and record a time. Some races still even gave you a medal. For ultra runners, meanwhile, inspiration came from an astounding array of what are known as FKTs, or fastest known times. These are record breaking runs on set trails. From Land’s End to John O’Groat’s, to the Pennine Way, the Bob Graham Round and the South-West Coast Path, it was hard to find an iconic trail in the UK that didn’t get a new record in 2020.

It showed that where there was a will, there was a way. Despite all the difficulties, people were still out pushing themselves, challenging themselves and reaching new heights.

So, geed up, we kept running. And in 2020, for many of us, even without our regular races, it felt more important than ever.

I’m not an anxious person generally, but the dark shadow of the coronavirus was hard to ignore; from rising death rates, to job loses, cancelled events and diminishing social lives. Yet out on the trails, once we got going, the anxiety began to fall away. In the movement of our feet, with the wind on our faces, we felt our hearts pounding again. The air felt fresh and rich. Yes, despite everything, we were still alive and kicking.

It was a relief every time to head off for a run, and to come back glowing with the effort, the flood of endorphins, and the sense that we still had this connection, through running, to the past and the future. It was something we did before Covid, and it was something we would do again after. It became a rare constant we could control - as long as we could stay injury free - and one that consistently made us feel better about ourselves and the world. 

I even found a newfound joy in running without a goal. I’ve run since I was a teenager, but my running has always been to some extent “training”, moving me, step by step towards the goal of doing well in a race, completing an ultra marathon, or running a faster road marathon. But in 2020, without those ends to motivate me, I found myself running simply for the fun of it. I had always enjoyed running, but this felt different. The enjoyment was no longer a by-product, but was now the full essence of why I was running. And that felt somehow richer, less complicated.

So hopefully 2021 will bring more opportunities to run together, to race, to take on new challenges in far-flung places. But I want also to hold on to that simple joy of splashing through the mud on my local trail, with no stress about pace or distance, or worrying if it’s a good session to help me fulfil my goal, but doing it simply because it makes me happy.

Adharanand Finn

Adharanand Finn is the author of Running with the Kenyans (2012), The Way of the Runner (2014) and The Rise of the Ultra Runners (2019). The first of these was the Sunday Times Sports Book of the Year and won Best New Writer at the British Sports Book Awards, while both Running with the Kenyans and The Rise of the Ultra Runners were shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. He is a freelance journalist writing regularly for the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Independent, Runner's World, Men's Health and many others. Resilient Nutrition will be sponsoring his podcast, The Way of the Runner, in 2021 starting with an interview with Jasmin Paris, who 14 months after giving birth to her first baby, became the first woman to win the 268-mile Spine Race, the winter event known as ‘Britain’s Most Brutal’ ultra marathon.