There was a bleak morning in mid -April this year when I thought my spirit could not sink any lower. It was an inky black dawn, and a watery sun was still an hour away from rising. I was circling our small garden for the umpteenth time and it had started raining. The lockdown blues were getting the better of me.
Let me nail my colours to the mast straight away. I think lockdown in South Africa was a catastrophic disaster for the country and will cause more deaths and misery than the virus itself. However I don’t want to get bogged down in arguments and heated discussion about the calamity that has befallen us but rather to discuss how we runners can survive this lockdown and how we can spice up our running to help us cope with the understandable depression that accompanies awful times like these.
Under the harsh lockdown 5 my family had to devise a circuitous and complicated route around our garden in order to create some type of acceptable 5 kilometre run. (5 kilometres has always been my minimum recordable run) It took us an hour and 54 laps of our route to complete those 5 kilometres. The tortuous course is still engraved in my mind. It took us past the rose bushes (don’t let bare legs brush the thorns in the dark), around the English Plane tree, up the office stairs while carrying the 4kg. weights, then repeat ad nauseum. The most exciting moments of the run came when we changed direction every 15 minutes or so. After a few weeks we had worn a coronavirus ring path around our garden, the fading scars of which are still visible. I also hired a stationary bike which occasionally helped to relieve the monotony. I found that stationary pedaling was made more bearable if I watched some athletics on my phone, on the bike rack while toiling away. To my personal embarrassment and much hilarity from the family I absentmindedly mounted the stationary bike for the first time wearing a crash helmet. In my defence, I can at least claim that safety is still uppermost in my mind. After far too many days of strict level 5 lockdown my two greatest triumphs were that I did not miss a single day of training and that I managed to avoid falling into our fish pond while negotiating a particularly tight turn on our coronavirus ring.
The sheer unbridled joy of being allowed to venture out beyond the prison of our properties has been tempered by the knowledge that in South Africa there are not yet any races or parkruns on which to focus. The future is still too uncertain. So, as an optimist I have selected as targets, races which still sit in the race calendar and remain uncancelled. I am training with these in mind. As it becomes obvious that an event I am targeting is probably not going to go ahead I simply switch my allegiance to the next race on the event calendar. Without certainty however, I admit it can be tough to remain motivated.
I have succeeded in stirring up some enthusiasm by watching the seasons slip past. When we started this lock-down it was autumn and the last Johannesburg rains were falling making the fallen leaves scrunch underfoot and glisten on the soft grass. Now it is late winter, the winter solstice is behind us, and there are hints of an early spring. Our dogs’ water bowl no longer has a thin layer of ice covering it in the early morning. Masked Weavers are busy constructing their tightly woven nests and the buds on our plum tree starting to push upwards to a warmer sun. In two months’ time we will hear the persistent call of the first Red-chested cuckoo of Spring . These are little signs and surprises, but they all help to keep me motivated.
But recently my enthusiasm has best been maintained by my introducing as much variety as possible into all my runs. The monotony of lock-down 5 repetitive laps of my garden has been replaced by as much innovation as possible.
Twice a week I run with friends. That’s something I’ve always done in the past and so is nothing original but the innovation now is that we all stay for coffee afterwards. Now we all stay for further socializing, standing at times in the street and on the pavement drinking our cappuccinos while we chatter away excitedly and laugh at old running jokes and stories. It is not as if we don’t talk while we are running, it’s just that we don’t want it to end. After the claustrophobic loneliness of lock-down we simply don’t want the companionship to end for the day. I’ve learnt that we runners are tremendously sociable creatures and that we revel in each other’s company. While, at times we all enjoy running on our own, “The loneliness of the long distance runner” is not something we seek all the time. I remember that as the nightmare began on 26th March we all shared our last post-run coffee together and as we left to begin the three hideous weeks of Lockdown 5 that became five hideous weeks of lockdown 5 some of shouted final messages “ see you again on the other side” Well we are not completely “on the other side “ yet but we are seeing each other again, and the companionship we share is invaluable.
When running alone I have tried to spice up the variety, running different distances, different routes, on flat courses and hilly ones and at different speeds. I have found that varying my pace has helped to prevent boredom and to bring fluidity to my running. I really enjoy running fun fartlek sessions ( sprinting for lampposts or surging until I reach a distant tree and then jogging to recover.)
Sadly, there are no races taking place at the moment but I have created my own time trial race around our neighbourhood where once a week I try and race as fast as I can over a 3 ½ kilometre route. As I run, I imagine old running rivals snapping at my heels and I push myself a little harder. This running is quite intense and hurts a bit. It takes me a couple of minutes to recover when I pass the old ivy-covered wall that marks the end of my mini time trial. I even experience a few pre-run butterflies before I set myself off. On other days I might visit the famous Westcliff stairs where I can try and run the 207 steps up the Parktown Ridge and be rewarded at the summit with magnificent views of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and the distant Magaliesberg mountains. Occasionally I try a longer run, venturing out for a couple of hours slow paced running. The important thing is that I am mixing my running up as much as possible so while there may not be any races on the horizon at least each day brings some variety.
And then of course there was the extraordinary success of the virtual Comrades marathon. I don’t think anyone anticipated that the concept would attract over 43000 entries. It was a special day and I will never forget the groups of runners running their virtual Comrades runs, proudly wearing their Comrades numbers and waving and smiling while passing cars hooted encouragement and strangers organised refreshment tables on the pavements outside their houses. I would never have believed that I would wear my Comrades number 2403 again, and in a Comrades marathon and yet I did on that special day. Many of us have participated in other virtual charity runs as well and have found some motivation in both contributing to charity and running virtually with many others. Every week I have enjoyed logging a (not) parkrun 5km run with thousands of other runners from the parkrun family.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I firmly believe that just as lockdown has forced me to be more creative in striving to keep my running going, it seems to have also made me more creative while I am running. Running has helped to ease me gently out of any hints of depression, ( It must be those wonderful addictive endorphins) and while running, I have had wonderful ideas and I have written emails and articles in my head. I am busy completing a book and guide for Comrades marathon novices using my experiences from my own first run back in 1977. I have found that running has been an amazing aid for new ideas and for freeing mental blocks. My family has become quite irritated at the number of occasions I have dashed to my front gate and after ringing the doorbell and fearing I might forget an important idea, have begged whoever answers to “write this down please.”
I am aware that I have been writing about the South African lockdown experience, but I think in many aspects, lockdown has been universal in its frustrations, loneliness, anger and depression. The good news is that we appear to be emerging from the nightmare and that perhaps one powerful lesson that this hardship has taught us all is that we should never again take our freedom to run for granted.
The new dates for my Comrades Route Tour and After Party will be announced once we have a new Comrades Marathon date.
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