Ever since COVID 19 took away my entire 2020 race season, I have altered my training routine significantly and decided to take most of the pressure off and simply concentrate on enjoying myself during each session. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing before, but there was always a tinge of nerves before starting each workout as I wondered if I had somehow become slower than the day before. This new, peaceful, Zen-like approach was really beginning to feel quite comfortable until I started to pay more attention, through social media, to what others were doing.
It didn’t take very long before concern that I was, quite obviously, doing something wrong and that I didn’t quite match up, took over. It seemed as though a memo had gone out, but, for some reason, I was left off of the mailing list and I was the only person in the office who was unaware that ‘casual Fridays’ had been replaced by three piece suit and tie, ultra-professional business attire day.
Suddenly, I did not feel quite so fit anymore.
Though my physiology hadn’t changed at all, my psyche had me convinced I had gained 75 pounds and was slower than ever. The internet was telling me that everyone else in the triathlon world was getting fitter while I was somehow going backwards.
I began to ask myself, “is COVID 19 stealing my fitness?”.
Then I thought back to a race I had run a few years back in Scotland, and once again I was at peace.
The Glamaig Fell Race took place on the Isle of Skye and the instant I arrived at the race venue I was struck by just how different it all felt. Firstly, I had never attempted a fell race (in fact I had never even heard the term before. When I researched ‘Running Events In Scotland’, it popped up so I assumed it had at least something to do with running).
I really didn’t know quite what to expect, so I proceeded to scan my immediate surroundings to get a feel for what I was in for, but nothing I saw brought me much comfort. Ever other running race I had ever done had been in North America, and it became evident rather quickly that I, most definitely, was not in Kansas anymore. In all previous races it seemed that the goal was to not stand out (other than trying to win). It is almost as if there is a required uniform that only slightly differs by colour and very subtle style elements.
Those who take part in most North American races are distinguishable from one another the way members of the Applebee’s wait staff look exactly the same as one another, except for their various, hardly noticeable, pieces of flare. At this Scottish race, however, no two people looked at all alike. There were men in kilts, women in dresses, some in shorts (of widely varying lengths and styles), others in tights. There were competitors wearing jeans, overalls and plaid shirts proudly displaying the tartan of their particular clan. Several runners were hydrating pre-race with pints of beer and several fingers of whiskey. Some were even fuelling up with a few drags from their cigarettes. There were also sinewy, svelte runners whose skin was pink and blue from the cold wearing nothing but a pair of tiny running shorts with no underwear at all (it was that obvious).
Even the footwear was oddly diverse. At home you see five or six brands of running shoe that are effectively exactly the same in appearance and technology. If you aren’t wearing any of these, you can actually feel the other racers making fun of you behind your back. In Sligachan, where this race took place, I saw hiking boots, billy-boots, and various brands of zero-drop shoes (long before they were a thing in North America) that I had never seen before, nor have I seen since.
No one actually said it, but I could sense that they looked at me in my fancy-ass running kit and whispered under their collective breath, “If it’s not Scottish it’s crap!”.
This pre-race scan of the territory offered no more comfort and uncovered no clues as to how the race was supposed to unfold, so I sauntered over to the registration/check-in tent to see if there were any clues to be had there. The woman handed me my race number along with a voucher for a pint of beer and bowl of post-race chili (which had I not been in the race would have cost twice the price to register for the event itself) and pointed me in the general direction of the race marshal. I thanked her and headed out into the parking lot to attempt to locate the START/FINISH line where I was sure to bump into an official who could offer some clarity.
I walked all over the parking area and all the way around the large white building that housed the pub, the hotel, the county post office, court-house, and mayor’s office but could not find the starting area anywhere. As I began to panic that the race would begin without me, I noticed a gentleman looking so stereotypically Scottish that I honestly believed he was wearing a costume (kilt, wool sweater, smoking a pipe, red nose and rosy cheeks, Tam-O-Shanter) carrying a clipboard.
That had to be the guy, I thought, so I politely asked him where I might find the start line. He appeared to be confused, so I repeated, “where does the race begin?”. His response flew in the face of everything I had come to expect from the races back home where everything is so precise and official. “In front of the pub”, he said in a slow and measured fashion so that I would understand his bathed in brogue words. “Yes, I understand that”, I shyly continued, “but where in front of the pub? It’s a pretty big building”. Now, convinced that he was dealing with the idiot of the village from which I came, he said, even more slowly and using hand gestures to help get his simple message across, “The bit that isn’t in the back”.
Apparently, there was no official start line per se, but simply a general start area. Putting that question behind me, I mustered the remainder of my rapidly dwindling courage to inquire about the route that the race would follow. Now, as bewildered as I was about the start line enigma, this new question taxed my ability to comprehend what was about to take place to its limit.
“There is no official route”, he said, beginning to lose patience. “I beg your pardon”, I stuttered. “Where am I supposed to run? This is a running race, is it not?”.
Now, taking pity on me, he put an arm around my shoulder as though he was my grandfather about to demonstrate the skill required to cast a fly-fishing line. “You see that wee hill way off in the distance?”, and he pointed to a mountain in the shape of the most perfect isosceles triangle covered at the base in rough, scrubby grass, thorns, and scree and sloping way up into the clouds.
“You have to make it to the top of that, then finish back here”.
This, of course, didn’t really make anything clearer, so I persisted one last time. “Yes, but how do we get there? That is, what path do we follow?”.
Needing to end this exercise in futility before one of us died, he concluded our conversation by simply telling me that it didn’t matter how I got there or how I managed to find my way back. All I was required to do was make it to the top, where I would be handed a poker chip to prove I had arrived, then make my way back to the pub to hand over the chip to the woman at the registration tent.
And that was that.
When the race finally started, 200 or so runners took off more or less, though by all means not entirely, in the same general direction. No two of us covered the exact same piece of earth. We all had the same goal and were all striving to reach the same destination. That was where the similarities ended. It did not matter how we got there or how we got back, so long as that is what we did.
Thinking about the Glamaig Fell Run made me feel better about my COVID training. Since there aren’t any major races happening for the time being, it doesn’t matter that I am doing things a little differently from everyone else.
So are they, and that’s what matters.
The past five or six months have allowed each of us to explore new ways of training, test new motivational techniques, set new goals, and achieve new standards of fitness.
So long as we all keep moving, we’ll be fine.
For most of us, it’s the movement that keeps us mentally and emotionally together. We have been conditioned to believe that it is solely the racing that matters. But there is so much more to it than that.
Yes, racing allows us to potentially perform at our absolute best under pressure, but this does not mean we cannot find fulfillment through the solitary acts of swimming, biking, and running.
The current situation will not last forever, but our desire and capacity to constantly improve will.