It is time to get back to road races

We all experienced the pandemic differently: do not let fear stop you signing up to a race

Last December, in the midst of Covid uncertainty, I booked a place in a January road race. With the novelty of virtual races behind me, I had my fingers crossed that this large event might go ahead. Booking anything in advance came with a very big maybe. Who knows what another Covid Christmas might bring for restrictions. The race may be cancelled or postponed. Either way it was a deadline, a date in the diary and a nice focus for the winter.

An eye on the future
As a coach what I have noticed most throughout the pandemic is how hard it has been for runners to remain motivated, without anything specific to aim for. There is something special about putting our energy into training for a big day out. It focuses the mind and helps place running higher up our priority list. It encourages us to put pen to paper on a training plan and visualise our destination. The anticipation (and slight fear) of the race gets us out the door on days when we might otherwise have skipped training.

Getting to the start line
Knowing that I'm not the only one in need of a winter running focus, I encouraged the members of my running community to also sign up. Eight weeks later and we find ourselves in a sea of runners on a Sunday afternoon. For all of us who wake up with race-day nerves, it's a long wait until a 3pm race start. Many runners heading to the start line have spent the morning second guessing their preparations and worrying about logistics. But that is all part of that race-day experience. I don't know any runner who normally chooses to run at 3pm, yet here we all are, giddy to be in a group, yet a little anxious, wondering if we made the right decision to eat or skip lunch.

Race-day excitement
I am reminded of the wonderful excitement and buzz of the race day and all that has been missing for the last two years. I see familiar faces that I only meet at these events. There are club runners in their singlets warming up and checking their watches. There are queues of people at portaloos jogging in place to keep warm. There are groups of chatting runners huddled near the bag drop leaving it until the last minute to ditch the extra layers. There are children proudly displaying their medals from the kids races, and there are supporters wrapped up in their winter woollies awaiting the forecasted rain to arrive. I've not seen so many people together since early 2020.


Planning ahead
What seems like a novelty now was my normal for so long. There was a time when turning up to a race like this was a regular part of my weekends. For many years, I started my running year with a whole series of races planned out. I took comfort from having my plan for the year on one page. But without this annual map of race days, like many other runners, I've settled back into my comfort zone of running casually without any major focus or ambitions for personal bests. But now as I follow the crowd to the start line, I have two thoughts. First; I'm definitely going to get my 2022 race calendar sorted when I get home. Second; I wish I had put a little more time into my own training over the past few months. But too late to dwell on that one now.

Finding our rhythm
There are five minutes to go until we start. Butterflies in the tummy are very real whether you are up the front or down the back. We anxiously await the starter gun and suddenly we start moving. As we move forward the nerves are replaced with other emotions. From euphoria to fatigue, there are times that we feel strong and confident, while there are also moments when we want it to be all over. We may feel encouraged by a cheering supporter or disheartened by runners overtaking us. But we continue following the footsteps that help up maintain a pace we probably would not sustain if running alone. Finally when we see the finish line, we muster up whatever energy we can find for the sprint finish and promptly forget all these waves of emotion – until the next time. The post-run endorphins kick in and we feel wonderfully satisfied that we did our best for that given day.

Book a race
Do not let all the emotions of a race day turn you off. The date in your diary will keep you on track in the lead up, and the benefits of completing the race will encourage you to move forward with your running. Get a date or two into your running diary. Check out race listings online or remember the races you used to love to attend in the past. Let's support the race organisers and the charity runs too. Talk to your running buddies or clubmates to find out which races they recommend. You could even arrange to travel somewhere new for an event. Race days are back on the calendar and I can confirm the atmosphere is as good as ever.

Anxious about signing up
Very few of us will ever set out to win a race, but we all line up at each start line carrying the weight of our own expectations as well as the challenges of the last few years. No two runners are the same and we have all experienced the pandemic differently. So don't let the fear of not being the runner you were two years ago stop you signing up to a race. You may not be lining up to win the race, but each race is a stepping stone to the next one, a boost in motivation and a chance to make your own running a little more social and fun. As the world reopens so does the number of races that are popping up on the calendar. Set yourself a deadline, earmark a day that will help you become a more consistent, stronger and confident runner.

Running your own race
If I didn't sign up for that race last December I would certainly not have gone out last Sunday afternoon for a run or pushed myself in the last mile. I would not have experienced the atmosphere and camaraderie of the road race and shared the experience with so many others all chasing that finish line. Thank you AXA Raheny 5 mile for keeping me and so many runners moving through January and helping us all get excited about our running future again. We have had a taste of the future and I am ready to get back on the road. I hope to see you out there.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with