By Rory Morrow – Deputy & Sports Editor
The lust for normality in the COVID-infected timespan has been keenly felt across many areas of society. For students, we have missed all those small, seemingly inconsequential moments of fanatic coffee queueing, stuttering stumbles home, and all too familiar chats.
Within the realm of sport, normality has finally been resumed. Suddenly from tentative crowd-testing teasers towards the end of Spring, the Premier League and Rugby Championship are now brimming with full capacity audiences armed with the usual array of endearing flags, brightly coloured homemade banners, and iffy kebabs. Parkrun has successfully lifted off once more, and encouraging numbers at Craigavon have remained consistent. 235 runners took part on the 14th March, its last event prior to the first lockdown in 2020. On its return, fifteen months later, 212 partakers gleefully returned. This steadiness of numbers reasserts the relatively unspoken notion among runners that, yes, running with or alongside people is far, far easier. As well as a lot more fun.
The restrictions-imposed pause was an over-elongated freeze frame where, predictably, we are left rigid in the most uncomfortably awkward of postures. The sudden suspension of any activity at all was akin to Oliver Wood meticulously outlining a strategic session only to stop short of any actual training itself. Like the harsh ring of the school bell unfairly crushing lunchtime kickabouts or the terms and conditions being tediously read one agonising line at a time, covid abruptly ended all the entertaining comradery associated with local running. Chiefly interaction and motivation.
Thankfully, as races have began operating once more, this sense of competitive enjoyment remains undiminished. A brief jaunt up Slieve Donard in the Hill and Dale series aside, the Belfast Marathon was my first proper return to the full-on, elbow-bumping, and corner cutting glory that is crowd running. The Hill and Dales, whilst superb fun and excellently organised, are also the type of arena whereby you can easily find yourself by yourself. Perhaps only spying the whip of a bum-bag around a corner or fearfully hearing a pounding of feet behind you. It is really at the finish where the main human interaction of laughter, exhaustion, and all too sweaty photos make themselves known.
In contrast, the Belfast Marathon was a people-fest all day. As part of the QUB Athletics Relay Team, the Falls Road leg was mobbed. Whilst frenetically thrilling to be a part of, for locating relay partners amidst a throng of RiverRock logos and blurry numbers was relatively problematic. As our runner from leg three emerged into this hubbub of hastily bought shorts and rapidly discarded beverages, the name “Rory” somehow made itself heard, echoing steadily at first. Then, like an unexpected gust of wind, quickly materialising in front of me, producing an adrenalin-fuelled tap, and hastening my departure as my legs motored away, carried initially by the crackling atmosphere of running with a crowd to cheer you along.
What struck me as I ran along was the galvanising boost that comes with people. Of course, I wasn’t the only participant spurred on by this. As it seemed for every crowd-covered street, there was a fresh batch of hobbling limbs breezily running alongside. From fan-produced zingy raptures to the clapping of more than my own mere two hands, whenever energy ran low, noise and atmospheric vibes replenished the fuel supplies. This vocal support and inspiring environment were factors as to why constant lone running in lockdown swiftly felt insipid. And okay, whilst the right blend of music helped lesson the monotony, a lot of the time we were craving a few woops and smiles to energise us for a final surge home. From Stormont to Ormeau Park, the marathon provided this.
Just shy of 3,000 (2958) participants finished the marathon. There were also 854 relay teams made up of five people. Despite living through the pandemic, which we still are, to be able to appreciate the city of Belfast and be surrounded by people not hesitantly hovering 2m away was a real treat. Sure, the legs hurt like hell! But they were helped by partaking in a legs-moaning, arms-groaning, drink-craving event.
Queens Athletics Club was represented by two relay teams, one male and one female. Both posed satisfying finishes and times. The Ladies were a tremendous third place female team coming home at just over three hours and twenty minutes. The boys were equally chuffed, finishing in just under three hours. Both teams finishing in the top thirty and top ten relay results is a fantastic achievement which well merited the celebratory consumption of drinks later on. Photo posing also dramatically returned, sweaty vests and dehydrated limbs clinging to each other in a web of weary post-run delightedness. Even waiting for our respective legs to commence and team mates to finish was laced with spirit in the form of last minute pin discoveries, reassurances and frequent messenger updates that yes, we have collected our free banana as well as reporting on any speedy QUB logos zipping by.
What with more events on the horizon, regular training resumed and pints consumption typically worrying, across university athletics, running is once more maintaining a steady pace, both socially and competitively. People, crowds, humans, dogs, big electronic timers, HOKA debates. Welcome back to the glorious kingdom of social running, mingling and people.