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None of the countless marathons I have ever run ignited the kind of butterflies before the race that gripped me a few weeks ago an hour before a 5k race in San Francisco.
As the sun rises over downtown and locks my Uber on the starting line at the Giants baseball stadium, I see other runners with bibs in the same direction, a once familiar face that now looks like a different world.
We stand in a row in social pens so we can start in social waves. The broadcaster regularly reminded us that this was the first live race in San Francisco since the pandemic. The masks we wore in the pens meant no one could forget them.
Then the national anthem, which took me back to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge at the start of the New York Marathon less than two years ago, sounded in what I had thought of as the Before Times. Eyes full of tears over the memory of that day and all the lonely runs and uncertain months between the race and this, my first since hitting the pandemic.
Tens of thousands of runners will reach the same milestone this weekend during the first mass participation in London in 889 days. The energy has been building here for days, first with the opening of the race expo on Wednesday, where runners gathered their bibs, and then with the erection of the famous milestones that were already in London.
It really happens, shouts the city, reassuring runners who are doubly disappointed with the postponement of the March 2020 race and the October 2020 that was originally promised as a replacement. That event became a virtual race with 37,000 participants doing their careers individually. I was between them and while the experience was better than I thought it would be, it could not be a substitute for the right thing.
Will O’Brien, a 24-year-old Irishman who will be running the Rotterdam Marathon this month, shares my love for opportunities. “Belfast was a wonderful one,” he says sadly about his Before Times marathons, describing how he sees the murals on Storm Road, Parliament in Stormont. Then there was Berlin, which ruled the former Eastern and Western territories against the backdrop of techno music. “There’s no better way to see a city,” he says.
During 14 days, O’Brien ran a DIY marathon with 14 friends and raised 9,000 euros for charity. A good day out, he says, but again not the same.
Many runners swung out completely virtual marathons. “It’s crazy to run an injury for a run in your area, with two or three people slapping you,” said Brian O’Connell, an Irish broadcaster who will run the Belfast Marathon this weekend. The race will, like most, have some adjustments in the pandemic era, including fewer refreshments in the middle of the race. London’s abandonment of its traditional business service has upset some participants.
Yet runners have overwhelmingly good things to say about their recent races. London-based Krystal Miller, who ran the 57,000-man Great North Run half-marathon on September 12, said the extra space “has no effect on the atmosphere. It was better anyway because everyone was very excited to be there. Fellow Londoner Will de Lucy says it was ‘wonderful’ to hear the many languages spoken at the start of the Vienna Marathon, a reminder of running’s global appeal.
My big question in the fall was whether the momentum of a race could help me overcome a summer I lost through the most stubborn injury I have ever had. London was supposed to be my test field, but a missed email about my entry cost me a spot. At least I got some answers in San Francisco.
Our wave started and I took off as if it were a 200m sprint. Around a corner I see mascots cheering, a group of Lululemon with motivational signs. Other runners were all around, including the race leaders who soon returned to the group. The swell of the socially distant crowd was magnetic and drew me to the most unlikely personal best.
However, what I value more than my time is how it felt to be there again – the feeling of regaining something lost. I hope the 40,000 of you on the streets of London this weekend, and many more races to come, will be rewarded with even a fraction of the joy.