Uncertainty as we look for the great running thaw
A normally upbeat Chris Broadbent's cup is half full. Are his concerns for the future of running justified?
Before the pandemic struck, running as a sport was on a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory. Major events massively over-subscribed, running clubs bursting with members, participation climbing across multiple demographics, innovative initiatives to engage more women and young people into the sport,
On top of that there were thriving and innovative events on multiple surfaces, a national consensus on the wide ranging wellbeing benefits of running and in parkrun – a national treasure bringing the feelgood factor to local communities every Saturday without fail.
Today, the landscape looks very different. The event calendar has all but been decimated this year, with virtual events a limited alternative outlet for runners. For the majority, a much paler experience than the colourful events brimming with community camaraderie that has become commonplace.
Tracking apps saw a spike in users as people have turned to running and cycling as their easily accessible exercise with social distancing measures severely restricting team, group and indoor activities. Clubs were also on pause as running became a solitary activity for thousands of us, not the weekly (or more) chance to sweat and toil with like-minded souls.
Things are changing slowly. So, where will the – hoped-for – big thaw take us?
There are a few clues that give us an idea of what 2021 and beyond may look like. There was already a steep rise in the number of trail races in recent years, with race organisers looking to avoid road closure costs, but also an appetite for runners to seek greater adventure.
With evidence that people have become more connected to nature through the pandemic and more conscious of the environment, expect this trend to accelerate when events resume.
With social distancing rules showing little signs of abating, some organisers have begun experimenting with time trial formats. Is this a form of competition that could also gain traction in the future? With tightly-hemmed race pens almost unimaginable, road race organiser may have little option but to experiment, utilising a form of racing with staggered start times across a day – or more. Should it be something parkrun might consider in the short term to revive its operations?
And for clubs, the foundation of the sport, what next? Many have started to host training nights again, but with limits around participation. Will they see a surge when normality returns? Or – my great fear is – will they see a steep decline with runners now more in the habit of interacting as a digital community?
Running, of course, will survive. But will it thrive again?