The Reading Half Marathon is one of my favourite races. It’s local, which means I don’t have to get up too early (and also increases the chances of finding people I know running alongside me or cheering along the route, which is very heartening), it ends in glory with a sprint through a packed Madjeski stadium, and the medal is always a work of art. But the real reason it’s so wonderful is that pretty much the whole of Reading turns out to cheer on the runners: there are kids offering jelly babies and high fives, homemade signs cheering on individuals (‘Come On Mummy You Can Do It!!!!’) or offering encouragement (‘Whine now, Wine later’), people gamely clapping and cheering even though by the time I pass they must have been doing it for a good hour already, and, best of all, the streets are filled with music.
Some are homemade, I saw one woman cheerfully banging a saucepan lid with a wooden spoon, and for a few yards I matched my tired legs to her beat and let it carry me along. Another was playing the Chariots of Fire theme on what looked like a child’s cornet half way up the hill at mile 9 or so (exactly where you DO feel like you’re running in slow motion). Others are more elaborate: my favourite is the steel band positioned under the underpass just before you head into the centre of Reading itself – the beat reverberates through your feet, the energy carries you round the turn and you fly up the other side with the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
As we passed a school samba band playing with furious concentration towards the end, I turned to the guy who happened to be running near me, grinning happily. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’ I said. ‘I LOVE this race.’
He didn’t respond. And then I noticed the earphones wedged in his ears, and heard the tinny beat coming from them. He’d run nearly the entire course completely oblivious to the shouts of encouragement from the crowd who’d turned out to support him, the music, the chat with fellow-runners, and – presumably – any instructions from the marshals.
I get that people like to run with music. I do it myself on training runs – or, more often, podcasts. But a race has its own soundtrack. It’s a chance to be part of something bigger than yourself, and to make a thousand fleeting connections that add up to your unique experience of the day.
It’s easy for us to curate our lives to the point where we never have to listen to, read or watch anything other than what we’ve specifically ‘opted-in’ to: we create a social media bubble, plug into our playlist, watch our boxsets on the go. But by doing so we miss out on the unexpected experiences and connections that bubble away in potentiality every time we step out the door.
Just occasionally: unplug. (You can call it mindfulness if you want to be on trend.) Walk the streets with your head up, not buried in your phone, and notice details you’ve never seen before. Make eye-contact. Smile. Strike up a conversation. Be exactly where you are, and notice exactly who you’re with, even if you didn’t choose to be with them. And see what happens.