Things rarely change when you go back home, but, this time, things were pretty damn different
There’s something very primitive and natural about running. It’s free, can be done anywhere in the world and requires little equipment or concentration. Your legs go into autopilot, leaving your mind to drift freely off to the furthest reaches of your imagination.
With the current Coronavirus situation, lacing up your trainers and heading out the front door is also a pretty convenient way to keep your distance from people. You can quite literally run away!
Whether it’s across mountains in the Alps, along beaches in Sri Lanka or through the streets of Panama City, running has always been my way to relax, reflect and take a break from everyday thinking. The fact it’s physically beneficial and allows me to eat gargantuan quantities of food is just a convenient addition. Having been adventuring abroad for just over a year, and with Covid-19 making it particularly difficult to return, on our first day back in the UK I headed out for a run around the block to chill the f–k out and revisit my old stomping grounds.
There was also another reason for the run
Coming back from a ‘high-risk’ region of France, the British Government had recommended at least 7 days of self-isolation. My mum, having suffered from encephalitis a few years ago, is considered particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and so seeing her, or returning to my family home, wasn’t an option. A real kick in the balls after being abroad for a year. Tragically, I wouldn’t be able to see my dogs either.
A nice long run would take me past my two primary schools (the headmaster didn’t like me in the first), secondary school, sixth form college and, most importantly, past my family home.
I suggested stopping by and saying hello through the window but agreed this wouldn’t be fair on Kai and Miya, the dogs. These two big alsatians would knock the walls down if they realised I was just back in the UK, let alone the driveway. It was best to wait and see them when we could have a proper welcome home wrestle.
Instead, I shared my running plans with dad and told him to subtly keep his eyes peeled in about 30 minutes (the dogs are clever you see, it had to be subtle). One step on the gravel driveway would alert Kai and Miya, so, I’d loiter on the street pavement ahead with the hope my family could discretely wave and say hello. Crazy times, ey?
Laces tied, water slurped and out the door I went
There’s something very special about a cold and crisp, yet wonderfully bright spring morning in England – exciting and uplifting – the perfect setting for a run. Still, after a few beers and a welcome home curry the night before, I wasn’t expecting to break any records.
For those that don’t know, Cambridge is a quiet, quaint and a most frustratingly flat place to grow up for an outdoors lover. Instead of running past valleys and creeks, with forests and mountains on the horizons, I ran through the park I first got drunk in, up a mammoth hill I skated down as a kid (which, now fully grown, I realised was just a small slope) and past famous Cambridge University colleges. The perfect place to grow up for some.
For me, my hometown has always had this inescapably comfortable feeling that was impossible to avoid. It either pushes you one way or the other. It’s most likely to thank for my forever itchy feet, wandering mind and constant desire for new experiences, landscapes and challenges. For others, they never leave.
Approaching my old schools, college and neighbourhood streets, I was expecting to feel something dramatic: an overwhelming feeling of homecoming nostalgia or a flood of youth memories. But no. Within less than 24 hours it felt like I’d never left the UK. And, in the 370 days we’d been away, besides a new charity shop and the odd block of flats, nothing had changed. Within a day it all felt completely normal again, yet things were starkly different.
Runners, cyclists, roller bladders, picnickers, dog walkers, strollers, families, couples, individuals and groups…
Governments are advising people to stay indoors but never have I seen so many people outdoors. If you didn’t know COVID-19 was infecting the nation, you could easily assume the community had just started embracing more wholesome lifestyles. It was strange to see. Like an image of what life could (and should) be like, if only it were under different circumstances. Fresh-faced crowds of people are now longing to get outside, yet, this is the one time when they probably shouldn’t. It’s hard to deny the irony of it all.
This strange pandemic environment had added rubber gloves and surgical masks to the usual litter suspects. The casual cough I often have when running now struck fear in peoples’ eyes. A woman hastily pulling her child to the other side of the path, out the way of the potentially diseased runner. Everyone seemed on edge.
Like a dog outside at Christmas
My legs took me through busy parks, across empty roads and then finally to my street. From what I could see from the driveway, nothing had changed. Almost like the last year of adventures were just a dream. Treading carefully on the gravel I tried to peer through the windows. No signs of life. Nothing. No Kai or Miya, no brother, mum or dad. I felt like the dog left outside at Christmas. Despite the curry and beers, I’d run faster than expected, and, not wanting to rouse the beasts, I admitted defeat and continued running.
What a mad situation. Who could have expected the things we’re all experiencing right now? Running past all the houses and family homes, I thought about how this pandemic would be impacting each and everyone differently. Everyone with their own stories to tell and difficulties to overcome.
Closing in on the last few miles, I ran by a surprisingly quite-looking Addenbrookes hospital and then past an elderly woman that shared such a beautiful and genuine smile it had me beaming from ear to ear too. For some bizarre reason, I greeted her with Bonjour! I guess some elements of my year cycle around France are staying with me.
The long run around the block finished, stretching done. I called my family and confirmed the quicker than anticipated running and our missed window appointment. Instead, we arranged a drive-by hello. Quite literally, they pulled up to the road outside Sarah’s house and we had a beautifully animated conversation… from the car, at a few metres distance and unfortunately lacking a warm embrace.
I had plenty of new stories, experiences and learnings to share but our dynamic was just the same. My journeys abroad always change me but me it never changes home. And that, I suppose, is the beauty of travelling and adventure. You can go and experience the wildest things around the world, things people may never see or understand themselves, and when you finally do get back home, you fit straight back into everyday life as though nothing ever happen, just with a slightly weather-beaten face and a cheeky little smile.
A Long Run Around the Block
Until my seven days of self-isolation are finished, runs and drive-by hellos will be my only contact with family, but, I feel lucky to still have them at least. These are unknown waters with an uncertain future. Now, it’s all the more important to choose our actions carefully.
That smile I received running truly brightened up my day. Such a simple yet powerful way to share support and solidarity with the people you pass by, letting them know everything is going to be alright. We can all share warmth and a smile with the people around, and it helps make this difficult patch so much easier.
At times like these, smiles like that friendly women gave a far more infectious than any disease.