Keep on Running
“Yaaargh! Woooh!” It’s the sound of autumn on Sheffield’s hillside pathways, as socially-distanced runners take part in the city’s latest Covid-adapted running event.
Over recent weeks, the Outdoor City has been hosting the informal but breathtaking ‘Autumn Eight Champions League’ organised by Andy Davies of the Steel City Striders running club.
196 runners from a variety of clubs are attempting three parkrun routes and five stunning trail runs in their own time, originally in groups of 6 or less, and from this week in groups of 1 or 2. Many of the routes are up and down steep and rocky pathways. (Hence the cheerful screams echoing across our valleys).
“I’m from Oldham,” says Andy, “and when I came to Sheffield I could see how incredible the place is in terms of running and the outdoors. But there’s a tendency for Sheffield people to take it for granted. I know there are some great trail runs, so this autumn, I wanted to say there are some great places in Sheffield that might have been hidden to you before.”
Local runners have been quick to organise new ways of running and sometimes competing under changing lockdown conditions. This summer Andy organised a ‘Champions League’ parkrun competition where runners of all abilities could compete against their own parkrun PB in their own time in small groups. The result being that plenty of slower runners got to the ‘final’ at Rother Valley, where all 16 ran personal bests over 5 kilometres.
“People told me the league was keeping them going over lockdown,” Andy says.
Competition is a motivator for many runners, and so finding ways to compete safely under the pandemic is important, he adds. “If you’re two metres from each other it’s pretty safe outside, and the government seems to be seeing the importance of getting outside now too.”
Elite athletes have also been adapting to Covid 19, by choosing their own running routes. When the European Masters Athletics organisation for runners aged from 35 upwards offered virtual races for a range of distances, local England and GB runner Dot Kesterton nailed the top spot in Europe for women aged 65+ at five distances ranging up to to half marathon, and a world top spot for 10K clocked at Rother Valley Park in Rotherham — the physical 2020 event was originally planned for Toronto.
While many experienced runners have found ways to cope under Covid, thousands of less competitive runners inspired to take up the sport by initiatives like parkrun often value the social side of running as much as the physical, says Ben Heller, a run director at the Endcliffe parkrun.
“The loss of parkrun this year has left a big hole in many people’s lives,” he says. “It’s not just exercise for a lot of people, the social side is very important too. It’s as much about mental health as physical health, for the volunteers as well as the people running. It’s so much more than just a run.”
After the international closure of events in March, the parkrun movement were planning a return this October after an extensive review of the risks of outdoor Covid 19 transmission, and Ben says the Endcliffe team would have found a way to restart safely.
But conditions changed, and now although there’s no return to actual events in sight, parkrunners at least have a chance to submit a self-timed 5k result to compare to colleagues from their home parkrun under the ‘(not) parkrun’ scheme.
“It motivates people to get out there,” says Ben, “and once you’ve got out, you very rarely regret going for a run do you? The (not) parkrun is not the same, but it does make you realise how lucky we are in Sheffield to have such beautiful parks and countryside. And that’s still there.”
For the last five years members of the ‘Unofficial Head Torch Group’ have been running over that beautiful countryside in the dark, lighting up the moorland with their head torches.
“You have to concentrate, but the routes we go on look totally different at night,” says Vicky Hawkins. “In the middle of winter with the frost and the frozen ground it’s magical up there, and we see wildlife like foxes, badgers and white hares. Last week I got head bombed by a grouse.”
“It’s social and good fun, and totally different to running on the road,” says Rob Davies. “You can switch off, and because you’re taking care of where you put your feet you empty your brain of day to day rubbish.”
In the early lockdown, the group got together like everyone else on Zoom, and even took an online map reading course together. But they got back out as soon as the early restrictions eased in the summer, when for their ‘sunset run’ series, up to 20 headtorchers a week switched to groups of six setting off at different times or directions.
“We enjoy the outdoors, and for me the muddier it is, the wetter it is, the more exhilarating it is,” says Vicky Hawkins, who adds the group have kept going in Tier 3 land, “running in circles if we have to.”
For now though, under the new lockdown, group moorland runs will have to be curtailed.
“We hope not for too long. I can’t put a price on how much running has helped me over this time,” says Vicky. “Feeling strong and healthy enough to go out running on the terrain we cover is an incredible feeling. That sense of wellbeing and confidence you get helps you in all walks of life.”
“To me it’s essential,” says Rob Davies, adding that the sensible thing at present is to try and stay local.
“There’ll probably be a lot of headtorchers in Ecclesall Woods,” Rob says, “on their own in the dark.”