Keeping calm and carrying on – AW

    Verity Ockenden writes about her experiences of paying tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth by doing what she does best … and going for a run

    When I made my first tentative footholds as a resident in Italy, my foundations felt rocky. I’d waited so long and worked so hard to make my emigration possible that, once ensconced, I clung to my small house like my life depended on it.

    I felt a sense of trepidation with every repatriation that had to be made in order to race in the UK, as if everything I had gained might disappear again by the time I returned. I was so busy imprinting myself on my new home, that I didn’t miss my birthplace at all.

    And yet, as the months went by spent on the road between altitude camps in Font Romeu and St Moritz, and I returned sporadically to my trusty Tuscany to find everything just as I had left it, my confidence grew. Little by little, with every national championship that beckoned me, I began to enjoy all the small elements of quintessential Britishness that I had taken for granted previously. 

    This time, as I touched down in Edinburgh through gold-rimmed grey clouds illuminating the surrounding hills, I dreamt of proper tea, golden syrup on my porridge, small dogs, hedges, marmalade on toast, rhubarb and shortbread.

    The first person I saw at the baggage carousel was wearing a kilt. My aunt’s familiar voice greeted me as she waved from the right-hand side of her car, as did the lowing cows that lined mossy dry-stone walls as we sped through the glens of southern Scotland toward her cottage. She had been gathering spring onions from the garden when the Queen’s death was announced on the radio, and when she came in I couldn’t think of anything to say, except “It’s happened.”

    I had been planning on racing the inaugural British 5km Road Championships in Newcastle on the Friday prior to the Great North Run, before lining up for the famous half marathon with whatever I had left in the tank afterwards.

    We had considered the 5km a far more competitive distance for me at this stage of the season, considering my modest mileage. The Great North Run was to be raced conservatively, as it would effectively be the first long run I would have completed since February.

    Verity Ockenden (Mark Shearman)

    Instead, when the news dropped that the championships were to be cancelled as a mark of respect to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II following her death, plans had to be modified on the spot.

    I called my coach, squeezed a few extra miles and some hill reps into my easy run and decided not to abstain from a toast raised in the Queen’s honour that evening. Messages flew back and forth between organisers and competitors, some of whom were already en route to the race or even in Newcastle, having paid for train fares and hotel rooms.

    For many, the lure of the championship prize pot was what made the expedition a worthwhile investment. Most of the athletes from whom I heard personally and who didn’t have Sunday’s Great North Run as a backstop strongly objected to the cancellation, regardless of their general stance on the monarchy.

    There was by no means an absence of sentiment and patriotism from those who took pride in representing Great Britain in competition, in wearing the flag and singing our anthem… but rather a sense of lost opportunity to pay respects as athletes striving to do their country proud by means of giving their best performance.

    As we waited a suspenseful 24 hours for an official announcement on the status of the Great North Run itself, a far larger event hosting not only elites but a total of 60,000 runners all raising money for charities, all pre-race preparations were to be re-organised.

    Though many lamented the potential loss of an opportunity to pursue a personal endeavour, the general consensus was that it would be a greatly wasted opportunity to gather as a community and do something good en masse. We all felt capable of doing so respectfully. Thankfully, the event did go ahead as originally planned and black ribbons were offered to all elites on arrival at the event hotel. There was to be the national anthem and a moment’s silence and prayer before the start of the race before all would proceed as usual. 

    Personally, once I had rearranged all of my training and travel plans, I came to the stark realisation that I also needed to tend to my race plan. I now had no excuse not to race the half marathon with all guns blazing, despite not having put any of the appropriate training in.  I would be lucky not to hit a wall, let alone run fast.

    READ MORE: Verity Ockenden’s AW columns

    Thankfully, despite the sombre mood pervading the country, the ever-reliable crowds of the North turned out and they cheered like hell. That’s the beauty of road racing; it’s for everyone. The rigid lanes of the track only allow for so many, while the roads never divide but bring together. 

    While a nation in mourning felt alien to all who had never known life without the Queen on the throne, the history interwoven into the very fabric of the streets, in our architecture and in our landscapes, older than the hills and outliving us all, remained present as we ran through it, being it and breathing it. For me that day, it felt right to be in my home country, continuing to do what I do best alongside my compatriots, keeping calm and carrying on. 

    Verity Ockenden is a British international athlete and European Indoor 3000m bronze medallist

    » This article first appeared in the October issue of AW magazine

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