John Inverdale looks back on a challenging year for walking sports

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One of my favourite quotes, just as applicable when related to your favourite footballer leaving your club as it is to the end of a long romance, is that it is much darker when a light goes out than if it had never shone in the first place*.

I suspect that for a lot of individuals who I have met through our walking sport programme, it’s been a tough few months. They’ve been without a part of their lives that perhaps, until they embarked on it, they didn’t realise they needed.

One of the greatest pleasures of the work that Just has carried out in association with so many sporting bodies in Warwickshire and the surrounding area, has been seeing and sharing the pure unadulterated joy that walking sports have given so many people. People who had long since consigned ‘sport’ to yesteryear’s diaries, and for whom taking the dog to the park was now the limits of their physical ambitions.

A notice in a newspaper, an advert on a local radio station, or a casual conversation in a pub, and suddenly, a light went on that had long since been extinguished. Fun. Friendship. Fitness. Nobody called it the Three ‘F’s, and I should have thought of that earlier and would like to patent it please. But you know what I’m on about. Walking sport for many people has been finding that missing piece in the later life jigsaw.

If I have one memory of the filming we carried out over the past two years, it will be a freezing - really freezing - evening at a walking hockey event. Freezing but heaving. There were so many people there. Some had come on a 40-minute bus journey and then a walk just to share the sporting experience, with people they’d never met just a few months’ earlier, but with whom they were now emphatically on the same wavelength. Magnificent volunteering organisers and coaches. Skill drills, a bit of tackling, some competitive games, and then the bar. The hardest part of the evening was taking the endless layers of clothing off once you got inside. Like those Russian dolls we all used to have for no obvious reason.

I drove home that night, fascinated by the temperature gauge in the car that steadfastly refused to rise above -1, and intoxicated by the tales of why so many had made the commitment. Bereavement. Loneliness. Perhaps just a sense of being lost. A feeling that there was still a lot of life to be led, but unsure in what direction it might be heading. And I remembered all those rugby training nights 30 and 40 years ago in the depths of winter, when the moment you got home, you vowed you wouldn’t attend any more until the weather improved, but sure enough, 48 hours later there you were again. Nothing had changed really. The parting words from everyone as they headed out into the frozen night air was an almost childish ‘see you next week.’ It gets you like that.

Wherever you are, I hope that your walking sport clubs are slowly but surely returning to active service. It’s not easy for many, given the health ramifications of the COVID-19 virus and the vulnerabilities of many participants, but what several months of lockdown and isolation have taught us is the need for physical activity to help and improve our mental wellbeing.

Speaking to a couple of walking football coaches, they say their numbers are greater now than they were before March. On so many levels, being involved with other people of a like mindset, in an activity that by its nature is life-affirming, is a force for good for the individual and society in general. Walking sport is most definitely no longer hiding its light under a bushel. It will shine brighter than ever. And I hope both Just and I are able to be part of the next chapter.

 *John Steinbeck, the American author.