Reflections on the Oxford Bidwells Town&Gown 10K

On 14th May, the past Sunday, Oxford played host to the 41st edition of the Oxford Bidwells Town&Gown 10K race, the oldest in the series of Town&Gown races. I, along with an impressive crowd of around 5000 runners, split over the Junior 3K race and the adult 10K race, flooded the streets which were closed off to traffic specifically for the race. This was the longest continuous run I had done in about half a year, but, thankfully, I suppose, I had motivation: I was running to raise funds towards Muscular Dystrophy research.

I heard about the 2023 Oxford Town&Gown in December through Instagram, and was drawn to it through the fundraising opportunity: all profits of the event go to Muscular Dystrophy UK (MDUK) to research MD. To athletes, and anyone, really, almost all forms of disease or condition are unwanted, but MD is especially bad. It is an inherited, progressive condition that gradually cause the muscles to weaken, leading to an increasing level of disability. 

I did a lot of distance running, triathlons, and other long-distance sports before Oxford. While some of my fondest (and proudest) memories were perhaps getting to train with Olympians and world champions through my club, within that same club, I also witnessed the immutable deterioration that some teammates had to endure due to MD and other conditions like it. So, when the opportunity to fundraise presented itself, I jumped on it.

The race was started by 66 year old Anne Peterson from Corringham, Essex, who was running in memory of her son, Paul, who had been diagnosed with MD aged nine and died in July, 2014, aged 34. As the horn blared and we slowly inched forward through the crowd, I was reminded of why running appealed to me – as repetitive, boring, and tiring as it can be (and I was treated to plenty of this during the run), it is equally liberating. For more than 40 minutes, I was too tired and too focussed on the run to think about the looming prelims, the three page reading list for the week that I had barely tackled, or what my summer plans were. I had one thing to think about and that was to do as well as I can on the run. Typically, a Sunday morning would see High Street, Cornmarket, and much of central Oxford flooded with students, residents, and tourists alike. Yet, with the roads closed to accommodate the race, I was introduced to a new side of Oxford – the city of in all its tranquil glory.

It took me 43:11 to finish the race, not a bad time I would say. But from about three kilometres in, the Blues athletics runners and members of local athletics clubs seemed to have flown away from me and, from then on, were always at least two kilometres in front. Would I have liked to break 40 minutes? Most definitely. But equally, not racing, but actually only participating for perhaps the first time in many years of my running career allowed me to bear witness to things I would have previously missed. I saw a fellow runner striding ahead not wearing running shoes but Birkenstock sandals; I cheered on wheelchair and visually-impaired athletes, and ultimately, these experiences made the 10k distance that had seemed so daunting rather friendly.

But equally, not racing, but actually only participating for perhaps the first time in many years of my running career allowed me to bear witness to things I would have previously missed.

Truth is, running as a fundraiser inherently altered the nature of the race. Where I had previously run to compete, to break my Personal Best, or for whatever purpose, I was running for myself. Running while wearing a bright orange vest proudly adorned with “Muscular Dystrophy UK” meant that I was no longer an individual in competition, but a part of a wider effort that summarily raised £200,000 for MDUK. And while it’s easy to laud myself with platitudes of charity and philanthropy, the fundraising equally benefitted me.At the risk of drowning you in sappy sentimentality, the fact that, perhaps for the first time, I didn’t view the race as a competition meant I could “stop and smell the roses” (though I didn’t stop and there were no roses). While I had previously enjoyed distance running races for my successes at them, I enjoyed the Town&Gown for its reminder of why I inherently like to run. So, I hope to see you on the roads next year when the race returns for its 42nd edition.

Image description: A crowd at University Parks for the Town&Gown

Image credit: Haochen Wang