2020 has been the year of a few things. There’s the little matter of a global pandemic and everything surrounding it. It’s been a year of tragic, barely-imaginable loss and heartbreak. The year of lockdown, of not being able to visit any of our loved ones, our family and friends. The year of oh-so-many video calls, of virtual pub quizzes, of substituting sitting in the pub with your mates with sitting on your sofa and getting slowly inebriated while talking all over each other and trying to factor in a delay into the conversation. The year of working from home, of days of meetings over Zoom and Teams, feeling knackered at 5pm just by virtue of speaking into a camera for an entire day. The year of food and beer deliveries in lieu of visiting our favourite restaurants. A year of promising myself I’d learn a new skill, get better at the guitar or even just sort the fucking spare room out. All of that, but also: it’s been The Year of the Run. Well, that and The Year Of Fall Guys on PS4 anyway.
Despite the absence of running in a single running event for the first time since 2010, in the traditional sense at least, by the middle of July I’d already racked up my biggest year of running ever. A heady combination of a twice-aborted marathon (with the first cancellation coming only three weeks out from what would have been raceday), an enforced lockdown with exercise one of the few permitted activities outside the walls of my flat, and a lot of free time has led to at the current count, a grand total of 1,866.4 miles from 229 runs. My biggest year ever by an absolute country mile.
It’s pretty unprecedented. Twice before, in 2014 and 2016, I’ve been on target for a similarly big totals thanks to intensive marathon training, and then in both cases as soon as I crossed the line I pretty much gave up on running for a bit and went and did something else instead. This year, my spring marathon was postponed but for some reason I just kept on going and going and going. Marathon training started again in June: by mid July it was officially cancelled for the year. Still I kept on going, even though I almost had nothing to aim for, perhaps holding on for a possible virtual race to replace it. Running through the middle of summer like I never had before, ticking off virtual challenge after virtual challenge. At current pace, illness and injury withstanding, I should hit 2,000 miles for the year in a few weeks’ time; my previous best was 1,294.7. I’ve only gone over 1,000 three times in a year ever.
The weird thing is how normal it all feels. I can’t really explain why, but there’s just been this complete shift in mindset this year and fifty mile weeks are suddenly the new normal. Writing this 18 months or so ago I remember saying how pleased I was whenever I hit over 100 miles in any particular month; now I’m a bit disappointed if don’t do double that. August was a mammoth 240 mile effort, my biggest month of the year and probably in my top three months of all time. My average distance for each run in 2020 is currently over eight miles; twelve months ago eight miles was what I considered my weekend long run. It’s bloody weird. Yet now it’s normal. WEIRD.
How has this all come about? I guess it’s mostly a result of circumstance, but these unexpected global events of 2020 have also aligned with a personal choice in how I altered my approach to running. After five marathons, following broadly similar training plans (albeit of wildly differing intensities) I’d already decided to try something a bit different this year well before most of us had even heard of Covid-19. I’d started to have a bash at the Hansons marathon method for number six and basically switched from running two to three times a week to six. More regular running, but at a much slower pace. Get those miles in the legs. Doesn’t matter how fast I run, just get out and do it. Almost every, single, day. Keep it going. Plod, plod, plod. Six days a week, wind, rain or shine. Just run. That’s it. There’s a couple of key session midweek with interval Tuesday and marathon tempo Thursday but otherwise it’s a case of “just go and run, dickhead”. And strangely, I’ve really embraced it. I can’t explain why, it just works for me at this stage in my life. And it’s led to some BIG mileage.
Do I have anything to show for it? Well, yes and no. Yes – I’m probably in the best shape physically of my entire life. Despite the big 4-0 now starting to loom worryingly on the not-too-distant horizon, all the various stats Garmin chuck at me suggest stuff like resting heart rate, VO2 max, training effect and whatever else are the best they’ve ever been. My interval and tempo run paces are nicely around what could potentially translate into a marathon PB if the opportunity were to allow it. And pushing myself on those hard runs, for the most part, feels much, much easier than it did even back in February when I was going through round #1 of all this. For the most part, the injury niggles I got back in 2016 – the last time I went all in on marathon training – haven’t really materialised and generally I feel I’m in a good place running-wise.
It’s proved massively beneficial mentally as well, helping me to try and cope with all the shit that 2020 has thrown at us so far and giving me a bit of thinking space, especially on the early morning runs before knuckling down to the daily grind. Working from home and being able to run over lunch has been a massively positive change in my life and something I miss a lot on the days I’m now back in the office. Or just getting out after crap day, blasting intervals out on the local track on top of a hill with views back into the city centre I didn’t visit for four months.
There’s also been plenty of new medals and even a couple of new T-shirts added to the collection, which isn’t bad at all for a year with no actual races. I still have a couple more irons in the fire too with both the Standalone 10k and Manchester Marathon holding virtual events in October to most likely round off my year of racing against myself.
I also have a LOT of new running shoes. Five new pairs have joined the family and all of them have at least 100 miles on already. One pair cost a scarcely-believable £29 and they’re probably my favourite pair of all time. I’ve nearly killed them completely inside three months they’re so damned comfortable (and versatile) and I’ve already rushed out an bought another pair to roll out as soon as they’re officially dead.
But I suppose I have to also say: no. I’ve not run an actual race since October 2019, and that’s not due to change anytime soon. There’s been those virtual challenges of course, and very rewarding they’ve been too. I’ve loved taking part in all of them, especially those I’ve run with friends (albeit via spreadsheet rather than in person), but I guess if I’m being 100% honest there’s also a teeny-tiny part of me that’ll perhaps always think back to The Year Of The Run and the fact that I might, just might, have had the chance to see how the biggest year of running in my entire life might have translated into a full-on race effort.
Could I have hit that elusive sub three marathon? Could I qualify for Boston, New York or Berlin? Or more likely, could I head out fast and be on target for something special only to need to stop for a crap (again) halfway round and mess the whole thing up? We’ll never know I guess, but least I’d have had the chance to find out. I’m not getting any younger and this could have been my last chance to really go for something special before Old Father Time finally has his way. He’s got his eye on me and no mistake.
I’ll never get the chance to properly find out but it’s fine. In the grand scheme of things there’s much, much more to be worried and upset about in the present climate. Whatever happens from hereon in though, 2020 will definitely be a year I’ll look back on in years to come. Regular readers will know how I have a weird relationship with running, flitting back and forth between busting a bollock and barely running at all. In many of my early blogs from years ago I seem to talk about how much I dislike dragging myself out, especially with the weather we often get up here in the North West but then occasionally I Go Big and train my nuts off for something, and then during the next period of my life I drift back into just occasionally heading out when I feel like it just to boost my mental and physical health. This year, there have been no actual races and yet I’ve run further than I ever have in my entire life. I suppose following the general pattern I’ll probably run about three miles in 2021 and take up windsurfing or something instead, and then probably write in mid August how I can’t believe I had such a record breaking year twelve months ago, and how unimaginable it could ever be to run 60 miles in a week etc etc etc. Who knows.
It feels weird talking about next year already, writing this as the leaves are only just turning yellow and falling to the earth, but then nothing about 2020 has been in any way straightforward has it. It’s not quite all over for 2020 just yet anyway as there’s still those final two virtual challenges to come over the next couple of weeks, and then I still have that previously unthinkable target of 2000 miles for the year dangling tantalisingly on the horizon, something I never thought I’d get anywhere close to achieving. All being well I should hit it around the time I cross the that virtual finish line on October 11th. A double celebration, hopefully.
Beyond that, who can say really? My actual marathon entry has rolled over again and as of last week I’m now looking at October 2021, which actually suits me as I don’t have to start marathon training again in two months’ time after already going through the full cycle twice this year. Some smaller races may pop up as they started to in the last few weeks just before the infection rate started going tits up again, so maybe at some point before I get too old and lose all the effects from The Year Of The Run I might get a chance to see how I can actually perform in a real race with real people. I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in and even back in April I hit my second fastest half marathon ever, despite not running against another soul. Maybe, just maybe, when it’s safe enough to do so at some point I’ll get a chance to try and prove it. But first, it’s back to the virtual stuff.