It is increasingly clear to me that I thrive on routine and structure. I went straight from school to university, and straight from university into a teaching career so am highly accustomed to having my day, my week and my year mapped out for me in precise detail. Each month of the year has its own norms and rituals; the different types of weather or light at different points in the year are inextricably linked to an event. The rustling of the trees in the winds of September evokes parents parked outside schools dropping their nervous children off in their new school uniforms that they will grow into, blowing kisses and glowing with pride. The cold and dark days of December bring to mind condensation on classroom windows as children sit mock exams. The lush greens of April and May signify the run up to the real exams and the sense of students sharpening their minds, ready to perform on the day.
This may well be the reason I am so drawn to running. In its own way it offers that same sense of rhythm, of a rigid calendar and of an annual cycle that hasn’t changed for years and will not change for years. It isn’t just that January is the month when some cross country races occur; January is cross country. April is not just a month when some road races happen; April is defined, in my world view at least, by their existence. July is not just about the track. You get the idea.
By any possible metric, 2020 was a terrible year. People I know got ill, lost their ability to work, were confined in their homes, struggled with their mental health. Schools were closed. Shops were closed. The arts came grinding to a halt and it may be years before the handbrake is fully lifted again. The Olympics were cancelled. Poverty and inequality increased from an already unacceptably high level. We left the EU. My grandfather died and we still haven’t had a funeral. Watford got relegated.
It was also the year that the calendar was ripped up. When everything stopped in March, I had no races in the diary, no short term goals and no idea how long that would be the case for. As I write this now, at the end of December, I find myself in exactly the same position. And yet, through all of this, running has been what I turn to to give that sense of normality and routine I find myself craving. Even when there was no need to run for training or performance purposes, I found myself doing it anyway. More than ever, in fact. In a year when I have not been able to control much, I can control how fast I run, how far, how often. In a year when travel has been difficult running has satisfied, albeit in a small way, my desire for motion – even if I always end up where I started. In a year when activities that normally boost my mood have been cancelled, the endorphin rush from a good run has always been there.
Although my struggles this year have been minimal compared to others and that it is naive and insensitive to put my problems on the same level as those who have faced real hardship, I have found this year challenging, but have no doubt that running has helped get me through it. As I prepare to lace up my shoes for one last run of the year, I reflect on how much this sport means to me. Yes, it’s about competition, about winning and losing, about times, about camaraderie. But even when those are stripped away, what remains is an activity that just keeps me in a routine, keeps me sane and helps me deal with whatever life throws my way.
In the car on the way to Lancashire, we discussed the race we were about to take part in and all agreed that it had the feel of a big event. Big, that is, within the very small pond that is UK distance running. Which is to say not very big at all. When we arrived, however, the event certainly felt serious and important, if not quite ‘big.’ Podium 5k is part of a new breed of no-frills, no-nonsense, no-finisher-medal type events where everyone participating is at very least a serious club runner and everyone goes with the same goal, to run fast. No one is using this one as a tempo run.
Of the four of us in the car, Dan, Mike and I were in the men’s ‘B’ race with a 15:15 entry standard, and Omar was in the ‘A’ race with a 14:30 cut off. We discussed the race ahead, looked at ranking lists and plotted our strategies. Us B racers agreed that ‘hang on to the pack and pick off a few in the second half’ seemed like a reasonable tactic to deploy. Omar, quiet and more prone to letting his legs do the talking than his mouth, decided he was going for more of a ‘get on the front and do some damage’ approach. I think there is a lesson to be learned here.
We walked to the start. The organiser had clearly jumped through plenty of logistical and health and safety hoops to obtain a permit under the new guidance but once we got in the start area it didn’t feel too different to a normal race, with the exception of the small field. Behind the start line was a grid of yellow dots. He called the names of the fastest five in the field (I wasn’t among them) and invited them to stand on the first row of dots. He then half-heartedly implored the rest of us to give each other a bit of room, mentally ticking boxes marked ‘H and S’ and ‘cover your arse in case someone gets ill.’
The gun sounded and we embarked on the first of just under five laps of a pancake flat, smooth cycle circuit. The temperature had dropped and apart from a bit of wind, conditions were perfect. I went straight to the back. Apart from the fact that I didn’t want to go any quicker, this also felt like a good strategy and I had a large group in front of me to block the wind. Because of this I constantly felt like I was going to run into the runners in front; I concentrated and tried not to clip anyone. The last thing I wanted was to trip myself or someone else. It felt too slow. It must be too slow. The first kilometre split is going to be well outside three minutes and I’m going to leave myself with far too much to do. “2:51,52,53,54…” OK, maybe not.
As we went round the next two laps I tried hard to concentrate on not letting any gaps form and on not letting the pace drop at all. When we got on to the long straight with the headwind, rather than running the tangent and aiming for the apex of the next bend as I normally would, I veered out into the middle of the road. The lead bike was doing this and the long line of runners between the bike and me had exactly the same idea: get in the slipstream and get out of the wind. Once I hit 3k in 8:48 I still felt like I had a bit in reserve and that I was definitely going to get under 15 minutes. With my track PB before the race just 14:59 it would have been tempting to ease off at this stage but I kept pushing myself in the knowledge that I could take a big chunk off this if I pushed hard to the finish. In the 4th kilometre I was unable to cover a surge from a club mate who was also running in our heat and found myself detached. By this point, though, I was so close to the finish and knew I only had to grit my teeth for a few more minutes. At this stage of the race a few runners were coming back through the field and were useful targets for me. It is always important to go straight past in this situation though; the reason they are coming back is that they are slowing down. You do not want to lose time getting stuck behind them.
The last kilometre passed quickly and in a blur. Whilst the first part of the race was all about concentrating on form, on pace and on staying relaxed, the last part was all about squeezing out every last drop. The phrase “give more” popped in to my head. It felt appropriate so I kept repeating it. In the long finishing straight I was outsprinted by one runner but held off another, crossing the line in 14:44. Fifteen seconds quicker than ever before.
Dan and Mike didn’t have the races they were hoping for, but were still quick to congratulate me on my time. As is often the case when a race has gone well, I didn’t feel pain or discomfort immediately afterwards or on the cool down. Writing this in significant discomfort 24 hours later I can confirm that this is not because I did not push myself hard enough; I think I was just on a bit of a high from a good performance.
We jogged round the outside of the cycle circuit whilst watching the women’s A race, then headed back to our position near the start to cheer Omar. Coming from a slightly warmer part of the world, Omar is not used to the British weather and whilst the rest of the field did their strides and final preparations in their racing vests, Omar wore a jacket and, almost comically for August, a pair of gloves. I took his jacket at the very last minute and he walked over to the start. As promised and true to form, he went straight to the front, undeterred by the presence of some truly world-class athletes in his heat, one of whom had stated his intention to target the British record.
Watching Omar is an absolute joy and an inspiration. For all we over analyse running, it is, in essence, a very simple sport. Run hard and keep running hard until you’ve crossed the line. Omar is as hard as nails and epitomises this way of thinking. Although he didn’t win the race, he finished fifth in one of the strongest possible domestic fields and made everyone sit up and take notice with his aggressive and uninhibited style of racing. He is one of my running heroes. He is also one of the kindest and most modest people I know. Although I ran a personal best on the night, this evening will be just as much about Omar when I look back on it in the future.
After five months of no competition I finally have the opportunity to lace up my racing shoes tonight at the Podium 5k and I’m pretty excited. Back in March, when the whole country shut down and sport pressed the pause button, I had no idea how long it would be until racing would resume. In the mean time, I have consistently logged my biggest ever mileage and put in some very high quality training. At first this felt strange; I was training harder than ever before with no objectives to focus on. It also felt like just the right thing to do. For a start, I knew that I would never again get the opportunity to live the life of an elite athlete and that I should grab this opportunity with both hands. When I return to my physical place of work, I know life will be busier and more hectic and I want to know that I made the most of the time away. Secondly, running is the one thing I always turn to in difficult or uncertain times. It will always make me feel better and it will always allow me to think clearly and with a sense of perspective. Like many people in the last few months, I have reflected on the things that really matter. Running really matters to me.
During this time I have also managed to keep the quality of the sessions high, despite being in the strange position of not knowing which races I am trying to get in shape for. Without races it is hard to judge your current fitness but I feel that mine is good. I ran two time trials, the first a 14:42 3 mile on grass and the second a 30:56 10km on road. I feel I am fitter now than when I did these, so am optimistic of a good performance. Although my motivation and fitness levels are high, I know that racing will feel very different and that I am unaccustomed to pushing my body to its absolute maximum. If I can do this I feel I have it in me to run a great time.
In the last eight weeks I have done so many new things. I have worked from home, I have walked through empty streets in the city centre, I have heard birdsong in the morning, I have washed my hands ten times a day, I have breathed clean air on the balcony of my apartment, I have bought a turbo trainer, I have crossed the road to maintain a two metre distance from other pedestrians, I have experienced irrationally high levels of excitement at finding flour on supermarket shelves, I have made and delivered face shields for care homes and doctor’s surgeries, I have read books, I have learned songs. And I have been running. A lot.
Granted, the last activity on the list doesn’t really qualify as ‘new,’ but the way I have been doing it is. I haven’t raced since the first day of March and haven’t done a group training session since just after that. Instead I have filled my time with a sustained period of high mileage, aided by the fact that I have more time to train and to rest and that there are no races to taper for or recover from.
About a week or two ago, I was really starting to notice the fitness gains that were resulting from this block of heavy training. Frustrated not to have any races to put this fitness to good use in, I asked my coach if he could include some kind of time trial or race simulation effort in the next two week plan. He agreed it was a good idea, not just as a means of testing fitness in the absence of races but as a way of adding some variety and novelty to the training. When I saw the plan I immediately regretted asking, though, as he had included not one time trial but two in the next week’s schedule. The first was a 3 mile flat out effort and the second an hour test to establish how far I could go in that period of time.
Doing something new can be equal parts daunting and exciting and I experienced both feelings on Wednesday afternoon before doing the 3 mile test. The fact that it is not a common race distance is a clever way of making sure I have no PB for the distance and am therefore unencumbered by expectation. The main worry I had was that I would not be able to raise my level of effort to anything like the level I would in a race, given the lack of competition and the fact that the result carries no weight or significance beyond being a loose indicator of fitness. I was pleased to hit 3 minutes for the first km but was also very worried I would blow up completely.
One advantage of running purely against the clock is that you have no external stimuli to respond to and can run a very even pace if you are able to judge it correctly. I slowed slightly in the next couple of kilometres but still felt I was running smoothly and in a controlled way; I glanced at my watch just after 3km and was just outside 9 minutes. Pretty good on my own on grass. I tried to visualise what a proper race would feel like to give some motivation and help me push as hard as I could. Every time I looked at my watch I tried to picture how many laps of the track remained. The last few minutes were very tough, a situation that was not helped by the wind, which was starting to pick up. I threw everything I could at the last few hundred metres and stopped my watch as soon as I saw 4.83km. 14:42. I’d have been happy with anything under 15 minutes, so was pleased with the effort I was able to put in. Further evidence that I had managed to get a lot out of myself came the following day; my legs were completely wrecked.
Although any self-timed result must be taken with a pinch of salt, not least because GPS watches are known for measuring inconsistently and unreliably at times, it’s a good indicator that I haven’t lost any fitness. In fact, I’m feeling as strong as I ever have so it feels like a shame that there are no real races for me to take part in any time soon. In the mean time I will just have to make do with running as far as I can in sixty minutes on Sunday. Pain awaits…
Here are some of my reflections from the past year as a runner. At the end of the post is a video in which I talk about my year.
I am a better runner than I was a year ago
This is beyond dispute. I have improved in every discipline – on the track, on the road and in cross country. I am stronger in sessions, tougher mentally in races, faster over shorter distances and have better endurance. Statistically speaking, my six best performances ever on road and on track all happened this year. My coach has motivated me, stretched me and challenged me to be better than I was before and continues to do so.
I am better at training than I was a year ago
This year I feel as though I have improved the quality of my training. By this I don’t mean that I have churned out more miles and worked harder in the sessions; I’ve never had a problem with that. I feel I have become more disciplined with regard to all of the other elements that contribute to athletic success: sleep, gym work, stretching, rest. I am better at listening to what my body is telling me; at taking a rest day when I am ill or when the signs of injury are rearing their heads, at skipping the morning run if I am heavily fatigued, at sometimes choosing to do less when it is better than doing more.
Having a proper break at the end of a season is a great idea
I love running. I want to do it all year round. But sometimes a full and proper break from running can do wonders for your ability to recover, unwind and regain motivation. It is now part of my routine to take a break at the end of the track season in late August. This is now part of the rhythm of the year; just as the spring and autumn are about road relays and as winter is about cross country, the end of summer is about resetting and rebuilding.
I take a full week of rest then a week or two of easy running. I eat what I want, do as much or as little physical activity as I want, sleep plenty and go on holiday. This allows my body to recover fully from the demands placed on it by a heavy training load, and allows my mind to switch off. This almost always leaves me feeling unfit and sluggish initially, but before long I feel fresher and more able to handle the training. It also renews my motivation.
This sport needs to drag itself into the modern era
It is ridiculous that at the start of 2020, men and women are not equal in athletics. The two most recent world cross country championships were the first times that men and women have raced over the same distance. However, at the levels below this that I compete at, nothing has changed. At national level, men run 12km and women run 8km. At regional level, the same disparity exists. At county and league level men do 10km and women do 6km.
In track leagues the situation is no better. Women often run 3000m whilst their male counterparts run 5000m, a throwback to the days when 3000m was the longest event on the Olympic programme for women. In our regional league, men do steeplechase and women do not. In our road relays women run a shorter leg than men do. There is no scientific or moral justification for any of this. Athletics rules and traditions hark back to a less enlightened and less equal era. They need to change.
I have met some wonderful people through this sport
Some of the best people I know, I know because of running. The fact that I could have met other great people by doing something else with my life does not alter the truth of this. I have met Dave, my coach, who is one of the most kind and generous people I have had the privilege of meeting. He turns up when it is freezing cold, when it is baking hot, when we are racing a hundred miles away, when it is Saturday morning and he could be spending time with his grandchildren, all so he can offer us encouragement and see us develop. I have met Tim, who I rarely see these days but keep in regular contact with and who always shows such a keen interest in how I am doing. Running is what unites us. I have met Dan, the only person crazy enough to want to join me for runs at 6am or earlier on weekdays. Sometimes we even talk about matters unrelated to running on these morning jogs around Edgbaston. I have met Mark, one of the first people I ran with when I moved to Birmingham over a decade ago, and whose continued improvement motivates me to make myself better. I have met Kadar and Omar, my friends and clubmates from Ethiopia, both of whom have endured unimaginibly difficult lives at a very young age and who have taken huge risks and made significant sacrifices just to get to the UK. Their work ethic inspires me. Their positivity inspires me. Their confidence to assimilate and integrate into a culture completely different to the one they once knew inspires me. They also kick my arse every session and make me realise how much better I need to get.