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.
I take a rest day every week and have the piss taken out of me by my training group for it on a regular basis. One of the guys I train with recently ended a 10-month streak of running on consecutive days and another recently hit 6 months. I rarely exceed 6 days.
When one of them put it to me recently that I am missing out on 52 days of training every year I retorted by telling him he was missing out on 52 days of recovery. I really do believe this. A guaranteed day off every week ensures that I stay fresh mentally as I am never far from the next break, as well as giving the obvious benefits of proper physical recovery. I’m not running tomorrow morning and am happy with that.
Monday: AM 14km easy / PM 11km easy (25)
Tuesday: AM 9km easy / PM grass session 2*10*400 off 30s (25)
Wednesday: 17km easy (17)
Thursday: AM 8km easy / PM track session – 4 sets of (600 with barriers in lane 2 / 400 flat) – 1:48, 67, 1:47, 68, 1:48, 67, 1:50, 65 (20)
Friday: 15km easy (15)
Saturday: AM parkrun in 15:55, grass session 2*2:00 off 2:00, 6*1:00 off 1:00 / PM 8km easy (24)
After my morning run I settled down in front of the TV to watch the coverage of the London Marathon. Taking place on a unseasonably warm day, it provided plenty of entertainment. If you are a massive sadist who likes to watch people suffer, that is. Fortunately I am so had a great time.
Neither the men nor the women set off at a pace appropriate for the conditions and as a result there were some ugly scenes towards the end as titans of the sport crawled home like the charity runners several miles back down the road. Watching Mary Keitany, normally such a graceful and elegant runner, shuffle the last mile, cooked from having gone out inside world record pace on a hot day, was excruciating.
The men’s race was no different, and in the opening miles the men resembled a group of 9 year old boys throwing rocks at each other to see who would get hit by the fewest. Mo Farah managed to dodge several of them but still grimaced his way to a 4 minute positive split.
It wasn’t just the elites. My friend Dan, in a message afterwards, said “I can remember nothing from the last 12km and woke up under a pile of ice in the medical tent.” Sounds like fun.
I’m sure running a good marathon is a hugely satisfying experience but it seems to go wrong more often than it goes right. This must be hard to take in an event you only get a couple of chances at every year and that requires several months of dedicated training. I’m sticking with steeplechase.
Monday: AM 8km easy / PM 12km easy (20)
Tuesday: 16km easy (16)
Wednesday: 16km easy (16)
Thursday: AM 10km easy / PM 13km moderate, weights (23)
Everything is sore. Calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, abdomen, biceps. The list goes on. This week I did the full set – a road session, a track session and a cross country session. The holy trinity, if you will. And for good measure I also did a weights session and plenty of strength and conditioning work.
I can’t always handle the volume and intensity of training I have put in this week (137km, 10 runs, 3 hard sessions) but it is easier to when I am not at work and can therefore get a full night’s sleep. When I don’t have somewhere to be in the morning I can get the 10 hours of sleep I typically need, as opposed the 7 or 8 I usually manage, which enables me to recover much more fully in between runs.
Now I have several consecutive weeks of good training behind me I am looking forward to scaling it back slightly towards the end of next week with a view to racing the county championships in two weeks’ time. In my current shape I feel I can run really well.
This week the quality of my training was limited by the lack of places to run. My usual go-to route on the canal towpath was an ice sheet for the whole week and the pavements on the main roads locally were hazardous for the same reason. Weeks like this are pretty much the only time I ever wish I had a treadmill. Boring though it would be, it would enable me to run at pace on even terrain, something I normally take for granted. Yesterday’s planned session of 9 miles alternating hard and easy quickly became reduced to an hour’s easy running because to push the pace when patches of ice were still lying on the ground would have been foolish.
Still, the snow and ice have largely cleared now and I’m looking forward to getting my lungs working again instead of just my legs.