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.