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.
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.
My ninth consecutive Warwickshire Cross Country Championships ends with a fifth place finish, and I finish 13th in the following week’s Birmingham League. Both of these positions equal my personal bests. A good start to the year.
Despite overestimating the course length and not starting my finishing kick early enough because I thought we had an extra lap to run, I still manage 12th in the final league race of the season. After four races, we miss out on second in the final standings by just two points. Naturally, I blame myself.
Dubbed ‘the Beast from the East,’ an unseasonably heavy dumping of snow at the start of the month causes me to spend a week running on the white stuff and trying to avoid slipping on ice. The Beast’s little brother arrives two weeks later to provide a snowstorm backdrop to the Midland 12 Stage. This is literally the coldest I have ever been during a race.
My newfound inability to keep my left calf uninjured rules me out of the National 12 Stage. Having just run a parkrun PB I was hoping to put in a strong performance. Two weeks of jogging and strength and conditioning work put me back on track.
I race four times on the track in May but only remember one of those. My 14:59.96 at Watford allows me to tick off a significant life goal. And then promptly revise the goal downwards.
It’s turning into a year of firsts. A week after breaking 15 minutes for 5000m for the first time. I have my first ‘Steeplechase Fail,’ to borrow a phrase from the many Youtube videos I have watched in which people mistake the water jump barrier for a diving board. Yes, the summer heat wave gets the better of me and I go for a mid-race swim in the steeplechase pit. I resolve to work on my water jump technique when I get back to Birmingham. Oh, and I do my first ever 400 hurdles, with predictably terrible consequences.
After last month’s resounding success, I comprehensively fail to fall at any of the seven water jumps. Instead I run 9:31, a personal best by three seconds. I end the month by running 8:42 for 3000m at Stretford. A good month.
After one more steeplechase and 5000m I take an end of season break and reflect on a successful and enjoyable track season. Stephanie encourages me to take my trainers on holiday so she can kick me out for a run when the lack of running renders me unbearable to be around. As with most things she is right. My runs along the Atlantic coast of France are stunning and memorable.
I get my first ever taste of B team running at the Midland 6 Stage. My club win the race but there are 6 athletes better than me, leaving me in the B team. I need to get better.
Winter training starts after the National 6 Stage. The regime consists of regular doses of what Dave calls ’10 and weights,’ which is exactly what the name suggests and leaves you walking funny the following day.
I’m not really a fan of this time of year, but the start of another cross country season is just enough to make the darkness and poor weather bearable. I compete at the National Cross Country Relays and help my team make a good start to the Birmingham League season
The final month of the year has the usual highs and lows, the high being a strong cross country performance that helps the team move up to first position in the league, the lows being a DNF at Telford and a laughably bad case of poor race organisation at the Gloucester 10 mile race.
The year begins, as it always does, with the county championships. In fading light and muddy conditions I muster a 6th place finish, enough to get me in the county team for the Inter Counties in March. A 22nd place in a Birmingham League fixture helps the team maintain a good position in Division 1.
In my only race of the month I gain my best ever position in a league race, finishing with only 13 people ahead of me. However I am most proud of finishing the race without getting hypothermia, unlike the corresponding league fixture last year. A fine achievement indeed.
I am given a lesson in race tactics in finishing 2nd in a half marathon I had previously won four times in a row. I apply my new ‘don’t push the pace at the front for nine miles on a windy day’ strategy at the Reading Half Marathon a few weeks later but sadly I overdo it and finish 74th. I run my first ever Inter Counties and make the scoring six.
The track season starts ridiculously early and I complete my first steeplechase of the season without suffering any embarrassing water jump related injuries. A 1500 and a relay leg later I drive two hours back to the centre of Birmingham wondering a. why I do it to myself and b. what I can do to get some more speed in my legs.
I travel to London to compete in the Highgate Harriers ‘Night of the 10000m PBs.’ This is truly one of the best events on the national running calendar, with great organisation, high quality racing and a raucous atmosphere. Oh, and I shave a few seconds off my PB. I want to go back next year.
I somehow manage to finish second in a race where I have a clear lead at the bell at the Midland Championships. I run back from Alexander Stadium to the centre of Birmingham wondering a. why someone of my standard is anywhere near the medals at an event of that level and b. what I can do to get more speed in my legs. I actually manage to win a race a couple of weeks later, setting a new PB of 15:09 for 5000m.
Another journey down the M5 takes me to the next league fixture of the season (who knew Bristol was in the Midlands?). Having traveled all that way I am determined to do well in the 2k steeplechase. I cross the line in a close 2nd only to be disqualified by a hawk-eyed track official for trailing my left leg round the barrier when leading the race. Sorry lad, rules are rules, no discretion here I’m afraid. It’s OK, I’m not bitter; it’s not like I did a 4 hour round trip to go and race there or anything.
As a now fully paid up BMC member I make the most of the free entry to Grand Prix events and enter the Solihull 5000. I am happy with the time, just a few tenths away from the PB I had set earlier in the summer. The following week I pick up win number two for the year, beating a whopping 5 people in a 10000m race at Tipton.
From winning one race to trying to avoid coming last in another, I venture north to compete in the 10000m A race at Stretford. I just about manage to avoid the Lanterne Rouge and better still, set a new personal best. A much needed week off follows.
Autumn wouldn’t be autumn without the National 6 Stage at Sutton Park. Like a lamb to the slaughter I take over from our club’s best runner Jack on leg two. Though it sounds like a terrible run, I am pleased to only lose 12 places.
Another cross country season starts at Leamington, a course that is invariably described as a ‘proper British course.’ I think the phrase ‘world war one trenches’ is more apt, but there you go. Muddy and knackered, I cross the line in 24th.
Win number three comes at the world renowned, highly prestigious and delightfully named Sneyd Christmas Pudding Run. For the uninitiated, this is a 10 mile road race near Walsall where all finishers get, you guessed it, a Christmas pudding. My 52 minutes of work earn me the privilege of a gold one. Perceptive and forthright as ever, my mother-in-law dispenses some useful advice that I intend to take with me into 2016: “don’t take a rest day on Christmas Day, it makes you grumpy. You were much better on Boxing Day after you’d got your run in.” That’s me told.