Losing Races in 2020 Helped Me Find a New Love of Running

I’m sitting in my favorite bar, a glass of half-drunk local beer in front of me, my dad to my right, my friend Andrew to my left, celebrating my birthday. I don’t normally care that much for my birthday, but today I’m celebrating some small wins. None of what I’m doing right now was possible this time last year when Ohio was locked down and I was absolutely terrified of drowning in the uncertainty of those early days of the pandemic. Would I be able to keep my apartment? How would I pay my bills? What the hell was the world going to look like in two months? In time those answers would begin to work themselves out and while the world of February 2020 is nowhere near back, indeed may never truly be back, the day I am having fills me with gratitude after what we’ve all experienced over the last twelve months.

I’m not sure I can remember a more impactful lap around the sun. The hamster wheel screeching to a half is cliche and yet it perfectly encapsulates the experience of the last twelve months. Whatever your life looked like in February 2020 it ceased to exist a month later and whatever fears, sickness, and/or losses ensued, there was also plenty of time to reflect and take stock of just what had not been working for us. Let me interject right now that my COVID experience has been extremely fortuitous. I did not lose my job though I learned quickly how to navigate uncertain financial terrain. I did not get sick and the few that are closest to me that did were spared the worst. When I speak of the opportunity to reflect and change amidst the unwinding of the last 12 months, I do so knowing full well that my circumstances make it far easier to put a positive spin on the year than those who have suffered far worse than I.

For those that know me best, that know that my identity as a runner is at the core of who I am, the notion that a year without racing would be a good thing would have sounded impossible a year ago. Yet it was a godsend. It led to what felt like a literal breakup with running that began in June and would not end until the calendar flipped to 2021. For a decade my sole drive has been to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Twice I have met the mark and missed entry into the field by less than 40 combined seconds. My last rejection letter is one of the last things I see before I leave my apartment for any run. To get so close and still fail has served as a powerful motivator, but one that in time became toxic. Rather than enjoying running I began to crave the certainty that certain benchmarks provided. If I hit this interval split, if I could run this tempo pace, if I could build to and maintain this level of monthly mileage now, surely, this cycle would be the one that got me to Boston. Armed with this drive toward certainty, I started to lose sight of what was right in front of me: the signs of overtraining, nagging aches that became full-fledged injuries, and even apathy toward lacing up. I still loved that I was a runner but I no longer had the same love for running itself.

This all built up to a planned 10-mile run scheduled for Father’s Day last year. The run was to replace one of my favorite races of the year, the Towpath 10-Miler, which was to be held virtually. My run started fine, the first five miles clicking by until the familiar aches, pains, and postural instability returned, sapping me of the energy and power I can bring to bear when I’m at my most fit. I finished the run, stumbling through the last few miles, and saved the run to my watch so I could review the grim ending, noting what I already knew, that the latter miles had lacked the promise of the early pace I had set.

On the drive home I was reminded of an article on, of all things, relationships, written by Mark Manson, known to most by his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. In the article, one on how to get over an ex, Manson writes, “Relationships don’t end because two people did something wrong to each other—they end because two people are something wrong for each other” (emphasis his). The “train-obsessively-to-find-certainty-so-this-cycle-will–finally-resolve-my-disappointment” approach to running had entered this territory. Maybe the sport itself was not wrong for me, but my approach to it was. While I did not resolve to stop running it was exactly what happened. I would not lace up for another 100 days.

Instead I hiked. Living near the Cuyahoga Valley and numerous Metro Parks, I had a wealth of gorgeous trails within driving distance to explore. Hiking required little planning beyond knowing which park or trail to drive to. I no longer had to worry about goals, splits, race paces, any of the minutiae of training. I could simply show up when I wanted to, hike the trail, enjoy the sights and the sounds, and snap as many photos as I could. It was bliss.

Somewhere during my hiking spree I had temporarily stopped to look down at the Cuyahoga River and I remembered that my running had once been like this. In 2013 I had lost almost an entire year to a finicky case of IT band syndrome that eventually became so frustrating I took a similar sort of break from running. By 2014 I had slowly begun to work my way back into steady training, the fear of the telltale pain on the outside of my knee never far away. The conservative approach I had brought to training then probably held me back in the early going but it also introduced me to the simplicity of being grateful for every run that ended pain free. As those pain free miles built up I noticed the telltale signs of improved fitness returning. I could run further. My resting heart rate decreased. My turnover rate improved. I felt powerful. I knew I was back when, despite starting back with the 1:45:00 pace group in the Cleveland Half Marathon that spring, I found myself surging past the 1:40:00 pace group halfway through the race and finishing running under 1:35:00. That consistency having been built, I would go on to finally sustain a training cycle that helped me break 1:30:00 that fall in the half marathon for the first time, one of my earliest running goals. It had all begun, though, with simple gratitude for the process of running, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Runs, all runs, were to be enjoyed and with enough consistency the sort of training that can make great things happen would be within my reach. Overlooking the Cuyahoga River, bathed in sunlight, I resolved to make another go of running when the calendar flipped, only when I was ready though, and to fix my attention solely on enjoying my run when I did.

I am three months into this renewed approach. I have carefully built my mileage, building back into the routine slowly. Where I was once running four days a week, and content to blow a run off if I didn’t feel like it, I am back to running six days a week as I once did during marathon training. I don’t feel pressure to do that though; I want to get in those six runs a week. I am not sure where this running will take me or when. The goal of another BQ remains, though I do not know when I will be capable of making that happen, and I am comfortable with that uncertainty because I am living a core value of simply enjoying this sport that makes me happy and that I can feel brining out the best in me. Largely I feel strong, a new strength training program devoted to my mid-back helping me build a more powerful posture, long a weakness of mine. There’s a hitch in my stride though, some sort of imbalance that has plagued me for years and that I am finally seeing a physical therapist for. It will get fixed eventually and I’ll be back to the runner I once was. I’m not sure when, but I know I will.

I better appreciate now that there will be further obstacles and that I have the tools and the patience to navigate them. I am grateful for my goals and driven to meet them, but I have rediscovered the peace that is knowing you can only control what you can control; meanwhile the journey will take care of itself. On a day of celebrating small victories, this feels like a much bigger win.