On Sundays, we send newsletter subscribers one piece of longform journalism we call The Sunday Long Read. In this edition, Alex Cyr on an unexpected positive ramification of the pandemic — our collective rediscovery of the joy training.
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At some point in 2018, I became aware of the chagrin that awaits all runners.
I was having a beer in some Ontario bar. Sitting across from me was an unmistakable runner — a quiet, gaunt man who punctuated his drab, grey outfit with yellow and red New Balance 1400s. He took no time to down a Steam Whistle pilsner, and then he ordered another.
In some respects, he was exactly what I looked up to: an Olympian and world class athlete — one of the gifted and enlightened few who had travelled the world to record faster times and collect better stories than the rest of us. He was the type who, I figured, got more out of my sport than I ever would.
He was probably still of age to make a run at the next Games in Tokyo, but he was contemplating retirement. Injuries, fatigue and other responsibilities were getting in the way of his training as of late. He said retirement felt imminent, but it didn’t feel right. Despite all that he had accomplished in the sport, which included some of the most impressive distance running times in Canadian history, he did not feel completely ready to carve his current results into stone. According to him, when life’s next steps knock at the door, no runner ever is.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done,” said the Wise Olympian, between two sighs and with his eyes gazing through me, “no one retires satisfied.”
His words hit me hard. Not because I, like him, chased spots on Olympic teams – it was quite the opposite. I thought, if an athlete so accomplished could be troubled by his shortcomings, how would I ever find solace in my relative mediocrity as a runner? I managed to avoid this existential trap by believing that I’d continue to train well into my 20s, 30s and even 40s and find elusive satisfaction in steady improvement.
But what if satisfaction never came?
What if, much before I’d want to be finished with the sport, life would get in the way, and the sport would be finished with me? Worse, what if my glory days had already passed?
I was 23 years old back then, and one year removed from my days running varsity cross-country with the St. Francis Xavier University X-Men. In my four years there, I had become great friends with my teammates perhaps for no other reason than our shared goal of running fast. At one point, we had passed around and read an old copy of John L. Parker’s Once A Runner, and collectively started romanticizing the idea of disconnecting from civilization, shedding all responsibility, moving to individual cabins in the woods like Parker’s protagonist Quenton Cassidy, and training recklessly. We were a hit at parties.
Parker’s fable made us long for the professional athlete’s lifestyle. One summer, we all lived and trained together in a rundown student home. I don’t think any of us really worked. One of the guys in fact refused to get a job and survived on peanut butter and stolen granola bars for four months. None of it made sense financially, or even socially, but at least we were opportune – if there was a time in our lives to emulate Quenton Cassidy, it was that summer, when the world still depended on us for practically nothing.
In the years following graduation, I noticed that the thing that once united my teammates and me – our many weekly miles – was fading away. Our love for running remained, but our training volumes were receding. Some teammates went to business, law, or medical school and became overwhelmed by their post-graduate studies. Others became engulfed with new relationships, engulfed with work, engulfed with golf.
A group of us met in late 2019 to celebrate New Years’ Eve. To the dismay (but not to the surprise) of our significant others who tagged along, we spent hours talking about running.
The topics focused on the past, and my conversation pieces were no exception. It’s not that I was losing interest in the sport (by then I had moved to Windsor, Ont. to complete a master’s in, well, running.) Rather, an injury that lingered through 2018 and 2019 was making me fear that I was done for good, and that I’d eventually have to plug my track times in the World Athletics’ scoring tables to guess how I would have fared in the marathon race I’d never enter.
The slow deaths of mine and my teammates’ Strava profiles were making me realize that the Olympian was right – running invariably chews up and spits out its young without warning. That Once a Runner myth of ditching society to marinate in a pool of angst, blood and lactate for six months to become faster than ever just doesn’t hold up in real life.
Ironically, I thought, I’d probably need to seclude myself from the world and rid myself of most responsibilities, as did the fictitious Cassidy, to once and for all have enough time to rehabilitate my collection of injuries and imbalances. And such an endeavour felt unrealistic.
Until March 2020, when much of the world stopped.
My first few lockdown runs were tentative. I did them on my own, didn’t go far from home (I was too injured to muster more than eight kilometres, so it’s not like I had a choice), and even wondered if I should be going outside at all. But as weeks passed, and getting outdoors became widely accepted and encouraged, the pandemic started to feel like the endless training camp a part of me still craved. I suddenly had no responsibility to physically be at work, at school, at social events. I started doing hours of physio per day (much of those minutes watching Tiger King) and slowly shed my injuries. I eventually added strides to my easy runs, mixed in workouts, and doubled my mileage. And now, as lockdowns around the world are ending (kind of), I am emerging from my relative isolation fitter than I have been in years… call me Quenton.
And it’s not just me. The pandemic has given everybody a temporary cabin in the woods. Some of my teammates got back on the horse. Strava’s user base ballooned and running store sales are going through the roof. Training groups are starting to meet again and are growing. Running is enjoying a collective rebirth, fuelled by each weekend warrior, former varsity runner and lifelong addict who was finally given the time and energy to take a run at their personal bests. If nothing else, perhaps this pandemic is the antidote to the Olympian’s grim prognostication – perhaps we all have more time on our running clocks than we originally thought.
Of course, the pandemic has hindered us, too. Destination races are suspended, virtual races don't quite sratch that itchof being on the start line with your peers, and training partners have been elusive.
Generally, a lack of races cannot be good for results — our best times usually come at the end of busy seasons (with exception to the marathon.) All these problems are magnified for elites who, even in pre-pandemic times, went through pains to find training groups and fields fast enough to push them to new heights.
To be sure, running personal bests during a pandemic is difficult. But running personal bests after a pandemic, when races come back and restrictions lift, could become the overwhelming norm across the spectrum of speed. Those of us who have kept running in our lives throughout 2020 and early 2021 have learned to build a muscle for mundanity. We’ve learned how to grind through a hard workout by ourselves. We’ve learned to find purpose in running, when the world around us at times felt bleak. Coming back to a completely normal life, with open facilities, big training groups, and races every weekend, will feel something like strapping on a pair of Nike Alphaflys. Oh, and now we can also actually wear those Nike Alphaflys with purpose.
Three years ago, at that bar, the Wise Olympian warned me that we don’t know which are our best days in running until they’ve already happened, and that, no matter our level of ability, we one day discover that our best days have already passed. But like it has stopped much else in the world, COVID-19 has stopped time in the world of running, and has given many of us a chance to circle back on the goals we thought had slipped our grasp.
As I slowly emerge from my own cabin in the woods, and cautiously start contemplating a potential future real-life race schedule, I’m wondering who else is emerging from theirs. Between my searches, I open a Strava tab and creep Wise Olympian. He did a hard tempo run last week.