Mark Sutcliffe: My Running Life Going the Distance

Going the Distance

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A few of us huddled together in close proximity in the back of a cube van, trying to stay warm as we waited for the appointed hour. A different group, seemingly immune to the cold, stood bravely in the brisk morning air, chatting enthusiastically in t-shirts and singlets. A call went out and we all marched together to the start line, shoulder to shoulder. Nobody wore a mask. There was no social distancing.

It was a small, quaint, well-organized event: the Seaside Marathon in Ventura, California, a double-loop along Highway 1 north of Los Angeles, with the sun slowly rising over the majestic Pacific. When it was over, I high-fived a bunch of sweaty strangers. There was no hand sanitizer in sight.

It was February 16, 2020. You always know when you’re doing something for the first time. But it might take a while to realize it was the last.

I never take any race for granted. And marathons are particularly special. Any day you run 42.2k is a good one. So while there was nothing noteworthy about my performance that day, I celebrated privately. I took satisfaction in adding another result to my spreadsheet. Another notch on the race belt. But if I’d known how long it would be before I’d cross another finish line, I might have savoured it a bit longer.

I needn’t remind you that only a few weeks later, everything changed. Who hasn’t reflected this month on what they were doing just over a year ago, having friends over, meeting in restaurants, entering buildings bare-faced and shaking hands without a care in the world?

No matter how jarring the lockdown, in the early days a foolish optimism prevailed. A century removed from the last global pandemic, we were clueless rookies with no understanding of the facts that were already evident. Some late spring events held off on cancelling; maybe this thing will only last a few weeks! Others postponed, because no matter what, we’d be racing again in the fall.

We were like complete novices showing up at the start line of a marathon, not only with zero training, but having not even looked up the distance on the internet. We can get through this! It will be over soon!

A year later, with those same spring events now removed from the calendar for a second time, we are a much more sombre people. It’s like when the marathon course gets quiet, somewhere around 34 or 35 kilometres in. The nervous energy of the first half has dissipated. The finish line is too far away to contemplate. The conversation has stopped. The trudging has begun.

Perhaps it’s the cumulative effect of another Canadian winter, another season of cancellations and closures and sobering news of vaccine delays, and the monotony of every day seeming just like the last. The fatigue is palpable and hope has ebbed. I haven’t even bothered to book a flight for a destination marathon for which I’m registered this fall. May feels like a long way off; September is like Jupiter.

But is it possible that just as we were too hopeful a year ago, we are now a tad too pessimistic? Dare I speculate that we are closer to the end than the beginning? The vaccine dominos are about to fall. The temperatures are getting warmer. Soon we’ll be able to gather, in small numbers, outdoors. Surely it can’t be that long before a small race or two can happen, before someone will place a medal around our neck instead of dropping it in the mail.

If we have learned one thing from our training, it’s the magic of incrementalism. It’s been a long, demoralizing, perplexing journey. But no matter how tedious and wearisome (and cold) have been the past few months, the first day of spring is upon us. We can’t see it yet, but there’s another finish line out there somewhere.