at the races A year without a Personal Best

A year without a Personal Best

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Photo credit Thomas Sapiano

On March 4, 2020, I ran my last race.

The Chilly Half Marathon has always been one of my favourite races; held in early March, it brings out a certain kind of runner, one who has trained through the cold winds and treacherous streets of January and February. For three consecutive years, on the flat, fast, streets of Burlington, I ran Personal Best times at the Chilly Half Marathon. In March 2020, I was coming off of three years of successive marathon cycles. I knew I didn’t want to run another marathon that spring, but I had my sights set on the Around the Bay 30K at the end of March, like I always do. The Chilly Half in March 2020 was to be a stepping stone to the goal I had for Around the Bay, certainly not an unachievable one, and a goal that would be easy for many recreational runners: running 30K in under 2 hours and 30 minutes. And then, COVID-19 happened.

First, we saw races in the spring get canceled, then we watched the fall race calendar collapse, and we began to realize that racing – large groups of people travelling from afar to stand in close quarters and breathe heavily – was not a thing it was going to be happening anytime soon. When the pandemic hit, I kept running. I dropped my long run mileage considerably, with no long races to train for, but I kept my weekly mileage in a range which, while comfortable, was still a lot for me to take on without the break I’d normally take after a race. For March and April, I was running six days a week, whereas before the pandemic I ran five days a week, taking one day off completely, and one day to do the elliptical at the gym instead. Many runners can run everyday, but I’m not one of them. By May, I was injured.

I spent the late spring and summer on my bike. I didn’t miss running, as I had lots of other ways to stay active. I waited in line to swim laps at the city pool. I tried an HIIT app at home. I pulled my kid everywhere in a wagon. My foot pain never really went away, but with the approval of my physio, chiro, and sports doc, I resumed running in late summer. 

I’ve been a runner for over a decade, but I’ve only been improving steadily in the last five years, since the birth of my daughter. With more consistent training, higher mileage (certainly not high mileage by many runners’ standards), focused workouts, dedication to physio and body work, and staying injury free, I successfully took on the distance of the marathon for the first time in 2017, again in 2018, and twice in 2019. I had my sights on another marathon in fall 2020, as my times kept improving, and I wanted to see how fast I could get. Most recreational runners will tell you that when they take on a training cycle, their goal is to achieve a Personal Best. And for five years, I had been doing just that.

So what does one do with it in a year without a Personal Best? What does it mean for someone who has been chasing improvement to suddenly have those chances for improvement taken away? As a year of COVID-19 has taught me, putting all my eggs in the basket of improving my running had provided me with a talisman for my adult life after the birth of my daughter. And in a year without the possibility of another Personal Best, I found myself searching for new meaning. I didn’t feel sad when I took two months off running, but I realized that I had spent most of the last five years coupling my own value as a human with my ability to make my body run faster. When that possibility disappeared, my sense of who I was dissipated too.

In my year without a Personal Best, I interviewed for a new job, and was promoted to an important position in my school with a portfolio including Equity, an extremely important area of work in our time. I taught a new course I had never taught before, designing it from scratch to meet the needs of my students, who, from most reports, loved the class. I pivoted to teaching music in a hybrid model, without my students being able to play instruments in class.

I parented my own kindergartener through the upheaval of her formative first school years, doing countless crafts, scavenger hunts, and park outings in all seasons, then later sitting with her through SK classes on Zoom while also running my own classes on a different device. In my year without a Personal Best I supported local businesses by ordering takeout and books and toys and comfy clothes. I did trivia over Zoom and shared Saturday night drinks online with groups of friends, all of us just trying to get through another week. I read a lot. I cried a lot. I drank a moderate amount of craft beer. I biked, I swam, and I ran, but I didn’t run faster or farther than I needed to.

Now that we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of that last race, and of the start of the pandemic, I’m forced to ask myself what I did with this year. While I may not have run a personal best, or even close, I extricated my sense of self-worth from running altogether. And while running will always be where I go to find myself, I now know there are other places to look, too. 

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