Mark Sutcliffe: My Running Life What Would I Do if I Couldn’t Run?

What Would I Do if I Couldn’t Run?


In a year when so much has been removed, postponed and cancelled, you can’t help but ask the question. Surely there’s no phase of government lockdown that will prevent a bit of isolated outdoor exercise. But if there’s one lesson of 2020, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. With or without a pandemic, you can lose the things you love.

There are, of course, other ways to move, to burn calories, to explore the neighbourhood and, when permissible, the world. My wife Ginny and I have never walked more; working together from home has been a gratifying bonus in the slim silver linings playbook of this pandemic. I enjoy it, and there are few healthier things than an evening constitutional, but walking doesn’t tick all the boxes that running does. I need to stretch not just my legs but my limits.

Some people are as obsessed with cycling as I am with marathons, but I haven’t caught that bug yet. I know people who do long-distance swimming, including some incredible feats and appealing international destinations. I wouldn’t rule that out, but unless I move to Venice, it’s a lot less convenient than stepping out the door for a run. Ginny is highly trained in yoga and does boot camps and fitness classes, and I’m sure I’ll end up there some day, but for now I’m not hooked. I like settling into an activity, not having to focus directly on every little thing I’m doing. And golf – don’t get me started on how frustrating that would be, especially to be a novice at my age.

And sadly, if there’s one theme that persists in this woeful time, it’s that when one thing gets cancelled, so does its natural substitute. When schools were closed, so were day camps, and organized sports, and play dates. There was no Plan B, C, D or E. Likewise, when my mind has wandered to possible fitness alternatives, it’s been one dead end after another. Gyms, pools, yoga studios, fitness classes: all of them in varying levels of shutdown.

Fortunately, at the moment the what-if scenario has been nothing but a thought experiment. Indeed, like many others, I’ve run more than ever this year, piling up the kilometres in online challenges and virtual races, escaping from the imposed confinement and inertia to get outside, or occasionally hopping onto the treadmill to sneak some movement into a rainy day.

I try to be zero-based, to treat it all like house money, to consider every day that I can still run to be a blessing. And now, more than ever, I prize the normalcy, the routine, the defiance of all that cannot be.

But still I wonder: what will happen when I can’t? How will I get the delicate, precious recipe of solitude, clarity, endorphins, adventure, discovery, challenge, energy, inspiration, stimulation and chocolate-chip-cookie-offset that running so graciously provides? Like someone you love, it asks a lot. But oh, does it give so much more in return.

Certainly, someday I will have to stop. I hope it’s not for decades, but inevitably, there will be a last run. But not now. Especially not now. More than ever, I am fiercely determined to lace up my shoes, embrace the autumn air even if it makes my eyes water, lean forward, press that button on my wrist, and take that first stride forward. I will be as relentless as a virus.

My question, like so many others this year, remains aggravatingly unanswered. Uncertainty is on a bit of a roll right now. But as long as I’m healthy and allowed to go outside, dammit, I will continue to run.