I like routine. Maybe it’s the imprint of a life lived running, with its promise of training plans and clearly defined seasons. Cross country, indoors, outdoors - each with its pre-season build and post-season release. This cadence still defines my year more than anything else. The first nip of cold on a morning run conjures memories of crowded start lines on muddy fields, of racing over golf courses and of long, chatty Sunday runs followed by pancakes and naps.
Sometimes I wonder if my love of routine is innate. The kind of defining personality trait that brought me to running, with its promise of order and consistency, rather than the other way around. Whichever came first, there’s no shaking it now.
Of course, this year has challenged all best-laid plans. In March, I wrote in a letter that “the best runners are adaptable.” A reminder that as much as runners love routine, racers thrive on uncertainty. They’re the ones who see an opening on the backstretch and seize it, who power up Heartbreak Hill in driving rain, who surge when everyone else is crumbling, who surprise even themselves with the power of their kick.
It’s this tension between control and total lack thereof that makes running so compelling. These days, I get up each morning and head out the door in an attempt to establish order. Often it’s the only thing that goes remotely to plan. So I try to savor every step. I’ve never been one to run with music and my schedule at home, which requires my wife and me to trade off who runs first with getting our kids up and ready for school, means I’m used to training alone, with just my thoughts for company.
I use these runs to reflect and work through the knotty stuff that has a way of lodging itself in my head. On good days, the knots and problems unwind as the run takes shape; breath and movement remove the tension and the answers seem obvious. Other days, the knots are less yielding, so I push harder to that place where thinking is impossible anyway. I wipe away worry with sweat.
As a runner in my forties, I have learned to appreciate every mile. I was deep into a virtual race series this summer when back pain took me out. Still, the brief cycle of training and racing was invigorating. I forgot how much I needed the rhythm of intense exertion over a long period, even alone, testing my new limits against the shadow of my former fitness. There are few experiences in adult life that offer such concise, unbiased feedback.
The cumulative lessons of 2020 will be different for all of us. But for me, it’s pretty clear: running is a gift.