I'm now coming up on one month since I capped off the series of time trials that comprised this most unusual of seasons. After some much needed down time spent as a tourist in my own province I'm back in Vancouver and shaking off the rust as I reset and look forward to the year ahead. If I were to imagine what this 2020 Track season recap would look like a year ago, I'm positive that about the only thing I would've gotten right is the date. As it stands, I'm writing this from the desk that I've sat at nearly every day this summer, a far cry from the season of travel, competition, and chaos that I had braced myself for just a few months ago. Nevertheless, while there are plenty of things this season hasn't been, rewarding is not one of them.
Amongst the first of my best-laid-plans to take a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic was my planned return to Flagstaff, AZ in April for a second stint at altitude. The early days of the pandemic were met with guarded optimism (and, in retrospect, naïveté) by me and probably many others within the athletics world. In mid-March it seemed plausible that this whole thing would blow over by the end of the month. Mid-April tops. When it soon became clear that wouldn't be the case I scrambled to make alternative arrangements, holding onto hope of a robust competition schedule and fearful I would be playing catch-up if I didn't take action. By the generosity of my family and the tenacity of my coach, an altitude stint at "home" in BC's interior was set in motion. Synchronous to provincial and national health advisories to "Go Home and Stay Home" I found myself packing up the car and making for my family's ski cabin, scooping up and bringing along the keen Kieran Lumb as my go-to training partner and rounding out my "bubble" with my infinitely accommodating and patient fiancée Camille.
On April 1st we kicked off our camp with a Mile time-trial in Kelowna, with Kieran taking the victory in 4:04 over my 4:08. With the lactic acid still swirling in our legs and lungs, we peeled out from the track and ascended up to 5750ft above sea-level, our home for the next 30 days. We arrived at camp to fresh snow and a stairwell badly in need of shovelling, a sharp-contrast to the sprouting crocuses and balmy temperatures we'd left behind on the coast. Still hopeful for a real season, we dove into a great block of training , setting our sights on a time trial over 10,000m upon our return to sea-level as the springboard to the official races we hoped would follow later on. By the time we left the mountains on April 30th the global condition in the face of the pandemic was still worsening. We made it safely back to Vancouver and were able to capitalize on the novelty of fully-oxygenated air, debuting at the 25-lap distance with times of 29:28 and 29:10 for Kieran and myself, respectively.
Up to this point, the distraction of a training camp and the looming 10,000m that would cap it off had kept me from fully considering what a season without actual competition would mean. By Mid-May it was clear that organized sport within Canada would take a back seat to the much loftier and more pressing issue of managing public health during the ongoing crisis. With travel outside the province still inadvisable for most, local time-trials became the focus and end goal for many athletes here in BC, myself included. In coming to terms with this new reality, I have been incredibly grateful for the optimism and resilience demonstrated by my training partners and coach CJ. Sensing this break from the normal as an opportunity, the path forward was laid out as a chance to grow in areas of weakness and test myself in events outside the steeplechase, which had consumed the lion's share of my attention and energy for several seasons prior.
After two lacklustre performances in the event already in 2020, the Mile was the first target for my summer pseudo-season. Breaking from convention, I made the transition from longer aerobic work that had geared towards the 10k directly into mile-specific training, with an emphasis on shorter, more intense track intervals and top-end (by my standards) speed. The first test of this new approach came in early June, when I ran 4:01.5 for the distance, setting out at under 4-minute pace before crumbling in the final 200 metres and coming up painfully short. After another several weeks honing my speed, a second date with the Mile came on July 4th. With the help of some great pacemaking from within my Thunderbirds training group, this time trial seemed like the breakthrough I was searching for, with my quest to dip under the elusive four-minute barrier seemingly assured as I hit the bell lap in 2:58. Unfortunately, history would repeat itself and I was soon treading water in the final straightaway, once again coming up short. Final time, 4:00.28
By this point, the dates of the scheduled Canadian Olympic Trials had come and gone and questions of what could have been under normal circumstances were at the forefront of my thoughts during training sessions. While my personal battle with the Mile was not yet over, it was clear that a respite from the distance would do me well before staging another assault at the barrier that had now eluded me on four separate occasions in 6 months. Here, the 5000m offered a great opportunity to rewrite an outdated personal best (13:57 from February of 2019) and hopefully top-up my confidence before a final date with the four-lap menace. Thanks again to great teamwork making the pace, the 5000 surpassed my expectations. Hitting the 3000m mark in 8:17 I felt well within myself and began driving for home, stopping the clock in 13:35.96. The big breakthrough was wonderful confirmation of the hard work my team and I had put in over the previous months and topped up my motivation to keep my season going a little bit longer.
Under the original plan for my 2020 campaign, my training sharpened a Peak at the end of July. While the venue and event(s) for my season finalé weren't as hoped for, the timing seemed no less appropriate to get in two final efforts at peak fitness before closing the door on outdoor track for 2020. In most recent major games, including the Olympics, the heats and final of the steeplechase are run over a four-day span, with a qualifying round followed by two days off prior to the culminating championship. Racing multiple times in a short time-frame is a skill that I'm still very much learning to develop and both CJ and I recognized that allowing an entire season to slip by without testing myself against the demands of such a short turnaround would be an opportunity squandered. As such, we laid out a plan for two final tests, a mile on Wednesday, July 29th followed by a second 5000m on Saturday, August 1st.
The week of my final two "races" coincided with some of the best summer weather Vancouver has received this year. After some key sessions in the two weeks prior I felt poised to deliver in both events and excited to test my limits. First up was the mile and unlike my prior show downs with the distance I resolved to set out more conservatively and try and flip the script from my previous go-out-hard-and-fade experiences. Perfect pace making at 60.xx per 400m brought me through 1200m in 3:01 and feeling in control. When the pacer stepped off with one lap to go I could feel myself winding up, ready to hammer it home. Every so often a race occurs where everything just clicks and you're at once intensely focused on the task at hand while also aware of your surroundings, able to savour the moment and enjoy the feeling of putting all the hard work on display. This was one of those moments. 3:59.28. Exactly one second faster than my previous attempt and my first time dipping under the four minute barrier for the full mile (1609 metres). Breaking four minutes is a sort-of right of passage for many in my sport and finally adding my name to the club of men who've done so is a running bucket list item I've sought to achieve for some time now. Being able to accomplish something that I'd set out as a goal for my season several months prior, with CJ, my closest training partners and friends on hand to share the moment with me was truly special. While there is still much more that I hope to accomplish as an athlete (including doing this same feat "officially!"), I would not trade the circumstances of my first sub-four experience for any alternative.
Bucking the mile barrier from my back cleared up the bandwidth in my head to focus my attention wholly on one final outing. Having surprised myself in my previous 5000 I was keen to ensure this next crack at the 12.5 lap race would test the extents of my fitness. Pacing was set up from within our local group of guys with the request of 2:43/kilometre, a shade over 13:30 pace. With the warm weather from the previous week still lingering we chose 9:30pm as the start time for this last of seven time trials comprising my outdoor season. The winds died, the temperature dropped, and the energy around the track built as the gun time drew closer. Right from the starter's commands our little group was locked in. We covered the first lap right on schedule in 65 seconds flat. Rounding the bend from there I recall noting mulling over the fact that we still had 11 long laps to go. The redlining nature of 5000m pace has a curious effect on one's psyche. Any feeling of total relaxation or the temptation of settling in is gone within the first kilometre and there is a long period of several laps through the middle of the race where the finish line seems very distant indeed, reachable only by walking a tightrope of pace, a thin red line on either side of which is a void from which there's no coming back. There's been many races in my life where I've become consumed by the thought of that void, looking down at my feet and running the calculations in my head, trying to crunch the numbers of how X pace is possibly sustainable for X laps remaining. On this occasion I just shut up and ran.
The pacing remained as metronomic on the second lap as it had been on the first, and then the third, and then the fourth, and so on. By the time it became clear that we were not only on pace but pushing underneath the original prescription there was only a mile of running left, much too late for a change of heart. Once again things were clicking and I could feel my energy building with each passing lap. By the time I saw one lap to go I felt like a runaway train, punching home my last lap in around 59 seconds and stopping the clock (unofficially) at 13:26.48. While the time won't count, the break through feeling is still as real as it gets.
If I can take myself back to the beginning of this bizarre season, I'd have had no idea how rewarding a summer comprised solely of local time trials with the same people I train with day in and day out could be. The circumstances imposed on each one of us have at times seemed so far beyond my scope of comprehension that the thought of a return to normal was impossible. If, then, this is to be our "new normal" the past months have taught me that I have so much to be grateful for. I love running. I love the people that I get to share running with. I love that I have as friends a community of people who chose to treat this year not as an opportunity lost but as one gained. As I look forward to the year ahead I'm bolstered by the confidence that comes from having stepped into the unknown and emerged better for it. There will doubtless be challenges ahead that we'll all have to face in these most interesting of times that we live in. I feel blessed knowing that I will not have to face those future challenges alone.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
Psalm 23: 1-4
John Eamon Gay