I'm back. In my last post, in August, I mentioned "closing the door" on my 2020 outdoor track season. Like pretty much every assertion I've made this year, however, that one too was destined to be short-lived. As a whole, 2020 has had enough once-in-a-lifetime moments to fill a lifetime, maybe even more than once over. Amidst the travel-bans, quarantines, zoom hangouts, social-distancing, virtual everythings, and lockdowns of varying degrees I'm sure that I will not be alone in hoping that many of the novel (!) experiences faced this year will not repeat themselves in the future. Nevertheless, there are elements of this non-year that I believe will leave a positive legacy. While at times all I've wanted was a return to normal , whatever that means, this year has reiterated for me that normal is what you make of it and opportunities for growth aren't always where we expect to find them.
Personally, the beginning of fall marked a new chapter in the narrative arc of the pandemic. If the months preceding had been characterized by a constant state of flux, then the shortening days ushered in a reluctant but necessary transition to routine. With students returning to school and summer holidays coming to an end the sense of settling into fall routines was tinged this year by the uncertainty of not knowing what routine would look like. As an athlete I shared this uncertainty with regards to my own plans; what would a successful block of training look like when many of the familiar attributes of the season were inaccessible? To begin, it meant establishing a goal of what I hoped to achieve and setting a plan in place to direct me towards that marker.
On this front, I was fortunate to benefit from an invitation to take part in a series of sanctioned track races organized by the BC Endurance Project. After going without official races for an entire spring and summer season, BCEP Coach Richard Lee recognized how valuable an opportunity to get a race effort in could be for BC athletes. While there is very little separating racing from the training done day in and day out physically, there is something about pinning on a number and bracing for the starter's gun that sets it apart psychologically. Racing presents the opportunity to concentrate all of one's hard work and focus into a single, culminating experience. If training is a science then racing is an art form and to go too long without experiencing the distinctive sensation it entails is to lose touch.
To this end, having a series of races to look forward to provided the perfect catalyst to buoy my enthusiasm through the final months of the year. Fall is typically the time for establishing a strong "base" of aerobic fitness and CJ and I decided this year would be no different. After gradually ratcheting up my weekly volume for a month I resumed workouts in mid-September and settled into my most consistent block of high-mileage training to date (you can check out my log here). Here, the lack of races, travel, and general distractions from training imposed by tightening provincial health measures proved a helpful boost. For the first several weeks the workouts were exclusively off-track affairs with lots of long efforts that forced focus and patience. After a month fitness-building solo I was given the green-light to merge back into workouts with Kieran Lumb, whose late start to the summer build due to injury was now paying dividends as the base for incredible fitness in the fall season. Getting dunked on by Kieran bi-weekly proved a good reality check for me as I struggled to hang in longer sessions. This period pushed my comfort level and I know it was critical in getting accustomed to a new type of aerobic stimulus.
Writing this now I'll admit to some difficulty in keeping the timeline straight. With most things cancelled outside of the home, the past three months are a blurred monolith of routine; lots of early nights, lots of curry dinners (my recent fixation in the kitchen), and lots of "wow, it's already dark out" remarks. Constant through it all was unwavering training, putting paid to the monotony of excellence, that old adage. Through the banality, however, I've fostered a greater appreciation of how blessed I am. That my life can be so simple in such a time as this is a gift and has spurred, I believe, a deeper sense of gratitude for many of the things I long took for granted.
Most recent on that list has been a reminder of just how much I love competing. While the prospect of sanctioned competition was the wind in my sails through the fall, it was the execution of those competitive opportunities that has given me true lift as I look ahead to the New Year. Comprising my fall racing schedule were two rendezvous on the track as part of the BCEP Saturday Night Live Racing Series. Coach Richard Lee worked tirelessly in conjunction with BC Athletics and our province's incredible officials to stage official track meets amidst a slew of logistical challenges. On top of the expected mountain of protocols pertaining to C19, the meet organizers also faced down last minute venue changes, an iced-over track, and 11th-hour health order alterations to pull off events that are amongst the most memorable in my career thus far. My fellow SNL competitors and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the BC Athletics community who rallied together to give us a chance to perform.
First up was a 10,000m on November 21st. After a month of steady downpour leading up to our race, the heavens opened and we were graced with perfectly clear skies on race day. In addition to the field of myself, Kieran Lumb, Luc Bruchet and Charles PT, we had pace being made by Cameron Proceviat through 3000m. Together, we formulated a plan to work together and push as deep into the race as possible by trading off 800s and, once we'd all had a turn up front, 600s. Cam took us through 3000 right on schedule in 68s/lap and from there we set to work. The nature of our pacing arrangement meant that easing off the pace and letting the others go was never an option for any of us. The knowledge that at some point six laps down the road one would be called on to take their pull at the front held us all accountable so that regardless of how any one individual felt they had to put it aside to hold up their end of the bargain for the group. The plan worked better than we could have hoped for and the middle laps of the race melted away. We came through 5000 in about 14:18 and continued to click off laps until all of a sudden we'd hit 8600 with all four of us still strung out in a uniform line. At this point I remember hearing Richard urge us on, we'd come this far on pace and he reminded us of how fleeting this opportunity could be, how the moment had come to capitalize on all the things that had gone right to make this moment happen. Here I got excited. Our pacing orchestration had run its course and for the next 3.5 laps it was pure racing. Having been tucked in for several laps I swung wide and hit the front. I could sense a good time could be had and was determined to squeeze as much out of the last moments of the race as possible. As I ratcheted the pace down I could hear the other guys right behind me, equally eager to wind things up for a fast finish. Our 68s tempo turned into 67 and then 65 and then 64, as we came up on the bell lap Kieran, Luc and myself were still firmly set in a tight line and each beginning to lift into a finishing kick. As we came down the backstretch I could hear onlookers gathered outside the chainlink fence screaming us home. Off the final turn all three of us were still very much in the race. The first to streak by me was Kieran but it was Luc who stormed past on the outside with the most left in the tank. After 9900m of racing the result came down to a sprint finish, with all three of us finishing within 1 second of each other and setting new personal bests in the process (Luc 28:17.33, Kieran 28:17.55, 28:18.10 for me). Not far behind was Charles, whose debut at the distance of 28:45.42 came agonizingly close to the Quebec record. What a confirmation of all the months of training without a clear finish line in sight. Back on the track, working together, and reminding ourselves of how exciting our sport can be when we give it all we have.
Two weeks later we were back at the same venue for the finalé of our season. With Charles departing for warmer racing opportunities in California (13:22 5000!) it was Luc, Kieran, and me toeing the line on December 5th, by far the latest (earliest?) outdoor race I've ever done. Preparing for a 5000 on the track in Canada in December is something I never thought I'd be doing, but like so much else this year it was a reminder that a little bit of creativity and a lot of determination can go a long way. Par for the 2020 course we faced a crisis of pace-making duties when our original rabbit bowed out with a bad case of food poisoning. Stepping up to the plate on less than 24h notice was Thomas Nobbs, who sacrificed his own scheduled time trial to help us out. This is a guy who I've watched work harder than anyone over the last year and when we get the chance to repay the favour and pace him I know he'll be turning some heads.
If our 10,000 was a reminder of how fun racing can be, our 5000 was a reminder of how much it can hurt! The drop down in pace proved a real shock to the system and although we made it through 3000 right on schedule in 8:09 the hurt was already on. Extending his streak to 2, Luc came away with the win after a decisive move with 800m to run, crossing in 13:32.99. Broken by his injection of pace me and Kieran battled it out over the final circuits of the track and came home in 13:38.55 and 13:43.36 respectively. While not quite what we'd hoped for in the afterglow of our previous race, the series as a whole was a much needed reintroduction to racing and sets the stage for an exciting year ahead.
All told, the sum of this fall's training and racing was more than I could have hoped for at the outset. While the routine that I finally settled into was atypical, it proved effective and affirmative of the value of consistency and patience. Ending 2020 in much the same way I began it, with races on the track, has been an unexpected but reassuring reminder of why I do what I do. I am so grateful for all those who've stuck by my side through the ups and downs of this crazy year and know that no matter what 2021 has in store, we'll be ready.
John Eamon Gay