Racing Through A Pandemic
On February 29th 2020, I had the race experience of my life at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, a memory that I will cherish forever, and a true chance to celebrate a four-year venture into the Marathon. We were very fortunate to be able to race, and share the moment with the 200,000 spectators that lined the course, as it was one of the last sporting events before a three-month global sport hiatus following the increase in Covid-19 cases. While the completion of the trials and the global pandemic meant that I had no immediate plans to race, what followed in the next 10 months was rather unexpected. As I share my story, I must begin by acknowledging that I have been very privileged and my thoughts go out to all of those who have faced any of the many hardships this year.
After the U.S. Marathon Trials, my plan to get back to basics and simply enjoy running actually aligned well with the early stages of the pandemic restrictions. I was able to get out for a daily run and enjoy run/bike adventures with family, chase a few Strava segments, and paint the streets with Strava Art. All of it gave me some structure and purpose to running. Something that was immensely valuable as it became clear that the end of the pandemic was further off than we expected.
A major shift in life came when my wife, Kate, finished her PhD and accepted a job in Germany. Amidst all the global uncertainty, we packed up our stuff and moved to the other side of the globe. The summer relaxation and the small-town nature of our new home gave us an opportunity to make some early connections. I used this time to immerse myself in the local running community by attending group runs and gaining new training partners.
Even before the Marathon Trials in February, I was content with the idea of no longer chasing performances or standards. Knowing how hard I had worked for the past three years and the wear and tear on my body, I just wanted to run enough to enjoy the lifestyle. In essence I was acknowledging that I no longer wanted to commit fully to the training process that I previously saw as fundamental to my success. So, when I started doing workouts in Germany with the local club there were no expectations and I was running for the pure joy of it.
Fast forward a couple of months and those exploratory long runs, random weekly workouts, and banter with my training partners resulted in a familiar excitement and curiosity. Then, of course, when the first opportunity to race came up, it didn’t take much to convince me to toe the line. A Half-Marathon in Frankfurt held in a closed off Expo area was an eerie way to get back to racing as it missed the vibes of a “real” event. Nevertheless, I was hooked and a few weeks later a small town 10 km presented another opportunity. The fun day with my training partners (Timo and Katja) plus a positive race experience further stoked my fire. Two races, two PB’s, and a question of how did I actually get here, left me curious to see what was possible.
With the pandemic concerns growing once again, a Half-Marathon in Dresden looked like it would be the last chance to race. With an elite field and a picture-perfect race course, I saw this as the time to put my recent work to good use. With that in mind, I shifted the focus away from “just going out there to have fun” to a more targeted “let’s see what I can do”. With that mindset, I stepped to the line eager to race.
As the race began, the small field of only 30 competitors separated and I quickly attached myself to a chase pack. The first few laps of the 2.5 km loop flew by as I made use of the energy from the group of seven. Trusting that these individuals had similar ambitions, I focused to cover moves and stay connected. Coming through 10 km, I saw my first split (30:28) and confirmed that we had put ourselves in position for a strong day. From that point on, the group started to splinter and the inevitable doubts began to creep in. Gaps in the group formed, but I continued to focus on the person in front of me and repeat a common mantra to myself, “keep doing exactly the same thing, as that is what got you to this point”. Combining this focus and repetitive mantra, I spurred enough motivation to keep a good rhythm. I entered the last lap, knowing that eight more minutes of hard running would get me to my target. Around the loop and past the Villa for a final time, I reached the finish line in just under 65 minutes, nearly a minute faster than my previous best. Soaking up the moment, I celebrated with my fellow competitors and Kate, who had been bouncing around the course to cheer.
Reflecting on the race afterwards, I am proud of the PB. More importantly I am proud of the execution of a race plan, the fight to push through the challenging stretches, and the shared moment with those that supported me to get there. It is easy to judge a performance based on the end result. However, it is truly fulfilling when you can be proud of all the elements that make up the experience. On that day in Dresden, I was proud of everything that went into it.
This was a totally unexpected racing season. Not only due to the challenges of the pandemic, but simply because I never planned for it to happen. I went into it without the mindset to chase a specific goal. Yet it was as rewarding as any other season. At every juncture, I chose to do what excited me at that moment and what I believed would bring me the most joy. As the pandemic continues, we move forward and I will continue this way of thinking. Personally, that might be some more virtual events, a bit of Strava Art, or once again something completely unexpected.