The Year of Unrunning

The Year of Unrunning

Running isn’t easy. We all know that. Running is demanding and challenging and unforgiving; running is rewarding and meaningful and lifesaving. Running is a lot of things, and it’s never easy. But to say that running this year was hard, with everything else that we faced each day, no, that’s not a true statement. While running wasn’t hard in 2020, while running wasn’t cancelled in 2020, for me at least, 2020 was the Year of Unrunning.

Stepped off the scale this morning somewhat surprised and pleased that my weight was within striking range of my training weight, somewhat unsurprised and horrified that my body fat level is almost twice what it was coming off a marathon a year ago. And you know what? In this season of miracles, none of that really matters. After my health scare last February, I’m happy to be alive. After the world went on fire in March, I’m happy we’re all here talking about things, even if it’s not the usual year-end victory-lap wholesomely-positive messaging celebrating a full list of accomplishments, illustrated with spectacular photos captured on our spectacular runs.

My Year of Unrunning started with downtime recovering from whatever it was that almost killed me, and adjusting to new physical limits and new meds. A steady cadence of injuries on the way back, some old, some new. In the end all that resulted in half the mileage I normally run, and the least amount I’ve run in 15 years. Filled in with virtual races and virtual challenges that sort of kept me moving: there’s still a rack of medals and too many t-shirts. None of it was the same. Every time out the door was an issue, a hesitation, an opportunity for self-doubt to take over, and take over for good. I don’t know what it was that I was doing, but it didn’t feel like running, at least not like the running I remembered.

Unrunning came very close to becoming unraveling, and, until I caught myself this morning to bring myself here, I almost let it happen.

Many of the runners I know have been struggling in varying degrees north and south of me. I see the level of their workouts on Strava, I see the changed tone of their posts on Instagram, I see their confessions on Facebook as the brave faces and self assurance start to peel back a bit. Runners who were so strong last year have become content to be very ordinary this year, and when we look to them to find the motivation to start our own workouts, as has motivated us so well in the past, often we find ourselves looking in a mirror: so many of you too? Well if they’re having trouble, what can the world expect of us, of me.

On the other hand, some have absolutely thrived and have provided epic inspiration. Weekly mileage through the roof, PRs from a mile to 5k to marathons and beyond. I have special respect for the runners who had the courage to start and complete marathon training cycles even knowing that their race was cancelled, who then ran a virtual race, alone, even when it was their first time—I am in absolute awe of you. As I’m writing this, one friend is attempting to complete the 210-mile Chicago Outerbelt Loop this weekend, in freezing cold and pouring rain, after just crewing one of her friends on a run across the entire country. Absolutely amazing.

And yet…we miss our habits. We miss our regular routes. We miss our massages and our yogas classes that we want to do, and the strength and stretching that we don’t want to do. We realize how fragile our alleged mental toughness really is, how fragile our bodies really are. We miss our friends, our community—oh do we miss our community: the crew runs, the races, and especially the sweaty hugs celebrating accomplishment each and every day we’re out there, the chatter of hope and disappointment but mostly hope because tomorrow is another day and we know we will lift each other to a new level, today and tomorrow, with the incredible energy we pass to each other, friends and strangers alike, often without knowing it.

Instead, I felt like I spent most of the year constantly being brought down to a lower level in an evil parallel universe, this Year of Unrunning, exhausted, angry, dodging those who refuse to do their part and wear masks, whether they’re running or just out walking their dogs. The incident where I almost got punched out in Belmont Harbor is still with me, I still think of it every time I lace up my shoes. Running may be a privilege but life is a right and responsibility is a requirement. I have a very hard time with people who are so careless, selfish and lazy to openly threaten the lives of others.

Still there were benefits to the Year of Unrunning: learning to slow down again (side effect of mask doping), learning to run without predetermined purpose. Stopping to let the maskless pass by turned into stopping to admire the view in the moment, with or without a photo record of it, to catch my breath and clear my head without really needing to. Running off hours or off route led to new experiences. My summer was spent getting reacquainted with the joys of biking. My fall was a spectacular fall foliage tour. And…there were those moments we all know as runners: the moments when we pause and take whatever we’ve been carrying on our backs all this time and lay it on the side of the road and just keep on going. This time, that load may have been the entire year.

So where are we gonna just keep on going to? In this pause as this Year of Unrunning comes to an end, during the time when my race dance card for next year would usually already be full, now I only see a very few deferred races that may or may not happen, pretty much a blank sheet of paper looking forward. There had been a plan for another Chicago Marathon next year, which I am more than happy not to run because the twice-postponed wedding reception for my son and daughter-in-law is happening on that date. So now is the perfect time to ask the question:

What do we want out of this.

To answer that, I’m looking again to the tattoo on my left shoulder, which will celebrate its five-year birthday next week., tattered wing and all.

2019 Nike Unsanctioned 002 Photo: Mike Calabro

Run Free. For someone who spent so much of my life feeling boxed in, or more honestly, boxing myself in, running has become an essential way to explore the world and more importantly, explore myself. Places I haven’t seen, destination races to the extent we’re even able to travel in the next few years…there’s always a new place to explore within an hour’s drive, hidden gems, other people’s favorite routes, and we’re going to find them.

Breathe Deep. For a child who suffered from asthma and an adult who sabotaged himself with smoking, being part of the running community, both in Chicago and around the world, has come to mean the most for me. Every run in peace and friendship, every run like it may be my last.

Finish Strong. May be entering this phase now. While I hope I have many years left, there is an expiration date and even if I ignore it, there will be an end. But not today. Today I will gather strength and energy and continue and keep moving with all that’s left.

Beyond that, I don’t know yet. I don’t know what my goals are or if I’ll even have goals. I don’t know if I even want to think about whether or not I’ll have goals. This is a chance to start over, to relearn the things I thought I knew, to experience new growth, to reconnect to my friends and the community and the roads and the trails and the air…to rededicate and start it up again, to bridge the Year of Unrunning to a new running life.

I’m excited for what I hope to reclaim. I’m even more excited for the new things I hope to create. Most of all, I want to be able to say once more, with confidence, and with refreshed enthusiasm and credibility: there may be younger runners, there may faster runners, but every once in a while on a warm summer evening into the setting sun, there is no more magnificent runner, than me.

Anything less is to sacrifice the gift, as Steve Prefontaine preached and as I’ve held close to my heart all these years. And in this time of giving, what a gift of hope and love it truly is, for ourselves and each other.

See you all out there in 2021. We need this sport and we need each other. Let’s make sure we get there. Peace all.