After training for my first full marathon in 2013, I suspected I needed to immediately register for another one, or I would stop running altogether, and lose the benefits I had gained training for my first one. Even now, I am still paranoid about that happening, so I almost always have two events planned—the one I am currently training for, and the one after that. In the brief times I have not taken this approach, I am surprised how quickly I am pulled toward a much more sedentary life, and much less disciplined approach to nutrition. So, I just try to stick to what works—having an event on the calendar, and training toward it—for 7 years now.
Then, Covid-19. The physical and social distancing required during the Coronavirus pandemic derailed just about everything that brought us in contact with a large number of other humans. Professional and collegiate sports had monumental challenges, which were thoroughly reported in the media. But, the events catering to both professional and amateur endurance athletes took an equally hard, maybe even harder, blow. For example, none of the large-scale marathons took place live. How could they? The New York City marathon has over 50,000 participants, and nearly two million in-person spectators! The coveted-experience Boston Marathon is only slightly smaller. The London Marathon was postponed, but was then recently held on a 1.3 mile loop—over 19 laps (just shoot me), and for a small number of elite runners only. Even “small” races could not be held. It is impossible to physically-distance even say, 3,000 runners, especially if buses are used to get everyone to the starting line up some canyon. The St. George Marathon (a favorite in the Southwest), has never been cancelled in 40 years—until this October. They tried, but ultimately could not figure out how to do it under accepted guidelines. Thousands of such races and events nationwide suffered a similar fate. And, unlike professional sports, the absence of these amateur events affected the plans of millions—including our exercise habits!
Remember back in March, when many of us thought this would be a short-term adjustment? I was already registered for two events, and thought they would just get bumped a few weeks, or maybe months. Right. But, luckily, that delusion served the valuable role of keeping me training. Later, when those events were called off, others were still planning to go, and happily taking our registration fees—like St. George, which still planned to hold their October marathon, until officially cancelling in September. And, even closer to home, the Gilbert half recently announced it will be virtual only (and that one didn’t even have buses to worry about). But, again, the delusion served its purpose—keeping me running for a time.
The St. George experience was the first where I recognized what I was really doing—I was registering for anything that would tell me the likely “lie” that they would be a live event, even though I didn’t think it would really happen! Clear, purposeful, willful self-deception. I’m still doing it. For example, the Mesa Marathon is scheduled for February 13, 2021. I am registered for it, and have begun my training program (yes—most marathon training schedules would already begin for that one), even though I cannot understand how they will really make it happen (buses, several thousand runners, aid stations, spectators—all the stuff that caused these kinds of events to be cancelled in the first place). But, that isn’t the point. Between now and then, I can PRETEND it will happen, and that is enough to keep me running. Many of my exercising friends are engaged in the same mental gymnastics.
Of course, as the ability to fool ourselves in this way has become more difficult, we have had to increase the likelihood that the training will be put to some actual use. Luckily, many organizations have offered “virtual” runs in place of the live ones. I have friends who have done those. I did one that gave me a month to accomplish a certain distance, which did help me have an exercise goal, until I hit the miles pretty early in the month. I have not tried a virtual “full” event. I just don’t think I can run 26.2 miles along the dusty canals of Gilbert and “pretend” it was the New York Marathon. I am good at self-deception, but that is next level.
Another substitute motivator that is now growing in popularity is the “unofficial” event. Even with some of the official ones recently happening live, a number of unofficial, unsupported, triathlons have popped up lately. There is similar talk about runners going out for a, say, 13.1 or 26.2 mile run together on the morning of February 13th, if the official Mesa Marathon does not take place. It may even be combined with the virtual option offered by Mesa or others, but have the advantage of at least having live company. Of course, we would all maintain the recommended social-running distance 12 to 16 feet apart (yeah, right—even more self-deception).
Of course, there is hope that I will need to deceive myself less into training for events that will never happen, because some are starting to happen! Ironman held its Half-Ironman Tempe in October and plans to hold the full in November. Aravaipa, a local (and really good) running event company tends to have smaller races, on trails, and has some great trail options, including a couple trail “loop” ultra-distance events in November. Revel is holding some again, by limiting the number of runners and having significantly staggered starting times.
One thing is clear—I exercise better when I have a purpose beyond just staying in shape. As a runner, that purpose is usually in the form of a live event. My self-deception has allowed me to now train for four events that didn’t happen, but I need something real pretty soon. Hopefully, the organizers will continue to find ways to make these “real” again.