Race, Off

Sunday runday, and it was about just a month ago I was lamenting the upcoming lack of race season.

My running partners were all busily signing up for virtual races that seemed to me as little more than paying for a t-shirt and a medal. Meanwhile we would all tell ourselves that the difference between running around the neighbourhood this weekend as opposed to last weekend was that this weekend was a virtual race. Wink wink. And about ninety-dollars in race fees.

I would run. But this year would be a season of no races.


Until Friday night there was an exception to all my lamenting.

The long-shot was a local late-May ultramarathon of various distances that we’d all signed up for in the first days of twenty-twenty. Over a year ago. Trained and ready when COVID sprung. In April of last year, we each recieved an email that the race had been deferred for a year in hopes that the pandemic (which surely wouldn’t last more than a couple months, right?) would be a distant memory. We would all race again next year.

This year.

So it went that on the last weekend of May 2021, four weeks out from writing this, I was due to tackle the Blackfoot Ultra for another go. Twenty-five kilometers of the “baby ultra” distance through the rolling trails of a nearby natural preserve area.

Friday evening the fateful email came again.

Due to COVID the race organizers, unsurprisingly, were unable to obtain a permit from the local health authority to host a couple hundred racers and support crew for a daylong event. Every registration has been deferred yet again to twenty-twenty-two.

The single, solitary race for which I have been registered now for nearly a year and a half is now officially thirteen months away.

Race, off.

I could grumble here. I could write that all those hills we’ve been running were all for naught. That my push to recover from some joint inflamation over the last couple months so that I could keep up my distances was a waste. Or that somehow my motivation was only sparked by the prospect of that looming twenty-five klick weekend less than a month away.

I could.

I won’t.

We’ve all made so many sacrifices this past fourteen months that I can’t account for this as more than another disappointing blip.

It’s another opportunity to reshape my training plan. A chance to think about what I want to get out of a summer without any races at all. None. What that means to my week-to-week training and how I can use that freedom to explore the city’s trails again this summer.

Perhaps a running streak?

Or some adventure running, looking for trails I’ve never met before.

Maybe just enjoying the time with my cohort without any pressure for pace or distance.

The last of my races may be off, but I’m thinking of it as an opportunity.

Should you take walk breaks while running?

Back in 2012 I ran my first travel-based half marathon.

My wife and I had hopped on a plane and spent a long weekend in Las Vegas where the race had shut down the strip and some tens of thousands of runners ran through the Nevada evening basked in glow of more neon than I’d ever seen in one place.

With a burst of fireworks I pushed out of the start line and headed south and outbound, past the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign, pacing myself for twenty one klicks amongst the hoards of runners. I was feeling good. I was running strong. Everything was great. The air. The music. The vibe. The colours. The lights.

Then my watch beeped …and I took my first walk break.

Y’know. Just like I’d been training to do.

Ten minutes running followed by one minute of brisk recovery walk, repeated until the end of the run. It’s how I’d practiced. It was my race plan. It was intentional.

It was only after a fellow racer dressed as Elvis Presley pulled up alongside to ask me if I was alright and a couple other concerned folks patted me on the shoulder to encourage me to “stay strong buddy” did I realize that how my Canadian run club had been training me for the previous few years was not the universal approach… even a few hours away just down in the States.

Nearly ten years later, and even this morning on our fourteen kilometer run through the spring river valley, we still tend to take walk breaks on our long and simple training runs.

Ten minutes of on-pace running followed by one minute of brisk recovery walk.

Ten and ones.

I’m sure there is some science that could be found online about the training benefits of walk-run intervals, the value of mid-run recovery, the advantages of training for time-on-feet versus pace, or even how it’s tough to take a water break without choking if you don’t stop and slow down for at least a few steps.

And I have many personal anecdotes about passing fellow racers on the back half of the course, runners who leapfrogged past me on my first couple walk breaks but who faltered in their pace an hour or so on. I’ve even raced both with and without breaks, and invariably I always do better with my regular recovery walks worked into the pace.

Or, I could just tell you how nice it is to enjoy the scenery of a minute-long walk through the woods or across a bridge, maybe snapping a photo or two to remember the moment.

There are reasons.

None of those reasons matters much, of course, other than to say I’ve got my own list of rationalizations for why taking walk breaks on long training runs has worked well for both my crew and I over the years. It was how we were taught by the store-based club we started running out of. It’s become habit. We’ve all had a decade-plus-long running career backed by an interval setting on our watches. I don’t see it changing. Also, I like it.

Walks are not for everyone, of course. Highly competitive racers likely turn their noses at recreational runners like us. (Those folks are not reading this advice anyhow. ) If you’ve found this post because you searched for advice on if it’s okay to take breaks while you run then you’ve come to the crux of my point. Yes. It’s fine. Better than fine, in fact, if it means you can run longer or further than you could without those breaks. Maybe walking is even a good idea, if by walking you even slightly reduce your chance for injury by overstress. Walking is okay.

This is not meant to be advice. Every runner is different. Every training program is unique. Every kilometer run has a purpose and a challenge. Do your own research and learn your body.

That said, I do believe from years of personal experience that walk breaks can find a place somewhere in that mix and interval walk breaks might be the ingredient you need to train longer distances or simply find enjoyment of the sport through the blurry push for always faster and ever harder.

I finished that Las Vegas half marathon strong. I’ll never actually know how Elvis found himself managing his own pace in the second half of that twenty-one kilometer race. Part of me likes to believe that in one of the fifty-or-so white sequined jumpsuits that I passed through that evening’s run was that guy who (as nice as he was for stopping to check) thought I’d buffed it ten minutes into the race.

Cuz I didn’t.

I was just taking a break, enjoying both the race and the neon.

Virtual Race Season, Take Two. Maybe.

Sunday Runday, and on our morning ten kilometer trail run everyone seem to want to talk racing season.

Except there is no racing season.

Twenty-twenty-one is a racing write off.

Or… it would be if it wasn’t for virtual races.

Virtual racing. Oh, those virtual races. And why?

Last year as the pandemic picked up its pace, another one of those little oh-yeah-and-that-too inconveniences was the cancellation of a bunch of running races. I was registered to run at least four big races, including the 2020 Chicago Marathon.

None of them happened.

Well, none of them happened as planned.

Over the course of the summer, as the clock ticked onward, each race in turn became a virtual race instead of a real one. No, we can’t bring five thousand athletes together on a crowded street, so, here’s what we’re gonna do instead…

Keep the spirit. Run the distance. Submit your time. Get a shirt and a medal in the mail. Virtual racing was the consolation prize for a lost season.

And I too ran a few virtual runs. A trio of half marathons. A few ten-k socially distant weekend excuses to meet up with my friends and celebrate… something. I don’t know exactly what or why, but hanging onto something seemed important.

Winter came and went.

Then the emails started appearing…

“Such and such is going virtual this year.”

“Join us for a virtual race.”

“We can’t run together but we can race virtually!”

The dissonance rings in my heart something like this: I want to race and support the races but I’m finding it tough to reconcile another season of pretending. I want to be motivated to train for long races, but paying a hundred dollars or often more to run through my own neighbourhood and get a t-shirt and a medal through the mail doesn’t seem like the way. Not this year. I want back that feeling of participating but I’m done settling for participating from afar. And I would rather delay bigger gratification for a while if the only other option is a virtual one.

On our morning ten kilometer trail run everyone seem to want to talk racing season because a bunch of them have been signing up for local and international virtual races. I’m going to keep running with them, but unless something dramatically changes I think my next race season will be 2022.

Recalling Quarantine Ultra

I hadn’t forgotten about it. At the time it was just a goofy online race. But I was there.

This morning I was flipping through the digital pages of the December 2020 issue of Outdoor magazine. A sentence on an article titled “Unprecedented” caught my eye.

Something something backyard quarantine ultra something something.

Sunday Runday, and I was reminded of a chilly Saturday morning in early April 2020. I logged into a zoom meeting on my iPad. I laced up my shoes, pulled on my mitts and running toque, and swiped through screen after screen after screen of thumbnail video feeds from around the world.

The Quarantine Backyard Ultra was the idea of someone in Calgary, a few hundred kilometers south of where I live. It was this Alberta thing, we’d invited the world, and a bunch of my running crew signed up. Along with about 2,400 other runners.

Sure. I’d thought. A nice way to do something, anything, now that we were a couple weeks into a fresh pandemic lockdown.

We’d figured we were quarantine veterans then. Little did we know that nine months later I’d be sitting here, pondering yet another solo run on a Sunday morning, and thinking nostalgically back on the early days of social isolation.

I quit after a mere two laps. About fourteen kilometers of running. Not because I couldn’t have done a third, but because the Kid had made pancakes for me and they were steaming hot and ready to eat when I’d finished my second lap. Had I known how big this thing would be, I would have pushed for three or four laps I think.

Days later — yes, really days — a small subset of runners were still clocking laps. One lap every hour on the hour. I would log into the feed to watch for a bit, but livesteaming a stranger racing on a treadmill is only actually interesting in the abstract sense. The winner logged 63 laps and four hundred and some kilometers.

Nine months later I’m reading about this race in a magazine. I’ve heard it’s been written about all over the place. It was a thing.

The Quarantine Backyard Ultra sparked imaginations because of many things; the notion of it, the lengths some people went to push themselves, and the sheer goofiness of running a race around your own neighbourhood with a video conference as a finish line. But it also gave people a bit of hope. That’s what I got out of it, at least.