2020 Running Review

The start of a new year is a time for reflection. At the beginning of 2020, I looked back on my 2019 running goals, triumphantly checking off those which I had achieved. Looking back on 2020, I’m 0 for 3.

It was an unprecedented year. As Ben Folds wrote in the song 2020,

We’re not repeating history, just the parts that sucked

2020, what the actual fuck?

And that was before the Northern California wildfires, before Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away, and before the second wave of COVID. These events and others affected each of us to differing degrees, and in different ways. But I hope that you, like me, will let yourself off the hook for your missed running goals. Because on top of all the isolation, injustice, and disease of 2020, well, there simply weren’t many races.

In this post, I’ll reflect on a year without training blocks or races. There is a lot to celebrate and much to learn.

2020 by the Metrics

I ran 3400 miles in 2020. That’s more than the distance from San Francisco to New York City. It’s also more than I’ve ever run before.

These miles took a total of 445 hours. If you split that into 40 hour work weeks, that’s an entire summer internship’s worth of running. And I don’t even get paid for this!

The vast majority of these hours were spent alone, initially because of uncertainty around the spread of COVID-19, and later because I moved back in with my parents, far away from my running friends in the Bay Area.

I not only ran farther and longer than ever before, I also climbed more. In spite of spending 2 months in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, I climbed 189k feet throughout the year, a ~20% increase from last year.

Why the bump? Without races and race-oriented workouts, I was free to frolic through the hills of San Francisco and Marin County.

Michael, Charlie, and I at the start of our ascent from Kirby Cove to the top of Hawk Hill

The increase in vert explains some, but not all, of another interesting data point: My average speed slowed this year, in spite of a general trend of increasing fitness.

Why? I ran my easy runs real easy.

Easy Running

“Was he fucking grocery shopping at that pace?”

-A friend commenting on a 9:45 pace recovery run

I’ve never cared much about my paces when running easy. I often turn off the auto-lap functionality on my watch then run until I don’t feel like running anymore, letting my legs and lungs set the pace.

In past years my easy pace has naturally dropped from 9:30 to 8:45 to 8:00 and, as of 2019, to 7:30 minutes per mile. This year was a complete reversal of that trend: My easy running pace varied from 8:00 to 10:00, averaging somewhere north of 9 minutes per mile.

Since I ran most of my easy runs alone, I didn’t have impatient friends to drag me along at their 7:30 pace. So my easy pace dropped to its natural resting place, which is apparently 1.5x slower than marathon pace.

But that’s not the full story. Without a structured training plan or teammates to keep me in check, I also pushed workouts harder than I ever have before, leaving my legs shattered multiple days per week. Sometimes 9-minute miles is all I could muster.

I’m not bothered by the drop in pace — run your easy miles easy so you can run quality miles hard. I do worry that my running form is degrading at these slower paces, perhaps causing the handful of micro-injuries I got this year. This is why I’ll be starting 2021 with a focus on keeping good form.

Long Runs

Without races or group workouts, long runs became my primary competitive outlet in the first half of the year. This all started in April when a solo adventure run to Sausalito unexpectedly turned into one of my fastest ever long runs. Staring down at the 6:30 min/mi average pace as I lay out on the bleachers next to my apartment, I was hooked.

The following Sunday couldn’t come soon enough. And when it did, I ran a full 15 seconds per mile faster than the previous run, getting surprisingly close to my marathon PR pace.

For a month, every long run was faster than the last. It was amazing. I felt so athletic speeding through the Presidio, passing runners on the Golden Gate Bridge, then powering up San Francisco’s hills on the way home. On the nights after my run, I’d lie in bed, mentally replaying my run and relishing in how strong I felt.

Needless to say, by the end of the month I was exhausted and nearly broken. My body rebelled with calf tweaks and slowed recovery runs. I learned a lesson that coaches and exercise physiologists have known for decades: Growth comes with exertion and rest. Hard training without rest will leave you injured.

It was a classic case of pathemata mathemata, or “learning through pain and suffering”. It’s surprising how you can know something but conveniently forget about it. Like how you’re supposed to sprinkle easy weeks in with hard, or that you should increase mileage by no more than 10% per week, and must consume calories on runs longer than 2 hours. Sometimes it’s only after you break these rules and face the consequences that you internalize them.

I bailed on workout after workout, then replaced running with cycling. Drama queen that I am, I wondered whether I still had it after weeks without runs faster than 7:30 pace. But after a lot of easy running, I returned to workouts just as the US election was heating up. My slogan: #MAFA (Make Avesh Fast Again).

My cherished fast long runs were also back, except now with more recovery. I ran hard long runs only every other week, taking the off weeks to explore trails in Marin. Throughout this year, a new goal had been forming in my mind, molded by the strange running conditions of 2020. I wanted to run a long run at a sub-6 minute pace. After many weeks chipping down the pace during focused, solo long runs, I went out for a fast long run with my friend Michael and finally broke the 6 minute barrier with 19 miles at 5:58 min/mi.

After this, I shifted focus to the bread-and-butter of marathon training: Tempo runs and long intervals.

Tempos

Long tempo runs were the most challenging, intimidating, and, eventually, frustrating part of my 2020 training. At my 6-minute long run pace, I felt alive, at 5:45 tempo pace, I felt exhausted.

Long tempo runs have long been my most challenging workout. My best bet is to latch on to someone slightly faster than me and then hold on for dear life. Without others to run with, this became “check your watch frequently to make sure you’re on pace.”

It was not a good strategy. If I saw a fast split, I’d worry about the miles ahead. A slow split and I’d get demoralized, thinking that I wasn’t going to hit my goal pace. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my tempo pace stagnated this year, with runs varying from 5:40–6:00 min/mi.

In 2021, I’d like to try tempoing purely by feel, rather than by pace. A friend swears by this, and while it is frankly quite scary not knowing whether you’re running too fast, I think this style of blind running may work for me. I’m also looking forward to getting back to San Francisco and running tempos with other runners. There’s no motivation quite like the back of your friend’s shirt.

I suspect there’s also a physiological reason for this plateau. Tempos should be run just below lactate threshold. The pace of tempo runs can be increased either by adapting to process lactate more efficiently or by improving running economy. I’ve spent a lot of workouts honing the former, so there may be some low-hanging fruit in the latter.

Intervals

Like my tempo workouts, interval work this year was intimidating. I would plan out each interval session the night before and fall asleep nervously anticipating my splits.

Unlike tempo workouts, intervals were nothing short of glorious. My interval paces got a lot faster and, because progress is the best form of motivation, this kicked off a fly-wheel of improvement.

Prior to 2020, I’d struggled to run intervals alone and found my road paces to be consistently slower than track paces. Both of those points became moot on brisk Tuesday mornings when I’d find empty streets in my neighborhood to blast down. My mile repeat pace went from 5:20 to 5:15 to 5:10, and is now approaching 5:05.

But, as happened with long runs, my excitement got the best of me. After weeks of hard intervals, I’m entering 2021 with some training debt and will need to take time off before getting back to workouts.

2020: A year of solo running

Without running friends and training plans to keep me grounded, my motivation levels were temperamental this year. There were weeks in March when I had to restrain myself from doing double days, forcing my restless legs to instead go for a walk or bike to Ocean Beach to catch the sunset. But there were also long weeks when I didn’t feel like running. When I’d wake up in the morning and delay my easy run for as long as possible. There were days when I woke up with a tight calf or a tweaked ankle and actually felt a bit of relief. Good, I don’t have to tempo today.

These wavering levels of motivation were caused by caring too much about workout paces. Without races to benchmark myself, and without fast friends to latch on to, I became obsessed with running harder than not just last year, but last week. Every workout was elevated to the importance of a race, and so came with the same triumph and disappointment. Running became a source of anxiety rather than a source of joy.

At the same time though, the pressure worked. In a year of crossed out goals, without races or teammates, I got a lot faster. This is another fine line of training: Put too much pressure on yourself and you’ll burn out. Not enough and you won’t reach your potential.

With the vaccines on their way and a change in administration coming, 2021 brings hope. I ran a lot and learned a lot in 2020, and am looking forward to a better, brighter, and faster 2021.

Software Engineer and Runner

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