I ran 2020 km in 2020. Here’s what I learned.

Running 2020 kilometres is roughly equivalent to leaving my house in Saint John, running through four U.S. states and across the Brooklyn Bridge, then back.

Or put another way, more than 47 marathons. Most of these kilometres were on trails, which could be twisty, hilly, muddy, or all three.

I don’t say that to brag or because I believe 2020 kilometres in a year is all that exceptional. Believe it or not there are some athletes here in New Brunswick (like Kim Perry, Tim McDonough, or the father-son duo Trevor and Liam Funk) who have run three to five thousand kilometres in the same time.

But still, for me 2020 kilometres in 2020 felt … big. In this year, especially. Or at least big compared to my old routine of running once or twice a week.

When you devote 250+hours to such a mindless (or mindful) activity, you have a lot of time to think.

Here are some of the things I discovered.

1. Nature

Specifically Rockwood Park. It’s not so much a “park” as it is an explorable, urban wilderness: 54 kilometres of trails leading to waterfalls, spooky caves, rock formations and lookouts.

It’s one of the largest city parks in Canada, stretching from Millidgeville to Mount Pleasant to east Saint John. It’s so big I discovered an entire entrance five minutes from my house I had no idea existed.

I also grew to love Split Rock Trail and Black Beach, with their wild ocean views and challenging terrain. Some trails are dripping with moss and end in steep cliffs overlooking the Musquash Estuary. Others lead to a lighthouse, where you can listen to the lonely clanging of the bell buoy, and watch fishing boats disappear into the distance past Gooseberry Cove.

I noticed the incremental thawing of the streams in spring, buds coming out on the trees, the buds turning into leaves. Scanning the ground to avoid tripping hazards, I got curious to learn the names of plants: bunchberry, ghost pipe, forget-me-nots, wild azaleas, cinnamon ferns.

In August and September, I snacked on a buffet of wild blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. (I admit this didn’t improve my pace.)

2. Weird things

Running puts you in unusual places at unusual times of the day, which is a great formula for encountering unusual things.

Sometimes it’s good-strange, like a guy balancing a fish tank on the handlebars of his bike at 5 a.m. on Waterloo Street. An amateur fireworks display at Saint’s Rest Beach at dawn. Or magical neon-pink fog transforming the Courtenay Bay causeway.

Other times, it’s bad-strange. Like a blanket in a shape that looked exactly like a dead body at Seaside Park. Or a deer carcass in the middle of the woods covered in empty Cannabis NB containers. Or a sinister-looking die decorated with mysterious symbols that made me worried I’d stumbled into a real-life version of Jumanji. (It turned out to be from a Star Trek board game.)

Surprisingly, none of the weird things I’ve encountered have been life-threatening. Yet.

Not a dead body

3. Friends

In summer 2019, I signed up for the May 2020 Fredericton Marathon. A full marathon: my ultimate goal. I trained hard at the Brunswick Square GoodLife, lifting weights, biking, and running in the snow.

In March, all hell broke loose. My gym stopped operating. I moved things outside. My favourite parks closed. I found new ones. I got injured (more than once). I got stronger. The race was cancelled. Whatever: doing it anyway. The morning of my big run, a snowstorm hit. It felt cursed.

The morning of my “race”, dozens of my friends surprised me by showing up and cheering me on. They hand-sewed me a race bib. They held signs and set up water stations and a finish line. With the exception of Patrick, my biggest fan, asking me to marry him, it was the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me.

Julie Whitenect, cheering my on at my “cursed” solo marathon in May 2020.

People rave about the “runner’s high” for a reason. It really is like a drug. You’re all sweaty. The endorphins make you a bit loopy and unfiltered. Depending on the day, you might also be struggling: feeling slow, or ill, or otherwise feeling less “high” and more “bad trip.”

In a situation like that, you seriously bond with the people around you.

Ultra runner Stef Bouchard with the author at Split Rock Trail.

4. Determination

People often say things to runners like, “how do you do that?” or “I wish I had that kind of energy.” Motivation and energy work differently for everyone. So I’m wary of saying too much about this.

What I can tell you is that every day, even if it’s pouring rain and I have zero intention of running, I pack my running clothes and bring them to work. Then I change into them as soon as I leave the office.

I never commit to running. All I do is commit to putting on the clothes. But once I’m ready to go, it’s much easier to say, “well, I’m already dressed. Might as well go to the park.” Once I’m at the park, I can handle 1 km. Once I’ve run a kilometre — well, we’re off to the races.

If you go through the motions, the confidence to actually do the thing often follows. This is true of all kinds of pursuits that have nothing to do with running.

Other times, of course, you just eat a bagel then have a nap in your Spandex.

5. Gratitude

Someday, God willing, I will be old. When I’m old, my greatest wish could be to walk, dance, or run in the woods one more time.

Doing daily journalism on COVID-19 impressed upon me the fact that no one knows how long they have been given on this earth.

Instead of saying, “ugh, I have to run today,” (or “ugh, I have to host a radio show today,” which is a feeling I occasionally have) I have learned to say, “I get to do this.”

It’s a privilege to be in a healthy body in a beautiful place. It’s a privilege to work hard on things that are meaningful to you, and to other people. Might as well enjoy both while you still can.

6. Everything ends

Just because something sucks is no reason to stop doing it. Just ask anyone who’s white-knuckled their way through childbirth.

Likewise, a marathon or ultramarathon is agonizing. But it’s a temporary agony, and one punctuated by magical neon-pink fog and ocean vistas.

Like this agonizing year. Maybe we’re in for something beautiful on the other side of it. Or something terrible.

Gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other to find out.

The Saint John Trail Runners, a popular weekly running group who also happen to be a great bunch of people.

Writer, runner, photographer and award-winning journalist based in Saint John, N.B.

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