Like so many others, I had great plans in the making for 2020. And I got off to a great start when I took part in the Tom Brennan New Year's Day 5k road race in the Phoenix Park, an event organised by Liffey Valley AC in memory of a great club athlete who once won the National Cross Country title.
Then I joined around 4,000 other hardy souls in late January in the annual Raheny 5 Mile road race and listened to lots of runners sharing their racing plans for the months ahead. Some were training for marathons like London, Boston and Tokyo. There was a great sense of excitement, camaraderie and positivity that Sunday.
I had my own plans too.
I intended to make this my 'Year of Gratitude' to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my national junior 10,000m record of 30 minutes 17 seconds that, to my amazement, has stood the test of time.
When I set that record on the cinder track in the Morton Stadium in Santry on an August evening in 1970, I was young and fearless and running full tilt at life. I took on a quality field, including Olympian and Donore Harriers teammate Tom O'Riordan, and I won the race because I felt free and uninhibited. I was fresh up to the city from Ballyhaunis and I had a lovely innocence about me. I saw no obstacles, only exciting challenges that I was eager to rise to.
When the 45th anniversary of the record run rolled around in 2015, David Carrie, founder of the Team Carrie Runners in Dunleer, persuaded me to host a special night of celebration on the track in Santry, an event I called my Gratitude Run. "It's important to celebrate the good things in your life while you are still able to do so," David told me. Of course he was right and we had a wonderful evening in Santry.
The plan was for me to run for 30 minutes and 17 seconds and see what distance I could cover. Many of my heroes and friends showed up in solidarity and joined me as I lapped the track and managed to cover just short of half the 10,000m distance. My family and grandchildren were there too and long time friend Ray McManus of Sportsfile recorded the event for the family album.
Des McGann, who finished second to me in 1970, was there too and ran with me. Des went on to run in the marathon in the Olympic Games. I never made it to that exalted height.
When I was a young runner back in Ballyhaunis, a few club members joined me to watch the 10,000m final of the Mexico Olympics on TV. I was especially touched by the courage shown in that race by Ron Hill, the small man in the string vest who ran barefoot and finished a gallant ninth in the race. Ron would later win the Boston Marathon. Back then he posted a best time of 2:09 for the classic distance, a splendid achievement by a club athlete who always held down a full-time job. He travelled over from England for the event.
Ronnie Delany, another boyhood hero, was there too. It is lovely when your boyhood hero becomes your friend. That also happened with myself and Ron Hill.
Indeed, after over four decades of being involved in athletics, I feel blessed that so many of my heroes have also become my friends, household names like Ronnie, Tom O'Riordan, Neil Cusack, Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Flynn, Marcus O'Sullivan, Frank O'Mara, Robert Heffernan, David Gillick, Dick Hooper, Jerry Kiernan, John Treacy, Sonia O'Sullivan, Catherina McKiernan, Derval O'Rourke, Ray McBride - my old East Tennessee State University teammate - and so many more, who by their achievements have given us so much joy over the years .
And so my plan for 2020 was to dedicate my gratitude year to all the people who have helped me make it this far in life and to maybe inspire a few people on my journey 'On Gratitude Road'.
The aim was to set out walking from my home town of Ballyhaunis on June 1, my 69th birthday, and over 12 days - 10 miles a day - make it all the way to the Morton Stadium in Santry. Along the way, I'd be calling in to talk with teachers and children in primary schools, fulfilling my role as Athletics Ireland Ambassador for the Daily Mile. Then, in the evenings I would host Rambling House type sessions of music, song and story in association with the local athletic clubs in Castlerea, Roscommon, Longford, Mullingar, Kilcock, Lucan and Santry.
In mid-August, I planned to return to the track in Santry to again celebrate the 50th anniversary of my record with heroes and friends to raise money for a worthy cause. Those plans have to be put on hold for now - the same way as the pause button has been hit on other planned events.
I'm sure so many other people had their own plans to do something special this year, especially in the sporting context where there was so much to look forward to.
There were so many great road races to look forward to and the Olympic Games were only months away. There was a buoyancy across all sports and we were looking forward to a wonderful feast of exciting games and athletic events that would delight us through the seasons all the way to Christmas.
But those plans, hopes and dreams have now come to a shuddering halt and we face a new reality where no one really has the answers anymore. We are in a different game now and how we perform in the weeks and months ahead will define us and test us to our limits.
In sport, it's a testing time for our Olympic hopefuls who had their hearts and minds set on Tokyo, the culmination of years of dedicated training. But it is important that our athletes in every sport do not lose sight of their dreams.
The first challenge is to embrace and live in this new reality that is the now! It will then be vital to refocus, adapt, continue to train and hold on to sporting dreams.
This is a time when we can all strive to become the good athlete again and rediscover the sense of play we experienced in the schoolyard. In his book, The Green Platform, Declan Coyle writes: "We were born to run, hunt and gather but now we sit in our caves eating lots of cheap, fast, sugar-filled processed foods watching flickering screens."
I have never seen so many people out walking and running, mostly keeping the recommended distance too. It's going to be important for all of us who can to walk or run in the fresh air, a balm for both mind and body and also a great stress-buster.
Now is the time to do some of the things we always said we never had time to do - write that book, walk, run, cycle, learn to play an instrument, learn how to cook - the list is endless and exciting too. When I do my daily walk, I like to do so with purpose, a good strong forward movement. A great friend of mine in America wrote a lovely essay titled 'The Gift Of Days' and on my walks, I often think of what she wrote and how relevant her words are now in these testing times.
As she reflected on her life, as so many of us now have time to do, Elizabeth Hunter wrote: "The biggest lack, it seemed to me, was that I was squandering my gift of days.
"And that gift is really our only one. We hope for other things - abiding love, children who turn out well, financial security . . . But we cannot count on these. We can count only on out gift of days, one at a time."
No matter how stiff the challenges that may lie ahead we still have our own gift of days to celebrate and a chance to make the best of each one.
As I write. I imagine that somewhere in the city or country there is a small boy or a girl running laps of a field, kicking frees or beating a hurling ball off the gable of a house, dreaming big sporting dreams inspired by their heroes. No matter what level you are at in sport, now is the time to hold on tightly to your dreams and continue to train and believe in better times ahead.
As for myself, when the Covid-19 virus is finally washed away and if it has not caught me, I will be walking with great purpose and gratitude from Ballyhaunis to the Morton Stadium. I will be walking on 'Gratitude Road'. And I will find a suitable date too for a celebration night and a run around the track in Santry.
It's important to keep on dreaming and training. Stay safe.
Sunday Indo Sport