In February, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford set Canadian indoor records in the 1,500 metres and mile, and probably had many wondering if 2020 would rival the runner's 2019 season of eight national marks and 11 personal-best times.
About a month later, she moved back to Toronto from Scotland with husband Rowan just before the sports world would be shut down by coronavirus. By June, COVID-19 restrictions were eased and races resumed, but there wasn't a track open for DeBues-Stafford to train.
"I could have forced a trip to Europe for some races, but it wouldn't have made sense for where I was in my training and my health," DeBues-Stafford, the world's No. 2-ranked woman in the 1,500, told CBC Sports recently.
Despite not competing outdoors in 2020, the first Canadian woman to run the event under four minutes will carry a 3:56.12 personal best into 2021 and said she's "in a good place" entering an Olympic year.
"I feel proud about the hard work I put in this summer. I did what I needed to do to set myself up for success," added DeBues-Stafford, who, after her stop back in Toronto, moved to Portland, Ore., in September to work with renowned coach Jerry Schumacher at Bowerman Track Club.
Debues-Stafford focused on strength and endurance work in the fall rather than race-specific workouts on the track — though the team did some speed work — and is expecting to train at altitude in the new year.
"I'm not as snappy and speedy as a year ago but I definitely feel stronger over longer distances than I've felt in the past," said the Toronto native, who secured equipment to train in her apartment since the team has no gym access. "I'm building a strong foundation for 2021.
"Building up to [the] Tokyo [Olympics] is going to be all about consistency and slowly building the intensity so I arrive fresh and ready to go."
DeBues-Stafford's 2019 Canadian records
Jan. 4, Glasgow, 5,000 metres — 14:57.45
Jan. 26, Boston, mile — 4:24.80
July 20, London, 1,500 — 4:00.26
Aug. 29, Zurich, 1,500 — 3:59.59
Oct. 5, Doha, 1,500 — 3:56.12
July 12, Monaco, mile — 4:17.87
May 30, Stockholm, 5,000 — 14:51.59
Sept. 6, Brussels, 5,000 — 14:44.12
'I did what was best for my future'
Health will be paramount for DeBues-Stafford, who experienced a relapse of Graves' Disease — an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid — during a break in training in August after a "training effort" racing in a 400 at Birchmount Stadium in Toronto.
"It physically wouldn't have been possible to do late summer races," she said.
In DeBues-Stafford's absence, Faith Kipyegon, Sofia Ennaoui and Laura Muir ran 3:59.70 in the 1,500 while several others clocked under 4:01. Muir and Jemma Reekie, an emerging star who ran 4:02.20 on Sept. 3, had trained with DeBues-Stafford in Scotland since the summer of 2018.
"Some athletes had some unreal seasons dropping crazy times and that's awesome for them and for the sport, but I'm confident I did what was best for me and my future," said DeBues-Stafford, who is under contract with Nike through the next Olympic cycle.
"2020 was one disruption after another but I can still take a lot from the experience, knowing I can take that kind of disruption and quickly get back on the horse and do workouts."
WATCH | Gabriela DeBues-Stafford runs 3:56.12 PB at 2019 worlds:
Becoming a better race tactician was DeBues-Stafford's focus for 2020 before the pandemic derailed her season.
"The 1,500 is very tactical and you get jostled," she said. "I was racing so much in 2019 and had so many opportunities to learn that I was able to apply the corrections to my mistakes quickly which was an invaluable experience. I'm more experienced racing at this [elite senior] level."
These days, DeBues-Stafford is happy being in a team environment where it's easy to get your "social fix" in a safe way by running outdoors with a teammate.
"Everyone has been super welcoming, and to Rowan as well. He's been able to sneak in a few runs with us and that is always fun," said DeBues-Stafford of the former University of Toronto rugby player.
"The West Coast is beautiful, too, which is just icing on the cake. I definitely feel at home and comfortable with the group."