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COVID-19 - A crisis we can’t run from

COVID-19 - A crisis we can’t run from

31-Mar-20

By Sarah Cooke

No, this isn’t another plea to stay at home and wash your hands (but you should definitely do those things). I’m sure at least some of you are missing group runs and feeling directionless without a race to train for. Or maybe you’re in a country where your running has been significantly limited and you feel deprived of your go-to coping strategy.

Perhaps you have the virus and running just isn’t an option right now. Maybe you’re so worried about your job or your loved ones that running is temporarily irrelevant. How is all this impacting on the wider ultra running scene and what are the implications for the future? Read on...

The first way in which COVID-19 impacted on many running lives was through race cancellations. The first cancellation I was aware of was 9 Dragons in Hong Kong (because a friend was in Asia at the time and had entered). The first to have an impact on significant numbers of UK running friends was Marathon des Sables. This was a no-brainer given the number of people, number of countries and amount of travelling involved but no doubt gutting for those who had been training for months.

The cancellation of smaller more local events came in a trickle at first with some erring on the side of caution and others determined to go ahead unless government guidelines said otherwise. Which they did as cases spiralled - in some countries sooner than others.

For any ultra runner still in doubt as to the seriousness of the situation, it hit home when the Barkley Marathons were cancelled. In their place was a video and social media tribute to former entrants who have subsequently passed away. If an event so brutal, legendary and non-conformist could be beaten by a virus then the running world needed to pay attention.

So how do we train with nothing to train for? This has largely been shaped by the guidelines set out by different governments. At the time of writing, in France you may exercise outside for up to an hour and within 1km of your home. The Republic of Ireland has recently brought in a 2km restriction.

Photo Credit: Steve Diederich

In Spain the only outdoor exercise permitted is walking your dog and that must be done within 50 metres of your home. In Italy outdoor exercise is allowed as long as you remain ‘in the vicinity’ of your home. However, some municipalities have introduced more stringent curbs on going outside.

In the UK things are a little more open to interpretation. Guidelines state that  outdoor exercise should be limited to once per day and that ‘non-essential’ travel (including driving to exercise in a different location) is not permitted.

In the United States, the laws around outdoor exercise vary between States, whilst in Australia the virus has only recently started to spread. Public gatherings there were limited to two people from Sunday with outdoor exercise still permitted.

The long distance running community has been far from unanimous in its response to COVID-19. While some are seeing this as an opportunity to rest, focus on strength work and plan ahead, others are turning to virtual races, laps of their garden or even a balcony marathon (read article here).

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a case of ‘live and let live’. We have all been thrown into an unfamiliar situation and emotions run high. Some people need to run to deal with the isolation, boredom and anxiety this situation presents. Finding a way to do so within the current restrictions is a priority. Others are concerned that people failing to minimise their time outdoors will result in more stringent limitations and disagree with people going out for a long run, however solitary it may be.

The purpose of this article is not to debate who is ‘right’. Everyone must stick to the guidelines in their area and exercise common sense. What I hope we can avoid is a kind of vigilantism in the running community. Ultra running thrives on camaraderie but the spats on Strava, in Facebook groups and on Twitter threaten our community spirit.

The UK police have been inundated with calls from people reporting those going out for a second run (read article here). In France, the police are using Strava to identify and fine those breaking the rules (read article here). Whilst the current crisis may justify these measures, where do we go from here?

One of the most thought-provoking articles I have read regarding the pandemic is Yuval Noah Harari’s piece for the Financial Times (read article here). Harari asks us to consider not just how we overcome COVID-19 but also what kind of world we want to inhabit afterwards. This article is worth reading if you want to consider Coronavirus on a wider scale. In terms of the ultra running scene, we need to think about what happens if social media becomes a civilian tool for proving where someone was and what they were doing.

Many more of us may work from home in the post-virus world. Are we going to check up on who went for a 2-hour run on their lunch break? Are we going to have to start keeping activities private or not uploading them so our whereabouts remain unknown? Would it be a bad thing if we reverted to the days of not putting all our activities online? These may seem like trivial issues now but will be important once the immediate threat has subsided. Do we want to be a community of trust and shared passion or one of suspicion?

So what of the future in more concrete terms? There are three things to consider here - the way we operate as runners on a day to day basis, the future of races and the impact on the environment in which we run.

One of the most positive things I have taken from this situation so far is that outdoor exercise has been one of the last things to be prohibited. By and large, governments have put it up there with buying food, collecting medication and doing essential work.

As runners, we have long known that what we do benefits our wellbeing (read article here). On my local footpath I have recently seen (from at least 2 metres away) people who live in my village but are never normally to be found outside exercising. Maybe that will eventually turn into a greater number of runners and a healthier population.

There is nothing like having your liberty restricted to make you appreciate the outdoors and your freedom. I hope I never take those things for granted again and that it brings an extra dose of motivation to the ultra running community going forwards.

Most of us are ultra runners by virtue of long distance races. This is a difficult time for race directors. They may have already paid out for venues and other services and will now be cancelling or postponing events with limited ability to offer refunds. This will vary from race to race. Those that offer flights and/or accommodation as part of a race package are subject to industry regulation and must offer either alternatives or refunds. Some will survive it and some may not.

Most other races are not obliged to give you your money back. Some of the more expensive ones may be in a position to do so. Others will face a balance between retaining goodwill and not going bankrupt.

As the situation has evolved I think the tide is turning. I have seen some races offering partial refunds only to have runners decline them. Where postponement is an option, most people seem to be taking this up. We want races to survive. We also don’t spend that money lightly. It’s a tricky balance but I hope we all weather the storm and have plenty of events to enter when it’s over.

One thing this virus has highlighted is that it is possible to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we treat it as a crisis. The reduction in traffic, flights, building use and other activities has made a huge difference to the air quality. If we can learn some lessons from this and be more open-minded to solutions to protect the environment then maybe those trails will still be fun to run on for our children and grandchildren.

I don’t know how the ultra running scene will have changed a year from now but I do think some changes are inevitable. For now, stay safe and see you on the trails next year.

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