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Written By Rachel Cliff - April 22 2020
Just over three months ago we were all celebrating the turn of the year. Everyone had goals for 2020 – benchmarks we hoped to achieve, opportunities we felt we’d get, trips and time with friends we were looking forward to. No plans are ever guaranteed, and in planning for our future we inevitably accept some degree of a bandwidth for what our reality could look like, but I don’t think any of us imagined the 2020 we got!
For me, I had hoped to qualify and compete for Canada at the Olympic Games– I had imagined scenarios that may get in the way of this goal and had considered paths to avoid those pitfalls, as well as shamelessly picturing myself having the performance of my life running with a Canadian singlet on my back. My plan had been to spend the time until then focussed solely on racing – pushing my body to it’s absolute limit to see what I could achieve. I saw 2020 as a special window in my life, one where I could put my athletics first and see what was possible. Everyone knows to expect the unexpected, but I certainly didn’t plan for a complete shut down of the track season.
I’m prefacing this blog with the note that I am well aware that every one of us has had our goals and plans in some ways uprooted by this virus. We each have our own way of handling adversity, and our own intrinsic and extrinsic threshold for tolerance of it. I know many people have it far worse than me. But as I feel there’s value in us sharing our stories – here is my pandemic journey, and how I’m coping.
The Olympics are an unusual beast in that they only occur every four years. Becoming an Olympian is a defining moment in an athlete’s career; it’s a sort of standard that separates the “true high-performance athlete” from simply an “elite one”. As someone who’s chased this goal at some capacity for over 8 years, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider the binary nature of this achievement. On one hand, I realize that many top athletes never get to compete at the Olympics – some are unlucky in the wrong year, others attempt to represent a country with a deeper field, and some may be a top athlete in a sport where their team fails to qualify – there are so many additional ways for an athlete to define their career without making the Olympics. On the flip side, this obsession with the Olympics is justified: Olympians, by definition, performed for the right team, on the right year – yes things outside their control came together – but they also capitalized on the opportunity. Olympic years are notoriously stressful, because they feel like once-in-a-life-time opportunities; which to some extent, they are. Every decision seems all the more critical. I’d tried to approach 2020 with the mindset of focusing on the day in front of me and the training I had to do. Just putting one step in front of the other.
For me, the coronavirus started to show its ugly head in early February. I was in Flagstaff training for the Tokyo marathon with the goal of running a personal best. Things were chipping away fine and I was enjoying the Arizona weather, but reports started rolling in of sporting events in Asia being cancelled. Initially, I felt for those athletes, but didn’t feel it would impact me. When the Hong Kong marathon was cancelled it crossed my mind that Tokyo could be next, but even this felt like paranoia at the time. The focus stayed on training.
I got home from Flagstaff on a Friday and had a great workout the next Saturday morning, it seemed like I’d responded well to the camp and I was nervous, but excited, for Tokyo. The next day we were having dinner with my parents when we came across speculation posts on Twitter that Tokyo might cancel their mass participation. This hit me like a bag of rocks but within a few hours it was confirmed. The next week was spent deciding on whether I should go: the elite race was still on but the field was far too spread out for my goal time, I wasn’t allowed a pacer and there were rumours that the entire race may be cancelled anyways. Also, although there were no travel restrictions yet, I was unsure of the safety of traveling to Asia. We decided to pull out, a sad decision, but ultimately the right call. We found another marathon in Europe I could do, and also considered the World Half Marathon championships. In the span of a week I registered for three different races and all of them were cancelled within a day of me confirming. As much as I’d tried to avoid thinking about it – as the virus started hitting Europe it became all too clear that the summer racing season would not go ahead – including the Olympics.
When the announcement came out that the Olympic postponement, I was saddened by the situation but relieved that global health was taking the priority. In many ways, the toughest part for me had been the period where the games were still on but everything surrounding the preparation for them – the racing calendar, the safety of travel, the closure of gyms and pools, my ability to see physios, chase standards, see my coach, train with other athletes – was being significantly hampered. Deep down I know I’m upset about all of this – I just missed the Olympics in 2016 and was so close this time round – but when something is so clearly outside of your control, and there’s bigger issues in the world, it’s easier to put your head down and accept the situation. No matter what happens it’s been an amazing journey, but all that said, I still hope my Olympic story has a happy ending. I’ve had a slight change of plans: I’m now gunning for the Olympics in 2021.
With time away from training in groups and racing all runners have been forced to re-evaluate their immediate goals so I’m in good company! I’ve had a lot of hours of solo miles in the trails to consider a few silver linings in a bad situation. It’s been nice to have a window to focus on my weaknesses and put some more time into core, rehab and physio drills. But for me, the main highlight of this whole thing has been how much it’s reminded me of my basic love for the sport.
This summer will be my first season away from track and field and international travel. It’s not a break I wanted, or even necessarily needed, but I’ve been forced to take it all the same. Over the past few years running has become a bit of a job for me, one I absolutely love and feel fortunate to have, but still, a job. Sometimes when you get too caught up on your goals you can forget about the reason you started down the path in the first place and I think, to some level, that had started happening to me. One thing that’s really struck me is how sad I am to not be going down to California to compete in a handful of track races like I normally would in the spring. Critical races can be nerve wracking – but now that I’m away from them I miss that sense of working hard towards a race goal, standing on the start line in peak physical form, and getting to race. I also really miss the community of people I compete against and the team I train with.
Most important, I’m constantly remembering how much I love the act of simply running. These days, without an obvious goal on the horizon, I find it can be tough to initiate my run, but once I’m out there it’s always the highlight of my day. I’ve caught myself a few times recently just testing to see if I can get to that next lamp post a little faster, just for the simple joy of pushing myself. For me, I’m constantly reflecting back to how I got into the sport and why I fell in love with it in the first place.
My mom said something to me the other day that really stuck with me: “When this all is over we’ll all have a much better sense of what really matters to us”. I can tell by how many other runners I pass in the trail that I’m not the only one using this sport as a type of therapy or coping mechanism through all this – it’s like the entire city has fallen in love with running – a trend that I hope continues long after we’re through this pandemic.