Elite runners deal with a pandemic ‘wall’ as races are canceled, postponed due to covid-19

All three high-level runners, like people across the country, are now facing a much different scenario. Because of the covid-19 pandemic, races across the country and world have been canceled or postponed. For elite athletes who often spend nearly a year with their eyes on one big prize, this is a serious blow.

In this new reality, Kirkpatrick, Serafini, D’Amato and other elite runners must figure out a new path forward — with the mental-emotional part as significant as anything. Step one, says Denver-based sports psychologist Justin Ross, is allowing themselves to process the emotions that surround the loss of their “A” races.

“You have to give yourself permission to be sad,” he says. “Any major loss connected to a personal goal will have a big emotional impact.”

Justin Bosley, a board-certified sports medicine physician in the San Francisco Bay area, concurs. “Whenever I work with high-level athletes, I remind them that when an unforeseen circumstance arises that forces a change in plans, it’s okay to mourn,” he says. “You can’t move on until you process your emotions first.”

D’Amato, 35, a real estate agent from Midlothian, Va., is hoping she will have a chance to compete at her race at its new rescheduled date in October. Still, she says that her knee-jerk reaction was to find another race near the original for which she could use her hard-earned fitness.

“I was excited for the opportunity and I was bummed when the situation changed,” she admits. “As I tried to find a replacement race, all those were canceling as well.”

In 38-year-old Kirkpatrick’s case, the vaunted Boston race had become a big goal after she ran a disappointing Olympic marathon trials race in February.

“The trials were my ‘A’ race for a long time, but then I headed into them rundown and anemic,” she says. “I missed key workouts and took awhile to bounce back. I handled myself surprisingly well during the trials and felt strong, so I had confidence heading into Boston.”

A path forward

Bosley recommends that once runners have a chance to process the loss of all racing prospects, they choose the next best target. It “doesn’t have to be another race to be motivating,” he says. “It can be measuring progress on a favorite route, for instance.”

This is something D’Amato has put into place. Recently she set a personal best in a solo effort 5K on the track. “I’m focusing on the daily and the weekly instead of a race,” she says.

Serafini, 28, the community manager at clothing brand Tracksmith who had been leading a training group preparing for Boston, has already changed his outlook. “The message I’m trying to convey to my group is that right now, running is one of the only constants in our lives,” he says. “We can use it as meditation. I’ve come to enjoy the fact that I don’t have to have the foot on the gas right now.”

This approach is an emotionally healthy one, Ross says. “This is an opportunity to recognize that running provides so many other benefits beyond achieving race goals,” he says. “It gives us freedom to explore the outdoors and connect back to the reasons it matters to us.”

Kirkpatrick, who lives in Colorado with plenty of outdoor space around her, is doing just that. “I have no foreseeable races, so I’m just enjoying the beauty of Colorado and taking a break from structured training,” she says. “I love running, so I don’t necessarily need a race to get me out the door. Racing is icing on the cake.”

Now is a good time to get more sleep, focus on nutrition and foster a recovery mind-set, too. “Athletes are very good at using the fight-or-flight mechanism for training and competition,” Bosley says. “But it’s important to cultivate a . . . rest and recovery cycle, too.”

This might look like a string of easy runs, or one hard workout per week, for the time being. “Go slow, go fast, do whatever feels good right now, as long as it’s off a regimen,” Ross recommends. “It’s an opportunity to find that ‘flow state’ with running that’s not found when running for metrics.”

The danger comes when athletes ignore that right now is a stressful time for all, and try to push through it with hard training. Stress is stress to the body — adding in hard training on top of that can lead to a drop in immunity.

Serafini, for his part, is going easier right now. “I want to maintain fitness but not go over the top,” he says.

As summer progresses, along with the possibility of races getting rescheduled sometime in the future, Ross encourages athletes to take their temperature on enthusiasm.

“Don’t race because you feel you must,” he says. “Race because you are excited and have renewed purpose after this break.”

For now, Kirkpatrick is considering signing up for December’s California International Marathon, but she says she won’t get her hopes up as she had for Boston. Instead, she’ll focus on a sure bet: The local “Firecracker 5k,” which will be an invitation-only, 20-person elite field (10 men/10 women).

“They’re doing an individual time trials for each runner and film[ing] each person running the course,” she says. “On July 4, they’ll release the video and announce the winners, paying out prize money. It will be really fun.”

First Published at www.washingtonpost.com on 2020-06-27 22:30:00

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