Mike Rowbottom

A global host of runners have found their steps hindered and halted by the pressure of events in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Training confined. Races cancelled. Games postponed…

Right now, while Tokyo 2020 has metamorphosed into Tokyo 2021, 47 of the 50 federations due to take part in this year's European Athletics Championships in Paris from August 25 to 30 have put in preliminary entries.

There is an understandable desire to push on, to keep some kind of light at the end of the tunnel for a group of people uniquely goal-orientated.

European Athletics, sadly bereft of its dynamic long-time President Svein Arne Hansen, who is in hospital having had a stroke, is keeping options open for the moment. 

However, that decision could be taken out of its hands.

Social media, meanwhile, is busy with images of athletes demonstrating novel methods of adapting training routines to domestic settings.

Canada's Commonwealth pole vault champion Alysha Newman offers a work-out programme directly outside her front door.

Another pole vaulter, the world indoor champion and world outdoor silver medallist Sandi Morris of the United States, posts details of her latest shared home "ab workout".

But the reality is that training venues around the world are closed down. That warm-weather training trips are cancelled. Never mind proper competition – proper preparation is impossible, even perilous.

For the moment, the biggest impact of the new reality upon the running fraternity is occurring with the cancellation of road races up to and including spring marathons.

At this point in the year, for anyone who had been planning to toe the line in London or wherever in April, the running is arriving at the tipping point. Longer runs are being built in. Most likely a half-marathon warm-up has been planned. And then the start line shifts to, perhaps, this autumn…

In a Washington Post piece written by Bonnie Berkowitz this week, online coach Greg McMillan is quoted thus: "You can't make a marathon plan that's now eight months long or nine months long. Your body will break down."

On the subject of his runners' revised goals, McMillan adds: "The biggest challenge for them as well as all of us – right? – is what do I do now? I got really fit, and there's literally no races. How do you finish off this training cycle?"

Spring marathons are cancelled until, for now, autumn. Which leaves thousands of trained-up runners with a conundrum...©Getty Images
Spring marathons are cancelled until, for now, autumn. Which leaves thousands of trained-up runners with a conundrum...©Getty Images

There's the question. Among those who have found their own answer is Martin Fritz Huber, whose excellent piece on outsideonline.com is now featured on the World Athletics website.

Huber writes that, in recent weeks and months, he has been training for the Vienna Marathon, and was planning to use the New York City Half Marathon as a tune-up. Both races have been cancelled.

He now asks, in common with so many aspiring and elite athletes – why continue to train when there is nothing specific for which to train?

That is an existential question. At this point, we are all spiders drifting on our own webs.

"Yesterday, however," Huber adds, "after spending the evening reading about an incipient global financial crisis, I grew restless and headed up to my local park to do a five-mile tempo in the rain.

"It was eerily mild for mid-March, and there weren't many people out. About halfway through the workout, I was beset by a desire to stop, but managed to hang on. Afterwards, jogging home, I felt the familiar rush – the satisfaction that comes from reaffirming your resilience to no-one but yourself, your ability to endure."

The conclusion reached is simple but profound: "Fortunately, racing and running are not the same thing."

For the past few years, since I've lived in a village in south-west France, my running choices have involved one or two key routes along the winding local roads through fields sometimes dense with sunflowers, sometimes thronged with sinister, chuckling maize.

Steady run? Bignac and back. More of a challenge? Up the double hill to Dorgeville...

I usually keep half an eye on the time. But I think now, in these happy old days, I am going to adopt the same kind of policy I had when I lived in England.

Turn left out of the gate to a succession of markers for one mile, five miles (the cul-de-sac just beyond the Co-Op), turning point for a half marathon (the rickety signpost) and – less often – ten miles (the mini-roundabout).

Well we can shelve that.

Turn right out of the gate to run the quickest route out to open parkland and fields, making very sure not to note either the exit or re-entry time.

Running and racing – for best results, take Ghostbusters advice and never cross the streams... ©Ghostbusters
Running and racing – for best results, take Ghostbusters advice and never cross the streams... ©Ghostbusters

As regards to mixing the two running modes, I have always tried to follow the advice offered by Ghostbusters – avoiding at all costs crossing the streams.

The reward for keeping the running untrammelled by calculation over the years has been, for me, incalculable. I literally dream about running stretches of my familiar course. 

I daydream of the moments when, like some thermal, energy arrives and you are simply piloting yourself through nature.

If you can get safely to open land without affecting others, take that opportunity. But even if you are running on city streets – and minding whatever restrictions may have been imposed for general health purposes – you can still make that big mental distinction between timing or not.

It will also make it easier for you to give a very wide berth to any pedestrians encountered rather than passing unsociably close to them in pursuit of a PB.

Whatever else this pandemic may be doing, it is concentrating minds wonderfully. Not the ideal reference perhaps, having checked Dr Johnson's original expression of it. But you know what I mean…