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Ultra-Running in the age of coronavirus: What to do now?

Right now, everyone has a lot on their minds, and there are few who would argue that any public event is more important than the recommendations we shelter at home, keep a 6-foot distance from others, and take seriously all hygienic precautions in an attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve. But for professional athletes like ultra-runners, accustomed to daily workouts encompassing substantial miles on foot, cancellations and self-quarantine are as challenging as any slippery hillside or uphill climb.

Virtually every major sporting event for the next 30 days has been cancelled, many with barely a few days of advance warning, impacting athletes who may have been training for months. This can’t help but feel like a massive disappointment for such folks, who may be able to commiserate with those around them who’ve had birthday parties, guitar lessons and work mixers similarly cancelled, but it isn’t quite the same. We’re all hoping and praying that the COVID-19 threat goes away as quickly as possible with as little impact as possible — but while birthday parties and guitar lessons can easily resume, if an elite athlete sits in a house for a month or longer largely inactive, resumption is not so easily achieved.

There is also the issue of separation. Many athletes train with one or several coaches and mentors, people who they speak with day in and day out, and who come to know them as well as any member of their blood family. Now, common sense dictates that they must stay apart to preserve their health — but every fiber of their athleticism yearns for their wisdom, camaraderie and support. On top of that is the loss of community — runners are typically a tight-knit group, seeing each other regularly at events — and to suddenly have that infrastructure taken away can be difficult.

These days, we all have to remember: You are not defined by which event you are training for.

“Races don’t determine what kind of athlete you are or who you are for that matter,” coach and trail athlete Anna Mae Flynn of Marble, Colorado recently told Trail Runner. “Health and safety are always the number one priority.” 

On the other hand, perhaps athletes are better equipped for this crisis than others. In addition to the health advantages of being physically fit, athletes have been trained to encounter adversity, conquer it and move on. They know that there will be bad days, but all that means is a good day must be right around the corner. They know to support others around them, and to work as a team — whether they are part of a running group in training, or a family of five co-habitating in the same house for multiple weeks.

Also, like so much in life, perspective is everything. While the pessimist may feel defeated by the prospect of weeks indoors, the optimist could see the same situation as an opportunity. If you have a good treadmill/bike/workout room at home, there has never been a better time to become closely acquainted. How many sit-ups will it take to finally achieve the 6-pack you’ve always wanted? How much base building can you do while not training for a specific race?

“Even though there are bigger issues in the world, caring about races is a great thing,” coach David Roche tells Trail Runner. “But also think about why you race in the first place. I like athletes to frame events as a means to structure the day-to-day process they love, rather than the end goal.” 

Another thing to keep in mind: modern technology is your friend. Numerous organizations online are offering fitness classes, training sessions and pretty much anything else you can imagine via video conferencing. FaceTime with your coach, group-chat with your running buddies — once you get beyond the inevitable glitches and the one guy who can’t seem to get the mic to work on his laptop, it’s amazing how much goodness you can still get from human interaction, even if the humans aren’t in the same room with you.

Along those same optimistic lines, there is perhaps no sport better-equipped to weather the coronavirus storm than competitive running. If the goal is to avoid proximity with others, there are few options as effective as heading out into the woods and running alone. Be smart, stay up on the latest precautions, and when all this is finished you may just find that it’s made you stronger — both mentally and physically.  

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