My Covid Marathon


Brian Sherras

As runners we are conditioned to expect the unexpected. Maybe it’s an injury that occurs at “just the wrong time” or a wrong turn in the fog on a fell race but whatever the cause “stuff” happens to upset even the best laid plan but as news emerged in January of a dangerous new virus in China few of us could imagine the impact it would have on our lives. Many have died, more have lost their livelihoods and every aspect of life has been affected, including running. In mid-February the Tokyo Marathon, an event I ran in 2019, was cancelled for all but elite runners. At the time there were few cases of Covid outside of Asia but speculation about the London and Boston marathons soon grew, and that speculation was close to my heart as I was entered for Boston.

On March 8th, I was in the UK and ran the Fradley 10K alongside RRC members Matt Jones, Rich West, Danny Elliot, Joanne Howett and Lisa Watson. It was a cracking day and a great race, but little did we know then that it would be our last race for many months. Within a week of Fradley, UK Athletics issued guidance that effectively halted racing and group training in the UK. At the same time back in the US, Boston Athletic Association (BAA) postponed the Boston Marathon to September 14th. I was gutted but not shocked. Like many others though I was left with a dilemma. I had trained all winter for Boston and was approaching peak condition when the race was postponed. There was no way I could maintain that condition for five months so with regret and disappointment, in spite of all the hard work, my coach and I decided to cut back on training for several weeks before starting a new 16-week program building up to the revised Boston date.

Events then conspired to keep me in the UK until mid-April. I also picked up an ankle injury running off-road so spent the first few weeks of shutdown cycling on almost deserted Derbyshire roads – an unexpected benefit of Covid. On April 14th I flew back to the US on one of just seven BA flights to leave Heathrow that day and on a Boeing 787 with only eight passengers on board … very weird!

The next month and a half were a rollercoaster as I tried to get back into a regular training pattern. Mounting speculation that autumn races would also be cancelled affected my motivation while ever changing rules and public attitudes made it hard to focus on a steady program. Even Mother Nature threw in her lot by dumping 8 inches of snow on May 9th.

In mid-May, spring like weather returned to Vermont and I put in my first seven-plus hour training week since the end of March – 22 miles running and 55 miles on the bike. It felt like I had turned a corner and I was motivated to get back to serious training. The following week was another 20-plus running week with 70-plus on the bike. Gym work was tough as my gym was closed but overall things were looking up, I was pleased to be back in a solid training routine, working on aerobic strength development and looking forward to speed and endurance work in June.

On May 27th the BAA announced that the Boston Marathon was cancelled for the first time in its 124-year history.

The marathon was a creation of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics in 1896, based on a suggestion by Michel Breal that a race be held from Marathon to Athens to commemorate the 5th century BC run of Pheidippides from the battlefield of Marathon to inform the Athenians of their victory over the Persians. BAA member and inaugural US Olympic Team Manager John Graham was inspired by that first Olympic Marathon to organize and conduct a similar race in Boston. On Patriots Day, April 19th, 1897, the first Boston Marathon was run over a distance of 24.5 miles from Ashland to Boston. It has run every year since, over substantially the same course except for the start moving west from Ashland to Hopkinton in 1924 to accommodate the new standardized distance of 26 miles, 385 yards.

Covid 19 was set to do what two world wars, the depression and a hundred twenty-three-year history could not – cancel the Boston Marathon!

Looking back to the week of the announcement my training dropped from 8 hours to 3. I was gutted that I wouldn’t run Boston, especially because my previous Boston start had been a disaster as I ran with a serious calf injury. But I’d enjoyed being back into a regular training routine so when BAA announced that anyone who was entered in Boston could sign up to run the race as a virtual event, I was in. BAA offered a “goody box” for those who signed up and finishers medal and tee shirt for finishers. I admit that the uniqueness of running in what I hope will be the only ever virtual Boston Marathon was attractive but what really motivated me was having a target event that I could continue working towards.

June, July and August came and went. I was working from home and able to maintain a fairly regular training program. Vermont is a sparsely populated state with a government that followed the science and a population willing to follow guidelines for masks and social distancing. As a result, infections were kept down to a very low level and that meant I could run and cycle without problems and without a mask as almost everyone was happy to maintain safe distancing from a passing runner or cyclist.

In the run up to the marathon training was going well but it was hard to benchmark my speed and condition. I’d normally run a couple of races a month or so before a marathon to gauge my fitness and set my target time and splits. With no races available that was impossible. Things were made worse by not knowing how racing alone would compare to racing with thousands of others in front of hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters. I always found it easier to run in race conditions but didn’t know if the same would be true in a virtual race where I was running alone. Should I go out at normal race pace and risk hitting the wall or dial back my expectation? In the days and weeks before the race I bounced back and forth on whether to go out at my “normal” 8-minute pace or back off and target a slower time. On the morning of race day, I still hadn’t made up my mind.

I also spent a lot of time working out where I would run. I briefly considered going to Boston and running the actual course but decided that was a bad idea given that absent the usual road closings the course would be tough to run and potentially dangerous with heavy big city traffic. I then set about looking for a course close to home that would be fairly flat, away from traffic and allow me to have strategic pick-up points for drinks and food. I settled on a local rail trail starting from the center of our village, picking up the trail for an out and back loop of 21K, followed by 3 loops of 7K along the rail trail and back through the village. The route allowed me to set up two drink stations and was 80% off-road so I didn’t need to worry about traffic. A couple of weeks before the race I asked permission to set up a table for drinks and to start and finish at a building owned by the village trust as I would pass it after 28K and 35K as well as starting and finishing from there. Not only did the trustees agree to my request but on race day about two dozen folks turned out to cheer me on as I passed by. They even made a finishing tape to run through at the end. Just that small number of supporters made a huge difference as I ran the last third of the marathon.

Race day was forecast to be cool in the morning turning warmer in the afternoon. I chose to start at 7:00 am to get ahead of the heat but that meant an alarm call at 3:30 for an early breakfast of oatmeal, dried fruit and banana. I managed another hour of sleep after breakfast before rising again at 5:30 am. I’m not used to setting up my own drink and food stations at a major marathon, but such is the way of things in this new Covid world. My daughter drove me to village and helped set up the stations before I started more or less on time at 7:00 am.

As I went off the line, I still didn’t have a target time or splits. The first few miles went well, almost too well. I was running comfortable sub 5-minute kilometers in spite of trying to slow myself down and became convinced I was going out too fast. Although training had gone well, I wasn’t confident I could maintain a sub-5 pace so forced myself to ease off. I went through the half at 1:47 then stopped for close to 2 minutes to refill drink bottles and discard a hat, gloves and under layer that were no longer needed. Through 30K I ran steady 5’s before stopping again for another bathroom and refill break. At 32K I still felt good but was getting nervous about the wall, so backed off to 5’10” s. At 39K I cramped up slightly in my right hamstring but was able to run through it albeit slightly slower for a couple of Km before finishing strong. Final time was 3:36, about 7 minutes slower than my PB but faster than I expected given the disruption to training, the need to carry drinks and refill bottles and the lack of adrenalin that comes from the crowd and competition. I’ll never know whether I needed to slow down as I never hit the wall and felt strong to the end, but I was more than happy with the run.

After the race I celebrated with a Sam Adams Boston lager courtesy of my daughter and chatted with the locals who had gathered to cheer me on. All very different to the big city marathon experience where crowds gather in bars and restaurants with medals dangling around their necks to celebrate and exchange stories often late into the night. In my case I went home, took a bath then went back down to the course to collect my drink stations.

It would have been easy to write off the 2020 season and to stop training seriously. There were certainly times when my motivation wasn’t there, and I was not putting in the work. I’ve always built my training around target events and I love the “buzz” of big races, but Covid reminded me that we don’t need to race in order to run. We can still get out in the countryside, work towards our personal running goals and enjoy the health and fitness benefits that come from our sport. Whatever your journey, whether from Marathon to Athens in the footsteps of Pheidippides or from the couch to 5K, pull on your shorts, lace up your shoes and get out for a run. Covid has certainly impacted our sport and the way we enjoy it, but it doesn’t need to define us or prevent us from enjoying the core benefits of the sport we love.

Stay safe, be happy, keep running!

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