Mountain Runners Around the World Reflect on COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Kristy Reade with contributions from ATRA’s Nancy Hobbs for the World Mountain Running Association. Re-posted here with permission.

“Let it be said that when things were at their worst, we were at our best.” – Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Republic of Ireland.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic having such a profound effect on races and runners worldwide we wanted to reach out to athletes in different countries to see how they are affected and how they are coping with the situation. Many athletes in the worst affected countries, such as Italy and Spain, are very limited in being able to run, whereas for others the key restrictions are a lack of group training and obviously a lack of races. But wherever the athletes we spoke to were, what united all of them was a feeling that this crisis puts running into perspective and that we will get through it by pulling together and looking out for each other.

Francesco Puppi (Italy) describes the situation there: “Life has changed drastically since the government imposed strict measures to contain the spread of the epidemic. Schools were shut down three weeks ago, and all public exercises and stores (apart from essential grocery stores and pharmacies) followed a few days later. Everyone is supposed to stay at home and avoid social contacts as much as possible: it’s the only weapon we have to fight the virus, and we don’t know how long all this will go on.”

Andrew Douglas en-route to winning the 2019 Broken Arrow Skyrace.

For Andrew Douglas (Scotland) the situation is ‘rapidly changing’. “At this moment in time (18th March) the government advice is to avoid all mass gatherings of more than 500 people and limit all non-essential contact, so in running terms this translates into widespread cancellations and postponements of races and all formal group training sessions.” Andrew can train pretty normally alone but he is avoiding going to the gym. In anticipation of measures like those in Spain, France and Italy being imposed he is “trying to appreciate every chance I get at the moment to put my trainers on and head out for a run!”

Mimmi Kotka (Sweden) lives in France and is into her third day of confinement. “That means stay at home, don’t go outside unless for specific tasks like walking the dog, getting to work, exercising close to home or getting groceries. You have to carry a certificate for this too, stating where you live and what your errand outside is. Fortunately we live in a small village, work from home and we are kind of hermits anyway so our daily habits are not affected too much. We stay at home, away from people and go about our days. Not being able to run more than short jogs around the area is ok, it’s important to follow the guidelines. I decided to take a couple of easy weeks of training.”

The picture in the United States is similar, as Max King (Oregon) says, “We’re not on lockdown but there is no school, no restaurants open, nothing to do other than be at home or outside. That’s the good thing about being in wide open spaces for what we do.”

Maria Dalzot (left) at the 2007 World Mountain Running Championships in Switzerland.

Maria Dalzot (Washington) worryingly finds herself in one of the worst-affected areas of the United States: “Currently, Washington state has the most cases of COVID-19 and associated deaths in the United States at 1,012 cases and 52 deaths at the time of this email. It has felt really scary to live so close to the epicenter of the outbreak – Seattle – but fortunately, there are only 3 confirmed cases in Bellingham.”

Zak Hanna (Ireland) explains “It’s beginning to hit home about the seriousness of this coronavirus outbreak. With St Patrick’s Day only happening this week it was very weird to see the towns and cities empty as people are opting to stay at home, as the pubs and restaurants closed therefore no street parties took place as they normally would. When pubs are closed in Ireland, then it’s definitely serious!”

Hanna continues, “With two governments operating on the Island (Northern Ireland is headed by the British Government, the Republic of Ireland has its own) there are two policies underway – the Republic has closed all schools, colleges and childcare facilities, whilst Northern Ireland is following the rules of the British government and keeping schools open, which has led to some schools in the latter closing anyway to protect staff and students.”

With race cancellations across the board and reduced training opportunities for many, we might expect to find many athletes feeling frustrated or even angry. However, the overwhelming sentiment amongst the athletes we spoke to was that in a crisis like this, running is put into perspective.

Sarah Tunstall at the 2017 World Mountain Running Championships in Italy.

Sarah Tunstall (United Kingdom), who lives in France but came back to the UK just before the borders were closed so that she could be close to family members who may need her, explains, “At the start of the pandemic I was quite frustrated by the races getting cancelled as it leaves a lot of our plans up in the air. However, in the last week it has been the least of my worries and in the bigger picture it pales into insignificance. Personally I will definitely struggle to cope with the situation without running as a release but racing is not a necessity and I will hugely appreciate it when I can race again.”

The situation is also put into perspective by Andrew Douglas, who says “Undoubtedly it is disappointing to see this having such a profound impact on races, but personally the effect it has on me pales in comparison to the much bigger issues facing society so ultimately it’s just about getting some perspective. I had my best ever season last year so that’s something I’m fortunate to be able to have at the back of my mind.”

Mimmi Kotka (Sweden) sees the bigger picture too, saying “Adjusting to new circumstances is part of being human, we need to deal with it. If you’re healthy, be grateful for that. And this is about doing what’s right, after all, running is a leisure activity.”

Similarly Natalie White (United Kingdom), who is in Northern Italy, one of the most affected areas in Europe says, “Doing our part is going to help not just ourselves but others. Some areas are allowing runners to go out, but close to home and solo. That in itself is a positive to be grateful for.”

Francesco Puppi (Italy) sums up how much this situation has put his running in perspective, saying “We are allowed to go out only for essential needs. Running is permitted but only under particular circumstances. I am currently training, just at a slightly lower intensity than before. I think everyone in this situation should have the sensibility to understand if, when and how to run. It should be done with discretion and care. I think this is a time for silence in first place: a condition that has almost disappeared from our lives. This is a form of respect for those who are suffering.”

Balance is something that’s important to the athletes we spoke to. Normally their lives may be dominated by racing at certain times of the year but at the moment their motivation is different. They are running because it’s something they love and it’s also something which brings some normality to life when so many things are so unsure. Andrew Douglas (Scotland) says “Like most people, I have not experienced anything like this in my lifetime, so as much as my working environment is changing, my training at the moment is the one ordinary thing I can rely on for the moment in these extraordinary times”

Camille Herron at the 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile.

Camille Herron (United States) in the United States also points out the importance of maintaining some routine (where possible) for mental health: “Maintaining my normal routine of running twice a day has helped me feel positive. I’m focused on getting in good mileage and remembering I still have goals in June and beyond. Exercise helps with physical/mental/emotional health, so I know it’s important to continue with my routine, while also mixing it up to keep it fun.”

Zak Hanna (Ireland) agrees: “I love running in general so finding the motivation to put on my shoes and head out is not a problem. I bring my dog along too so we both get into the outdoors which is the best place to be right now. I’m lucky to have a great group of friends to train with during sessions and on long runs so having these to look forward to is brilliant.”

It’s obviously of utmost importance to keep all training safe at the moment, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus and to limit the risk on emergency services. In France runners and hikers are being discouraged from going high in the mountains. Sarah Tunstall (United Kingdom) says: “In order not to clog up extra resources in hospitals we’re not allowed to go very high up into the mountains. The mountain rescue teams and workers who control the avalanches at this time of the year are also isolating so it makes the mountains especially dangerous.”

Nancy Hobbs with Joseph Gray at the 2012 World Mountain Running Championships in Italy.

Wherever we are running, Nancy Hobbs (United States) of the WMRA Council urges runners to practice social distancing. “It is challenging when running with someone else to not speak of course and the further apart you get from someone, the harder it is to communicate. However, doing track workouts with friends can be modified. No one running together and alternate rest with timing the next person running an interval. Being creative is the key.”

American Camille Herron (United States) also suggests ways of staying safe and limiting risk: “I do trail runs with a friend in the area, so we’re trying to be respectful of social distancing while also being trail safe and running with a buddy in any remote areas. My husband goes with me at any remote locations he can drive/cycle. I’ve thought about running routes I’ve always wanted to run (‘solo/supported destination runs’- like running from town-to-town, or running from our house to the Sand Dunes). I thought about going for some of the famed trail FKTs, but I decided against doing it because of possible and unnecessary risk and burden on any emergency services if something happened to me.”

Camille also urges athletes to ask themselves daily ‘how do I feel?’ and work with that. Maybe it isn’t a time to stick rigidly to a training plan, but to enjoy the outdoors and treat exercise as a way to benefit overall health.

Francesco Puppi at the 2019 Trail World Championships in Portugal.

Francesco Puppi (Italy) also feels that it’s a time to reflect, “Do we really miss the routine we constantly complain of and that the virus forces us to rethink? How badly do we miss friends, relatives, people, in a society where our network of relationships plays out in a virtual square, where our connections gives us the illusion of a human contact, a hug? Silence will help me answer these questions I keep asking myself.”

And what if you’ve targeted a particular race and it’s been cancelled? Social media is full of angry runners who’ve had their “A” races taken away, but the athletes we spoke to have a much more positive take on the situation. “Training every day has been a part of my lifestyle for 20 years now (wow, I’m getting old!), so regardless of racing I would be putting in the time to train and workout. What keeps me positive is knowing that all of my hard work is not for naught. When the time does come to race, you can do so confidently because you have been given the opportunity to focus on training so that you can be as prepared as possible. Think of this time as just putting money in the bank; you may not be using it now, but it sure is going to come in handy later on when you make the deposit either in the fall or next year.” says Maria Dalzot (United States).

Likewise Francesco Puppi’s spring racing season, including the Rotterdam Marathon, has been turned upside down but he is philosophical about it: “It doesn’t mean that all the work I did has been wasted. I am still proud of what I managed, of the big effort I put into those 110-mile weeks, the sore legs, the long workouts. Of the improvements and setbacks I experienced in this journey. It’s just a matter of re-thinking our goals. Keep on running because this something we love and makes us feel good, even in the worst situation. This should be the main reason behind it.”

Max King winning the 2012 USATF 50 km Trail Championships in his hometown of Bend, Oregon.

Max King (United States) sees race cancellations as an opportunity to do other things, “I’m looking at the positive at some races being cancelled so that I can tackle other projects such as FKTs, or getting a good solid base of training in for the summer race season if we’re able to have it. There’s so many ways to stay positive and look on the bright side when something like a race gets cancelled. Sure, it’s a bummer but there will be other opportunities soon enough.”

But as a race director of the recently cancelled Bend Marathon he also asks runners for their understanding in these difficult times: “Some people just don’t understand how hard that is for a race director. We’re not given a choice about cancelling and it’s not always possible to give everyone’s money back and still be able to have a race next year. We’re small businesses most of the time and we’ve worked all year to bring racers a unique experience. It’s not like all the work and expenses are on one weekend. I think people need to understand that.”

The overwhelmingly uplifting response we got from the runners we contacted speaks volumes about our community. Nancy Hobbs (United States) points out that we need to look out for each other at this difficult time. “One of the most important things is to check in with your running friends, it’s crucial to support one another.”

Andrew Douglas (Scotland) warns that “it can be easy to become overly anxious looking at your social media feeds with the sheer volume of posts about coronavirus; so I try to make a conscious effort to limit my access.” Looking after ourselves and each other will help us through this.

Zak Hanna. Photo: World Mountain Running Association.

The last word must go to Zak Hanna (Ireland), who said “The mountains aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so just keep calm, weather the storm and we will all come through this. As the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said “Let it be said that when things were at their worst, we were at our best.””

Editor’s Note: Be safe as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, continue to follow the recommendations and updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including proper hygiene practices. Also consider reading iRunFar’s COVID-19: A Trail Running and Ultrarunning Community Guide.