Luckily, Koen Naert has the habit of writing things down.
As he sat – socially distanced, naturally – outside the meeting hotel for the Brussels Wanda Diamond League meeting in September, he smiled ruefully as he reflected on just how valuable this quirk is to him.
Fingers crossed, and further Covid-19 complications permitting, Belgium’s 31-year-old European marathon champion will have the opportunity to take part in his first race in almost a year when he participates at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 on 17 October.
“Luckily I am always writing everything down so if something goes good I write it down, for you will never know if you forget, so I am glad I wrote everything down,” he said. “So I have to read everything again because after 11 months it’s started fading away! So I am happy I can find it…
“These championships will be very important. I think it will be difficult for me to be in 100% optimal condition, because I need some other races to race a fast half marathon, so I need some 10km races to really hit the wall, and then I really can dig deep in a half marathon.
“And so I miss those other competitions, I think physically, but also mentally because, in the beginning you say ‘Oh, we will train base, because there are no competitions. A good base level is enough’.
“But if you have base level for four months, maybe you want to start to dig a little deeper, so I think the World Half Marathon Championships are perfect mid-goal for that.
“It will be good mentally for me, too, because I think that when I race in Gdynia it will be 11 months without competition, so when I was thinking about racing I really got excited and I really had to think deep like, ‘Oh, how did I do it again?’”
Naert, whose unexpected victory at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin was followed by a personal best of 2:07:39 at the following year’s Rotterdam Marathon, admits that preparations for the championships, which were shifted from their original date of 29 March because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, have been “very difficult”.
Originally, he explained, he had targeted the Valencia Half Marathon, set on a course conducive to fast times. But when that was cancelled he went back to the Belgian Athletics Federation – which helps fund his support team along with his kit sponsor, Asics – and asked them: “Is it too late to run in Gdynia?”
It wasn’t. So Naert now has a focus, albeit one for which he has prepared in a way he would never have envisaged a year ago. Earlier in 2020, Naert had spoken of running 200 kilometres a week, but that target was soon modified.
“Not in Covid-19 times,” he said. “I think I was actually doing 140, 150km a week, because I knew there weren’t any competitions in the near future. If you are in April or May, I can’t remember when the European Championships got cancelled, but if you know they will be cancelled for August, and you are three months away from that, you don’t have to peak in that period.
“So I decided with my coach, Raymond Van Paemel, that I would work on other points and take another shot next year for the Olympics. I didn’t take a rest or anything, but I took it a little bit easier so that the body had more time to recover because since 2017 all the marathons and races I did were great, but my body was glad it had a few months to reload actually.
“It wouldn’t be ideal for 2020, but I think that 2020 is already lost for us on the road. So we gambled and we are aiming for a fantastic 2021.”
That, though, has taken a considerable amount of mental adjustment on his part.
“I think the most difficult part in the beginning was, OK you had competitions that were cancelled and you say, ‘OK, championships are still far away’,” he reflected. “But then first was the Olympics that was postponed. So you say, ‘OK, this is bad.’ Then you refocus, and for me that was the European Championships in Paris. Then they got cancelled.
“Because it started to get mentally a little bit tougher to really restart and do all the things again, we decided to choose other objectives, goals, than competition. We decided to make physical goals, like: ‘I want to get rid of this little pain’, or ‘this is my weak point in running.’
“So we really took goals that were my own, that can’t get cancelled or postponed, and it worked quite well. I had some achilles tendon problems I first wanted to get rid of. That worked out.
“We made a big progression and I feel now in a short period that my condition is really growing and now I can look forward to competing again.
“Because it was not 100 per cent sure if the World Half Marathon Championships would go ahead, but I think there is a good chance now if they can organise a Tour de France for three weeks, I think a one-day race is possible as well, so that gives me some mental strength to work towards that goal.”
Once the Belgian government brought in social restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Naert settled into a working routine at his home base. His wife, Elise, who works for the region of West Flanders, was able to work from home, and they were able to swap in around looking after their three-year-old son, Finn.
When Koen would do his main running session between nine and eleven in the morning, Elise would sit in. Then Daddy would take over, until his afternoon recovery session, which often involved no more than travelling to the garage, in which he has a treadmill and a static bike.
Then he would prepare the evening meal as Elise worked on later to make up for her earlier gaps.
“We were pretty lucky in Belgium because we really didn’t have to stay in the house 24/7 like in Spain or Italy,” he reflected. “I had the chance to go outside. I couldn’t run with others, but I was already very glad I didn’t have to stay inside.
“We have a canal next to our house, and we also have a lot of forests near us. I couldn’t take the car, because we weren’t allowed to drive to other places. But from my house I had different routes I could run. I never had any motivational problem.”
Assisting Koen in this respect has been his mental coach, Eva Maenhout. Referring to the coronavirus crisis, he recalled: “In the beginning you feel strong and everything goes OK and it’s not going to take that long. But if you look, it started in March. We are in September now and we are still dealing with the problem.
“So I am really glad Eva joined me at this time. We have had a lot of good conversations because, like I said, it will be 11 months without racing and, sometimes you start doubting. Like – ‘Can I still do it? It’s been 11 months. I don’t have the races before like I used to have. How will I react?’ She has always been there to support me.”
Asked if he knew about any other runners he would be facing in Gdynia, he responded in the negative. When a colleague brightly informed him that Joshua Cheptegei, Uganda’s newly installed world 5000m record-holder, had confirmed his participation, Naert’s face became a picture of conflicting emotion.
“Oh!” he said with a pained grin. “Ah! That will hurt!”
Had another topic for conversation with Eva just suggested itself?
“Actually yes,” he said. “Because I was really convinced that I could win medals at European level, and actually now I still doubt that fact at world-class level, to be honest about that, because I still have a lot of work to do.
“And I really have to peak for my performance, and I know that. And that’s why I sometimes can suck in other races. I know that! But I need those races to be at my top level when I really want to be.”
The difficulties Naert has encountered during the ever-shifting coronavirus circumstances of the past year has been compounded by another profound dilemma. He is a professional athlete. He is also a trained nurse.
He took time out from his nursing career to prepare for the Rio 2016 Olympics – where he finished 22nd in the marathon – but the Brussels bombings of 11 March 2016 saw him answering an emergency call to help, calling on his experience at a burn care centre.
“I had never taken my work home – until then,” he told Spikes earlier this year.
“After the attacks, my mind was all over the place, so I can empathise with what so many nurses are going through now.”
While his name remains on a ‘reserve list’, however, his first instinct that he would have to be ready to help with the Covid-19 pandemic has been checked by other counsel.
“When the Olympic Games got postponed, I got national television coming by and they didn’t talk about it before and it was quite a deep conversation, and suddenly he was asking ‘Will you go help them out in the hospitals?’” he recalled.
“And my first reaction was, ‘Yes of course. I am a nurse. I will, if we have situations like in Spain or Italy, where the country is really in panic, yes, I am a nurse here in my heart, not only on paper. So yes I will go out and help them…’
“But then the doctor from the Olympic Committee said ‘Think twice before you go, because it’s not just the flu.’ He was mentioning the SARS virus in Asia, 95% of the infections with SARS they had mutations in their lungs, and he said we don’t know yet for Covid-19, but if you get contaminated and you have mutations in your lungs that can be the difference between being a good amateur runner and being an Olympian.
“And I didn’t forget that, and I started really thinking about the fact that I am a professional athlete, I have my responsibilities as an athlete, so I am not going to help that quick any more as I said in the beginning. And that’s the hard part – because I had to choose between being the nurse that I have been for years, with all my heart, and being a professional athlete.
“I was really, really doubting, and my coach said ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, because it can affect your career.’ That period was hard. I was glad Eva was there at that time…
“I don’t want my athletics career to get stopped or affected because I just wanted to go and help and at that moment it wasn’t my job. I am paid to be a professional athlete so I have my responsibilities. And that hurts, if you see that they need help.”
Mike Rowbottom for World Athletics