Hungarian mountain runner Sandor Szabo (© WMRA)
When Sandor Szabo took to the start line at the 2013 World Mountain Running Championships, he was most likely the least experienced runner at the discipline.
The Hungarian athlete had qualified for the championships almost by accident. He was only there because he had won the national title earlier that year – and even that was a race that he only entered because he fancied a new challenge.
“I didn’t want to run a flat trail race, so I convinced my coach to take me to the Hungarian Mountain Running Championships,” recalls Szabo. “I won the race and got a ticket to the national team, which led me to the WMRA World Champs in Krynica-Zdrój, Poland. That was my first international mountain running race, and only my second ever mountain-running race – it was in at the deep end for me!”
Although he was new to it, there had been clear signs throughout his career that he’d be a natural mountain runner. He’d had some success on the track, representing Hungary in the 10,000m at the 2013 European U23 Championships, but he was also an accomplished cross-country runner and competed at the 2011 and 2012 European Cross Country Championships.
The 2012 edition was held in his home city of Budapest. “That left me with some unforgettable memories,” he says. “But moving to mountain running was my best decision so far.”
Time for new discoveries
In any other year, Szabo would have been contesting for a top-10 placing in the WMRA World Cup, looking to improve on his ninth-place finish from 2019. But this, of course, is not like any other year.
Nevertheless, Szabo has used his new-found spare time wisely.
“I live in the capital (Budapest), where this pandemic is the worst in the country,” he says. “I didn't feel well when the whole thing started, but I don't know it was Covid-19 or not, because I only had a high temperature, not a fever, and it only lasted for one evening. After that I had some symptoms, but not the serious ones. I got fully better after just one week, and I could have trained with it, but I didn't, of course.
“The situation in Hungary is not that bad in my opinion. We have some restrictions about leaving home, but not serious ones. Running is not restricted, whether you go alone or with someone you live with, so we are able to train as much as we like.
“I'm lucky that this virus has not affected my work,” he adds. “I’m working as a running coach, giving online training plans. For me, racing is the most important thing (as an athlete). Competing against others is what makes me do the training. But once I’d accepted the situation, I focused on developing new skills and trying out training plans that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do in the middle of a racing season.
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“I have also rested a bit, because I could fit that in the programme too, but now I’m training for the competitions that we’ll have in the future. I have some insane plans, which I can try out now. I'm curious about the benefits and experiences of them. The main goal with this is to maintain my motivation and focus on this, rather than the races which are cancelled or postponed.”
The 28-year-old, who is also on the WMRA Athletes’ Commission, says he has also discovered new things about himself as a runner.
“I’ve already learned that I can handle more weekly kilometres than I’d been doing, mainly because I’ve had time to test some new things in training during these race-less times,” he says. “Now I know that it isn't just about the races for me, that I can find motivation in lots of ways. I think I’ll continue to learn other new things too.
“Although I worried a lot about not seeing my family for a long time, I realised that the most important thing is to be safe.”
Kirsty Reade (WMRA) for World Athletics