Koen Naert at the Brussels Half Marathon (© AFP / Getty Images)
by Koen Naert
Right now the whole world is running away from the coronavirus, except for one key group: healthcare workers.
They’re running full speed towards it, towards the patients, to offer their support and care. In sport we talk a lot about heroes, but these are the real heroes of our time, those putting their own health at risk to help others.
In Belgium, and many other countries, we step outside our homes at 8pm every night to applaud their work. While it’s clear people have so much respect for them, the truth is they deserved that respect way before now. These people do it every day, every night, often for little pay, and it’s only at times like this that their work is truly appreciated.
It’s an area I know well as for many years, I worked full-time as a nurse. I took time out from my career at the start of 2016 to concentrate on athletics ahead of the Rio Olympics, but it’s a profession that is always close to my heart.
It’s tough at times like this because I’m not only a nurse in the qualified sense; I’m a nurse in my heart. I want to be there in a time of need.
In Belgium the situation isn’t good, but it’s not yet as severe as other nations like Spain and Italy. Right now I’m not needed but if things get worse and worse, I’ll be on the list, ready to help.
It’s what I did after the Brussels bombings a few years ago, an attack that saw 32 civilians lose their lives. I can remember that day clearly: March 22, 2016. I was on my way to Leuven to see my physio when I heard the news about the bombings on the radio.
I called my colleagues at the burn care centre where I used to work and asked how things were. “Complete chaos,” they said, so I offered to come help.
That week taught me a lot about the profession – and myself. Throughout my career, I’d always had a good balance between running and working. When I was in the hospital I was a nurse, I wasn’t a runner, and when I wasn’t in hospital I was a runner, and not a nurse.
I had never taken my work home – until then.
After the attacks my mind was all over the place, so I can empathise with what so many nurses are going through now. I was injured during that period with a stress fracture in my sacrum and so I wasn’t allowed to run, but I remember coming home late at night and telling my wife stories about the day and saying, “I can’t stay inside, I have to run to ease my mind.”
These days, more and more are seeing how valuable running is in that sense.
Mentally, going out for a run or walk can give you fresh air and that’s so important to keep you right. I know they can’t go outside in places like Italy but even to keep moving at home is crucial because otherwise you can go crazy. If you’re fit and healthy, you’re also much more protected against viruses.
In Belgium we’ve been ordered to avoid all unnecessary travel and when you’re running close to 200km per week in training, that’s not ideal, but it’s a very small price to pay for the greater good.
It’s a difficult time for all parents and for my wife and me, it’s no different. We have a three-year-old son and my wife now works full-time from home, so I take care of him until 9:30, she looks after him while I do my first session, then I am with him until my wife finishes work in the evening, at which point I’ll do a second run.
You learn to be creative, doing what you can. I do core stability with him in the room and he always has fun with that, kicking around my gym balls.
If all had gone to plan, I would have been racing in the World Half Marathon Championships in Gydnia, Poland last weekend, but of course that, like the Olympics, was postponed.
When I heard the news about Tokyo, it was a mixture of disappointment and relief.
I was disappointed as an athlete but as a human, I know they made the right decision. We all now have something to overcome that’s way bigger than any sports event, and we need to make some sacrifices. I’m glad they didn’t drag it out because I didn’t want to risk any people around us by continuing to train as before. Although we may be strong, we can give the virus to our parents or grandparents and that’s something I didn’t want on my conscience.
But I’m still working hard, even in this time of lockdown. Whether the Olympics were in 2020 or 2021, I was going to be ready. They’re so big that mentally, it doesn’t make much difference. The motivation is the same.
There may not be any races in the months ahead, but I still have goals. Right now my goal is to get better, and stronger, every week.
That’s one reason I’m still training so hard, but the other is more simple: it’s for the love of the sport.