We’re living in a time of crazy.
I don’t know what to expect every day. No one does. At moments like this, you realise running is so, so small.
Don’t get me wrong: the sport means everything to me, but it just takes something like this to make you see the big picture. That threshold run you were annoyed about because it didn’t go as fast as you wanted? Yeah, not such a big deal anymore.
For the past few weeks I had been training in Flagstaff, Arizona, preparing for the New York City Half Marathon and the Boston Marathon.
While I had secured an Olympic qualifier by finishing fifth in the Houston Marathon in January in 2:11:52, my place on the Irish team wasn’t assured. For a while all that mattered was making sure I got to Boston and turned in a strong performance to ensure my place.
Then everything changed.
Flagstaff is a huge hub for distance-runners and it was a strange vibe there these past few weeks. First a few smaller events started to be cancelled, then the New York City Half went and the Carlsbad 5K.
The morning they cancelled Carlsbad, some of the guys who were due to race it were at the track ready to do their session, but once they heard the news they just finished their warm-up and went home. What was the point?
Then the Boston Marathon got postponed, then the London Marathon. All of a sudden we had no idea why we were training.
For weeks, I’d woken up every day thinking of Boston, putting in 11- and 12-mile runs on Woody Mountain Road in Flagstaff, simulating the rolling hills I’d meet on race day.
After I heard the news I just ran for six miles on the treadmill and ever since, it’s been strange, with an eerie feeling in the world of sport – in the world as a whole.
The news seems to get crazier each day.
Last week Donald Trump announced a ban on travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days, then earlier this week the European Union did the same with a 30-day ban on travel from non-EU nationals.
When I saw all that kicking off, I knew I needed to get home.
I spent almost four hours on the phone to American Airlines to get a flight and earlier this week I touched down at home in Belfast.
When I went to America on scholarship in 2007, my parents always said if I wasn’t happy, I could come home any time and they’d sort me out. Now, 13 years later, it’s come full circle.
At a time like this, no one wants to be away from home. My sister is expecting a baby in the coming month and her boyfriend, a marine, could be deployed any day to help deal with the current crisis. If that happens she’d need someone to bring her to hospital and take care of her, so when I thought of the possibility of being stuck in America, it was a no-brainer.
Some athletes stayed in Flagstaff and I can understand why, but for me there were too many what-ifs to put running first. What if my grandmother got sick and I couldn’t travel home? Yes, I came to America for running, but it all just seems so small at the minute.
At the same time, I’m still training, still hoping. This Sunday it will be 20 weeks until the men’s Olympic marathon, and as things stand I’m one of three male marathoners qualified for Ireland.
But the way things are, you can’t put the Olympics on the calendar and be motivated by them alone. They may or may not happen this year. Right now my goals need to be about running and loving it for what it is.
I learn that more and more each day.
Before a session in Sedona recently I was chatting with a training partner about doing all the work without a specific goal in mind. In the end I said: “We’d do this anyway, because we love it.”
As athletes, we’d always want to work hard and train. It just so happens that the Olympics are the goal we’re training for. Next year it could be the World Championships. A long time ago it was a schools competition and before that, as kids, we ran just because we enjoyed the feeling.
You can look at this situation two ways. Some people will give up a bit and lose motivation because there’s no races coming up, but the true professionals will see it as an opportunity where they can work on a few weaknesses when there’s no pressure to race for money.
This is a time to find gratitude in simple things because you’ve no idea when it could all be taken away from you. Nobody would have thought Boston or London wouldn’t happen this spring and at the click of a finger, they’re gone.
As athletes, it’s time to just run for the sheer joy of it rather than being motivated by goals like the Olympics or Boston.
In the past decade I’ve come and gone from the sport so many times, but in recent years I’ve finally accepted that running is a part of me. If there was no race coming up, I’d probably still be running for other benefits: health, wellbeing. Maybe in the coming months lots of people will appreciate running for what it is, what it gives us.
The absence of races will make us realise why we love competition so much, and whenever the worst is over and things are ready to resume, rest assured we’ll be fit and ready – raring to go.
Images courtesy of Under Armour