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Coping with Coronavirus Cancellations

Five steps for dealing with the emotions of losing your goal race and seizing new challenges and perspectives.

Over the last few days, nearly every major race—and most minor ones—has been cancelled or postponed. And with the ongoing threat of coronavirus and the importance of extreme social distancing, it seems likely that the entire spring and even early summer racing season is in jeopardy. If you’re reeling from these events, rest assured, this is a completely normal reaction.

One of the most compelling aspects of training for events is that they become a guidepost in which we orient our lives, albeit for a relatively brief period of time. We structure our training around our lives, and sometimes our lives around our training, all for the possibility of having an opportunity to show up on race day to see what we’re made of.

Losing that meaningful guidepost can lead to a deep sense of loss, frustration and anger. Loss is one of if not the greatest driver of sadness we experience as humans. If left unchecked, loss can build into hopelessness and possibly depression. Many are now finding themselves juggling a combination of uncertainty and anxiety about what’s to come next, with the deep sense of personal loss now that their spring race is no longer running. This is most certainly uncharted territory for all of us, and for athletes in particular who grow accustomed to having a robust training regimen and a schedule of events that helps orient not only their calendar but their identity. What we subsequently do with those emotional experiences is far more important than them showing up in the first place.

We know and speak often of the significant negative emotional impacts we experience through turmoil. But what we often fail to recognize is the profound opportunity we have for significant growth that can only be forged by moving through difficulty, hardship and adversity. We call this post traumatic growth, and it’s only possible if we first have a significant hardship for us to endure. By then recognizing we have choice and agency in how we navigate through this adversity, we have an opportunity to come out on the other side with renewed purpose, motivation and determination to be stronger than ever. Here’s how we get there:

1. Give yourself permission to be sad

Emotionally and psychologically this is critical step #1. It’s 100% OK to be upset and disappointed that your event was cancelled. Allow yourself to feel these emotional experiences. One of my favorite sayings is, “You cannot change what you are not aware of.” It’s important to not observe these reactions but to identify the specifics of what you’re feeling.

2. Reflect and reorient personal meaning

Ask yourself what it is that hurts about the cancellation or postponement of your race. Is it the loss of participating with a like-minded community? Is it that you feel you are missing out on pushing your own limits and trying to reach new personal bests? Is it a missed, unique opportunity to take advantage of peak fitness or life schedule?

Likely, there are a number of different aspects that blend together to fuel this personal meaning. Reflection helps us better identify the underlying foundational elements of what makes sport such an important part of our lives. We can leverage this understanding to either get these needs met in different ways now, or structure our training around getting these needs met later in the season.

3. Connect to the self-care aspects that running provides

We often lose sight of the myriad benefits that running provides us, getting lost in metric chasing during training cycles. With “training” being stripped of its relentless pursuit of running-specific workouts, we are left with the bare bones approach to running, stripping the sport down to its very core. There’s beauty in this bareness, for we all once ran for the sure joy in movement, not falling prey to over-identifying with numbers on our watch dictating our sense of judgement or identity.Running provides us with so much outside of pursuing peak performances. The time has never been better to re-connect to these core functions. Stress relief. Freedom and flow of movement. Connection to nature. Purposeful daily dedicated time for self-reflection. Exploring the environment in new ways. These are just a few; the possibilities here are endless. Identify the core functions of what running provides you in your life.

4. Create a new meaningful personal challenge

We often lose sight of what racing provides us in the first place; a collective chance and opportunity to push limits in an effort to redefine what’s possible. We don’t necessarily need a scheduled race to provide this function. Now is a great time to mix up your approach to training and tackle a new meaningful personal challenge, in whatever form that takes.

Begin by contemplating other personal challenges you could pursue that you wouldn’t normally when following a regimented training schedule. Perhaps that’s running a fast mile on the track, nabbing a Strava segment KOM, stringing together a month-long running streak, setting pull-up and push-up PRs, or focusing on making your easy efforts truly easy and going longer or getting out more often. This can encapsulate just about anything, so long as it means something to you. Finding personally meaningful challenges is going to help you maintain motivation and focus, and can help breathe fresh air into how you approach running in general.

Personally, I see the Boston Marathon postponement, my scheduled spring race, as an opportunity to think about a double marathon fall attempt, as I was already planning to race Berlin on September 27. I’ve never raced two marathons in a single season, and the idea of a Boston-Berlin double, especially if I dare contemplate a #sub3 attempt at both, has me excited and thinking about approaching all aspects of training in a completely new way.

5. Cultivate a deeper connection to purpose

Gratitude right now is a tremendous asset to our collective well-being. You don’t need to look far to be exposed to some of the tragedies coming from this pandemic across the globe. Find gratitude in your current situation, whether that’s in personal health or continued ability to exercise and move in a meaningful way. This will help broaden our perspective to better grasp how relatively minor our need for individual sacrifices fits into the collective.

As a psychologist, I am excited to see how we navigate through this time, knowing we have the opportunity to use this crisis to grow stronger. The collective break from spring racing is going to afford us the opportunity to re-appraise our personal meaning, our personal connection, and our goals. If we can navigate the emotional storm that coronavirus is causing, I see the opportunity for us to hit the fall racing season with renewed energy, motivation and excitement to smash through perceived personal barriers. We might just surprise ourselves with what we are capable of.

Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, Colorado, specializing in human performance and athlete mental health. He is an 11-time marathoner, with six BQs and a personal best of 2:57. His newly launched course, Unlock Your Athletic Potential, is a masterclass at understanding the nuances of mind and body for athletes of all ability levels.