Bulgarian high jumper Mirela Demireva (© AFP/Getty Images)
The hardest part is behind them – or so they hope. For Europe’s top athletes, the slow emergence from lockdown in recent times has, at long last, cast a hopeful ray of light on the horizon.
Maybe, just maybe, this year will not be the competitive washout it once seemed.
It’s too early to say with certainty, but as fixture lists slowly repopulate, the finest runners, jumpers, throwers and walkers on the continent are relishing their return to action.
Moen’s ‘special’ return
Some have already done so. Norway’s Sondre Nordstad Moen pulled on his racing shoes at the Impossible Games in Oslo last month, the 29-year-old obliterating the European 25,000m record with time of 1:12:46.5.
“It was special,” he says. “There were no spectators so it was strange, like doing a track workout, completely alone, at Bislett Stadium.”
Moen went into the race with one eye on Jos Hermens’ European hour record of 20,944m but with temperatures in the mid-20s he was “cooked” after 50 minutes. Nonetheless his performance salvaged something from the summer after an empty spring campaign.
He was training in Kenya when the sporting world came to a standstill in March. Moen remained there when the London Marathon and Olympics were still on the schedule, but once both were postponed he took his foot off the gas in training.
“They made some rules: athletes were not allowed to train in camps and run with more than three or four together, and everyone had to keep two metres apart.”
He lived in an empty hotel in Iten – save for its owner – until the end of May before relocating to Norway, where he’s now training in the mountains and preparing for an assault on Hermens’ hour record in Kristiansand on 7 August. He’d “love to compete against Mo Farah” during the Briton’s hour world record attempt in Brussels on 4 September, and all roads will – hopefully – lead to London for the rescheduled marathon on 4 October.
Elsewhere in Scandinavia, athletes in Sweden avoided the strict lockdowns seen in other countries, and many of their best athletes were back competing in recent weeks. Angelica Bengtsson cleared 4.52m last weekend in her first pole vault competition for four months and today she will compete at the Bauhaus Jump Challenge in Gothenburg.
She was able to train normally during the pandemic but admits the Olympic Games postponement and cancellation of the European Championships affected her motivation.
“I’m quite lazy so I normally don’t want to make an effort if I don’t have a reason to,” she laughs. “In the first weeks knowing the Olympics won’t be this year it was very difficult but all the others in my group are still motivated and that’s helped me find joy in training.”
Fellow Swede Perseus Karlstrom was training in Australia when most of the world went into lockdown in March, but life didn’t change too much for the world 20km race walk bronze medallist. Group training was no longer allowed and all gyms were closed but he got by as best he could, returning to Sweden in April, where he tested his fitness with a 15,000m time trial on the track last month, clocking a swift 59:22.3. His plans now?
“There are some races in September, October on the European calendar we might go to,” he says.
Porter - ‘I don't think ‘normal’ will be our reality any time soon’
For British athletes Tiffany Porter and Jake Wightman, the past few months have been spent in the United States, the global epicentre of the pandemic. Porter lives in Michigan, where she continued to juggle her training with work as a pharmacist. “I've been very happy to offer my community support in that way during this pandemic,” she says.
Though her usual training track is closed, the 2014 European 100m hurdles champion has been working out at a local high school track and together with her husband, Jeff, she built a makeshift weights room in her basement.
“I don't think ‘normal’ will be our reality any time soon, and I've accepted that,” she says. “I'm trying to remain positive and optimistic while doing all I can to keep my family safe and healthy. If there are opportunities for me to put on my adidas vest this season, I will jump at them.”
Wightman, meanwhile, spent much of the past few months altitude training in Arizona. “I managed to get some good training in, but the main thing has been finding the motivation to make training meaningful when there’s been no races to get ready for,” he says.
The European 1500m medallist has since returned to Teddington, a suburb in southwest London. He has to drive 45 minutes to use a track and with gyms still shut, he put together a homemade gym using second-hand equipment he bought online.
“I’m hoping to be back racing at the start of August,” he says. “Until then it’s going to be time trials to try and simulate the race experience and get myself ready to make the most of this short season.”
Across the water in Ireland, life is slowly getting back to normal for Michelle Finn, who holds the world-leading 3000m steeplechase time with the 9:38.04 she ran in Sydney in February. The 30-year-old returned from Australia in March after training with the Melbourne Track Club and although she occasionally makes the 250km drive to the capital to join her training partners at the Dublin Track Club, most of her running is done on country roads near her home in Castlemagner, Cork.
With tracks in Ireland only recently re-opening, her lockdown was spent doing “winter-type training” and she is planning some domestic races in July and August – “maybe racing over distances I wouldn’t usually run, trying to have some fun with it.”
Demireva enjoying the calm
For field eventers, the locking down of facilities proved especially tough, though high jumper Mirela Demireva had few complaints. The Bulgarian is based in the Netherlands and although her training centre there was closed throughout April, she continued her workouts in parks and on sand dunes.
“Most of the people here before and now are quite free from anxiety and also in their behaviour,” she says. “So it is easy and calm.”
The 2016 Olympic silver medallist is working on technical aspects with one eye already on 2021, though she hopes to compete later this year: “It all depends how safe it is for me to travel, for my training team and for the people that host the meeting.”
For Dutch distance runner Susan Krumins, there are some positives to the pandemic. “I get to spend more time with my family,” she says. “And I will take advantage of the (Olympic) postponement by using the extra time to work on a long solid build-up to 2021.”
The two-time European medallist has been doing gym workouts on her balcony in Hilversum and in the weeks ahead she will go to St. Moritz in Switzerland for altitude training. “I just really love spending time there. There is something therapeutic about running through those beautiful mountains. That is probably the biggest take away for me from these past months. I still love the act of simply going for a run even without the big goals, competitions and excitement around it.”
Her hope is to compete in her favourite race, the 15km Zevenheuvelenloop in Nijmegen, in November. “The day I toe the line of a big race will no doubt be my happiest day in 2020.”
Another athlete keen to get back racing is Yasemin Can, who has won four successive senior titles for Turkey at the European Cross Country. She missed the majority of last year’s track season due to illness but was all set for a big half marathon performance earlier this year before the sport was put on pause.
She relocated from her usual training base in Iten to her husband’s village in rural Kenya when cases began to rise. “There I felt safe, but I missed the freedom I normally feel when I go out and train,” she says. “I miss races, but I’m glad I’m healthy and I can count on my husband, who is always able to show me the bright side. I see other athletes really struggling and I thank God I’m not.”
Re hoping to honour Sabia
Back in March, the rest of the world watched on in horror with the scenes unfolding in Italy, which has so far seen almost 35,000 people die with Covid-19.
For Davide Re, life has returned to normal with one key difference for the Rieti-based sprinter: he wears a mask everywhere he goes. Re counts himself lucky that his family and friends avoided the virus and although Italy imposed the strictest of lockdowns, he was able to do modified training at home with the help of a strip of track donated by Mondo. He kept himself busy with his medical studies and took park in several webinars organised by his agent, Chiara Davini, and Re will return to racing over 100m and 200m this weekend before running his first 400m on 16 July.
“On the 23rd (July) I will try to beat the European 500m record of Donato Sabia (60.08), who unfortunately passed away a few months ago due to Covid-19. He was such an excellent athlete and personality,” says Re.
For rising Italian star Angela Mattevi, injury made the lockdown all the more difficult. The teenager is the reigning world U20 mountain running champion but during the spring months at her home in Trentino, Northern Italy, the only time she left her house was to walk to the supermarket.
The 19-year-old worked hard studying English and made videos to promote athletics among youngsters in her area “so they become familiar with my beloved sport.” These days, life in her hometown of Val di Cembra is almost back to normal. “Except when we go out,” she says. “It’s still social distancing and masks.”
For Greek hurdler Konstadinos Douvalidis, the extra time on his hands during lockdown proved a double-edged sword. He over-trained and dug himself into a hole with fatigue. “At least I’m not injured, but I do miss competing and the thrilling atmosphere before the bang,” he says. “I’m working to come back strong without any health problems and get back into everyday life. I think I will return to a high level within one month.”
Last year’s 110m hurdles world semi-finalist will be back racing in Greece over the coming weeks. “I miss the crowds, I miss the contenders, and I would love to take part to international meets in August and September, but given the challenging situation around Europe I’m not quite sure this is going to happen.”
Salpeter eagerly awaiting successful Tokyo Marathon follow-up
One of the last major road races to occur before the lockdown was the Tokyo Marathon in March and it brought lasting memories for Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who smashed her PB to win in 2:17:45. The 2018 European marathon champion returned to racing last month in Tel Aviv over 3000m and 5000m, but life there is not yet as it was.
“Being an athlete who is used to training and enjoying the feeling of freedom, the daily life of the last few months was really hard and boring,” she says. “But I really enjoyed staying with my family. All I could do was respect the rules and keep myself busy.”
She plans to incorporate more local competitions into her training in the coming weeks and whenever high-level international racing resumes, Salpeter will be ready.
“I’m willing to use this period to set other long term goals, think about my target in terms of what I need to achieve and which direction my career needs to take,” she says. “This way, I’ll be ready in case any international road race is going to be staged. I’ll have the daily motivation to keep going.”
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics