Wright On: Runners face winding road of uncertainty

Now what?

It’s a question athletes all over the island and around the world are asking in the wake of the coronavirus shutting down schools, jobs and public events everywhere, while we’re all obligated to isolate ourselves.

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Athletes also go to school, they also have jobs, but apart from most of us, they have this added physical component in their lives that often involves others.

If you’re a baseball player, you might find a teammate to play catch with, maybe hit you ground balls, but actual volleyball, football, basketball practices require more teammates for a good workout that can be risked in these times. You can’t play those games without body-to-body contact or being too close to be safe.

So, we isolate.

It’s like being a drummer and not being able to practice with your band, or play a gig in a crowded venue. Solitary drumming grows old, so does shooting baskets if you are lucky enough to find a place to practice that skill by yourself.

In football, never mind going to the gym to lift weights. It goes on an on.

We are all compromised by the virus, even the ones who would seem to be in the best position to resume their normal activities, such as runners.

Running alone is still viable, but for most of them, the joy, the reward for putting in all the weekly miles, is to come together in a running community for a race, like the recent Hawaii marathon.

Interviewing a cross section of contestants in that event, some declined to be quoted, out of fear, which seemed silly at first until the context became clear.

One said it got rather ugly, right away after the event. This competitor was told, “You realize you could be killing your children by having done that, right?”

Another was told their participation was reckless and that they were probably disease ridden. Yet another said those in charge of the race may have “blood on their hands,” if cases explode on the Big Island in the weeks and months ahead.

Reactions have been extreme and panic-filled in many cases.

But now that we are forced to adjust to the new lives we must lead for an indeterminate future, another reality has emerged.

Since the usual weekend runs, the 5Ks, 10Ks, half and full marathons are pau, what happens to the motivation, especially in schools?

“It’s really frustrating to see,” said Lance Tominaga of Big Island Road Runners and, along with wife Mary Jane, a long distance coach at Waiakea High School. “People are having their spring sports taken away, and it’s not just about running. For a lot of these kids, this is a big part of their social and emotional well-being, so when they’re forced into social distancing, while it’s what we need to do physically, the impact goes well beyond that.

“For it to be the same for everyone, with all schools and club teams shut down, it becomes a kind of communal suffering, but it’s still very frustrating. You want them to work on their own, but I think that’s a tougher thing for some of them, finding that motivation without the group encouragement.”

The spring track season lost its first meet a week ago and another was wiped out Saturday, all in a cloud of uncertainty.

“It feels a little strange,” said Lee Collins Otani, a goal-oriented woman who runs, swims and bikes every day of every week and is in a virtual state of perpetual training for upcoming distance runs, “but training is a lifestyle for me, I’m not stopping.”

Back in the 1970s, she bicycled across the country by herself one summer, and she’s continued cycling ever since, adding running and swimming later.

She already had to cancel the Oceanside (California) half-marathon on April 4, but rescheduled for another California triathlon in September, a traditional swim-bike-run event that covers a course of a two-lap 1.2 miles open ocean swim, a four-lap 56 mile bike course and a five-lap 13.1 mile run.

That’s a bunch, but maybe not so much for a woman who competed in the full Ironman three times (2005, ’07 and ’08).

We can consider her an outlier when it comes to locally canceled events. She’s out there every day, running, swimming and/or cycling every day, in rotation, safely, on her own. She doesn’t need a group to get the work in.

“I’m the kind of person that follows a plan,” she said, “it’s all written down on my calendar. I get up every day and go do it.”

For a lot of self-motivated athletes, the goal is attaining a reward at the end of training, more like that musician who gets to play a gig. For them, practicing at home, alone, is worthwhile, but the truth is, if that was the start and end of being a musician, most of them would be doing something else.

The experiences of David Hammes, a veteran local long distance runner is instructive. He underwent a hip replacement a little more than three months ago, and his doctor took him out of regular running to lessen the chance of more deterioration of the hip, from the friction and impact of running, but since then, he’s adjusted to his new lifestyle.

“We (runners) always want to stay in shape,” he said, “and after an injury you always know things will come back, but it can be devastating at first because it’s such a big part of your life.

“Most of us may have run in high school, and then you train, enter events, get positive feedback from friends and it all gets addictive. Then, (following a serious injury or major surgery, like his), it’s like you get the rug pulled out from under you.

“You think, you’ll never get it back,” Hammes said, “but you will.”

He compared his situation to what’s happened to the cancellation of so many events since the virus hit.

“You fall into a window of isolation,” he said, “it’s very frustrating at first, but there’s a need to keep it all in perspective. Right now, nobody’s asking us to go out there and dodge live bullets, it’s not like that, but we’re having to ride the sofa more than usual, not because we want to.”

A little more than three months after his hip replacement, Hammes is out walking comfortably — up to five miles at a time — without a problem, except “it’s more like a stroll than the runs I used to do,” he said. “But it’s doable.”

Be grateful for what you can do, is his message. Adjust.

Another veteran distance runner, D.J. Blinn, has completed 103 marathons — including 22 consecutive Hilo marathons until running the half-marathon this time — along with 10 50-milers, and more.

“It’s a scary thing,” Blinn said of the coronavirus. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but if it mutates, goes airborne or whatever, it will be very, very scary. You always add more miles when you have a half or a marathon to train for, but you can’t give up your base, so I’m just sticking with a base of at least 20 miles a week, and when we get through this, I can ramp it up, but being out in the fresh air and running? We can still do that, just keep that base going is my advice to people.”

Blinn made the decision to end his Hilo Marathon streak by running just the half marathon. He adjusted quite well.

“Half the distance,” he said, “twice the fun.”

Justin Young, the ultra runner from Pahoa probably finds less disruption in routine than most runners, with 50-mile training loads on a weekly basis, then adding more when he gears up for events like a 120-miler in July on the mainland Wenatchee, Wash.

“The (Hilo) Marathon was very strange,” he said, “there was a lot of negativity you could feel there, a very strange vibe that was so unusual.”

A school teacher who has to squeeze in training time each week, now he has plenty of time get in his miles.

“It’s better in that way, but it’s not good in the bigger context,” Young said. “Everything has been complicated by this, I think we’re all trying to just through it.”

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The road ahead is uncertain, perhaps the best advice is to follow the mystics — be here, now. The future will unfold.

Send column suggestions on local individuals and teams to barttribune@gmail.com

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