Olympic Dreams During a Pandemic
Evan Esselink is a Mile2Marathon Coach and aspiring Olympian from Courtice, Ontario. He has dedicated his life over the past several years to the quest of making the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. putting his running aspirations ahead of the usual things people his age pursue — starting his career, a steady income, and possibly a furthered education to name a few.
When The Games were scheduled to go ahead this summer, to qualify for the Canadian Olympic Team in the men’s marathon event, athletes would have to run a marathon under 2:11:30 at a regulation marathon, before May 31, 2020. While only a handful of Canadian athletes have run this fast in the last decade, Evan’s track record has shown he was capable of achieving this lifelong dream. Evan shared with us his mindset as COVID-19 developed into the pandemic we are experiencing today.
The past few weeks have been rough on all of us. We are being faced with one of the greatest global challenges we’ve had to deal with in many of our lifetimes. I guess I really don’t need to be telling you what you already know, but I will use this opportunity to share my experience as an elite runner chasing his dream. I’m writing this with the hopes that I can positively influence you in some sort of way (even for just an entertaining read during your isolation), and perhaps you can take away a thing or two from it all.
I first heard about the COVID-19 outbreak towards the beginning of February. I was at an altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona, training towards the London Marathon, with the goal to run a time that would put me on the 2020 Olympic team.The news of the virus came to me like anything else we first hear about; It was just that – news. I was relatively un-phased. Training was going well at altitude; I felt strong mentally and physically, I was enjoying the endless sun, dirt roads, vast trails and beating my roommates in Catan.
A couple weeks went by, and COVID-19 became more prominently talked about. I heard about it spreading to a few other continents, and I heard about a few races getting cancelled / postponed. When races that other Canadian’s were planning to run for qualifying purposes were getting cancelled, things started to become a little more real for me. First it was Prague and then Rotterdam, one of the biggest and fastest marathons on the spring calendar.
But onwards we went with marathon training.
My way of dealing with things was by focusing on the things I needed to do to optimize my health and limit possible exposure. This meant drinking more water than usual, washing my hands more often, eating healthy, and not touching my face which I apparently do WAY too much. I would also try to avoid news and media about the virus as much as I could, because I knew that if I didn’t it would interfere with my training… and interfere it did.
On Friday, March 13th I got the email I never wanted to receive but knew would come. Like many other marathons, the London Marathon would be postponed to the fall. After the first week of March, my training was really going south. My workouts were bad, and I was feeling very off. I’d wake up each day not feeling like I wanted to do the day. I’d wake up wanting to stay in bed, which is similar to how I feel when I’m having iron deficiencies. Part of me even thought I was fighting off illness—that’s how bad training was. I went to get bloodwork done, which turned out to be good. My bloodwork was showing some very strong numbers compared to when I was at sea level. I was showing big increases in red blood cell count and hemoglobin mass, which are two variables we look at to see the physiological gains one might expect to have from altitude training. My white blood cell count was on the low side, so there were no present signs of a weakened immune system. Physically, I was in my prime, so I should have been cruising through my workouts. It wasn’t until later, when I returned home and began to process the situation that physical fatigue wasn’t what was holding me back in workouts, but rather the brewing mental and emotional fatigue.
Depression & Apathy
I pushed onwards and things didn’t get better, they got worse. I had convinced myself that things were going to look up and they didn’t. I felt quite depressed, and had zero motivation to run at all. Going out for an easy 6 miles in the morning felt taxing. The hardest part about this time was that my teammates, who I was living with in Flagstaff, were absolutely rocking their workouts. I’m usually motivated when surrounded by others that are succeeding. This is one of the reasons I moved to Vancouver a couple years ago, and one of the big reasons I love coaching with Mile2Marathon. Typically, others sharing their success with me fuels my fire. This wasn’t the case.
I’m a rather emotional person. People can generally tell when I’m not ok because well, you can just tell. I get quiet and feel drained and empty. I’m not ashamed to say this nor should anyone else. I get heavily emotionally invested in things I care about, and in the case here it’s running. When I found out London was postponed, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would get my last shot at qualifying for the Olympic team. This has been a dream and goal of mine since I started in the sport seventeen years ago. It’s not to say that I don’t run for reasons other than trying to make the Olympic team, but this is a big reason I’m doing this now. I love running, and it’s been a big part of my life and who I am. I’m extremely motivated when I have a race on the schedule or a big goal in mind. I stop at nothing (within rationality) to give me the best chance on achieving said goals, because I don’t want to have any regrets when I’m done competing at this level.
Another week went by with the same feelings of being drained, lethargic, and unmotivated. By the end of the week we left Flagstaff and headed back home, to Canada.
Improvement & Refocus
I had to self-quarantine for a couple weeks from travelling through the airport, and I had the option to go back to where I live in Vancouver, or go to where I grew up in Ontario with my parents. I chose to go to Ontario, just for mom’s cooking… KIDDING mom – love you! Really, it’s been nice being home for a bit and back to where this whole running journey started. After a few more days of taking everything in at home things started to improve, and it became clear how much power the mind has over the body. A few things made this clear:
- I had answers
- I gave myself a chance to feel my emotions
- Olympics are postponed NOT cancelled – uhhh &@%# yeah!
- More oxygen
In Flagstaff, I was in limbo, continuing to push full speed ahead without working through the things that were going on around me. While hard work often leads to an increase in fitness, it adds stress to the body. This coupled with the added uncertainty of the looming cancellation of the Olympics and pandemic, was too much. It is incredibly difficult to push your body to its full potential, especially when your mind is fully tapped. With answers and taking the time to feel my emotions, it turns out that it wasn’t my physical state that was holding me back but rather what was going on inside my head.
As you know, social distancing is in place so running with others is a no-go. I really enjoy running with others, especially when it comes to workouts, but I’ve also always enjoyed running on my own. It’s been nice being back on the quiet country roads, dictating my own pace, and running some nostalgic routes that I’ve run all the way back from elementary school days.
Despite everything that’s happened, there are a few positives I’m taking away from all of this:
- The Olympics have been postponed to summer 2021, giving Canadian marathoners potentially two more chances to throw down a big race (whether it’s one or two chances depends on new updated qualification criteria)
- I now know what I have to look forward to – another chance at achieving my dreams. Simply knowing leaves me way more motivated than I was a few weeks back.
- Current training schedule allows for me to work on ways I can improve myself as an athlete. I took some time last week to look back at old race videos and have noticed that when I get tired my hips really start to give in. So, I’m currently using this time to work on hip strength and mobility with the idea that this will make me stronger and faster.
- I found out through my blood work that I respond very well to altitude
- Home time means more time with family, which means a lot to me
I feel extremely fortunate for my friends and family, and to be in good health. I can go outside to run in those nostalgic spots that always bring back good memories. I’m continuing to put in mileage and some solid workouts. I’m not stressing the body too much, but enough to get something out of training. Just because there are no races on the schedule for 4 or 5 months, doesn’t mean I’m going to put training on full pause. It’s still worth putting in solid weeks of training and adding to the years of base I have. Taking time to address my weaknesses will only set me up for success this fall.
See you on the roads,