How to Deal When Your Race Gets Postponed or Cancelled

We’re all in this together.

Caitlin Leffel |

Around the world, races are dropping off the calendar at an accelerating pace amid global coronavirus concerns. While the race cancellations are warranted for the health of the public (FYI, you can still run safely!), runners are still going through some Kübler-Rossian stages of coping with the disappointment.

RELATED: 2020 Two Oceans Marathon Cancelled Due To Coronavirus Pandemic

“Runners whose races have been cancelled should acknowledge that they are experiencing a loss: a loss of the opportunity to achieve something they’ve worked for,” says Dr. Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist who specialises in athlete mental health. “It’s OK to be disappointed.”

When my own goal race was called off, I felt (in quick succession) relief that it was called nearly a month before race day (the limbo was killing me); anger that the effort I’d put into trying to BQ would not be tested; and then guilt that I didn’t simply feel grateful for my health and gratitude for race directors trying to keep us safe. When I tried to run again two days later, everything felt different: I was feeling spent and foggy, the opposite of goal-oriented—not so different, actually, from how I would have felt if I had, in fact, just run a marathon. I Strava-titled that first post-cancellation run “For No Particular Reason.”

There’s no doubt that plenty of runners are dealing with similar situations as the SA Government has prohibited large group meetings or gatherings. Here’s how to deal with those emotions.

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Take Care of Necessary Logistics

When races that Tammy Whyte’s clients have been training for have been cancelled, she’s found herself working with them in ways that are more like mental coaching than physical coaching. “Under any circumstances, I tell my athletes to ‘hope for the best, plan for the worst’,” says Whyte, of TW Wellness & Training in Washington, D.C. “There’s usually a lot of anxiety, especially if it’s a race they were planning to travel for.”

If that’s the case, she says to first address the plans for that race: Reschedule the plane tickets (many airlines are now waiving change fees for upcoming travel, domestic and international); see if hotel rooms or other bookings are changeable or refundable; and see what the race itself is offering runners with regards to deferrals or rescheduling.

It’s Okay to be Disappointed—And Yes, You Can Ditch Your Long Runs Now

Runners are not immune to feelings of disappointment; a subpar race can bring plenty of personal letdown.

“When we fall short of the goal—a time standard, or a PB—we can feel disappointed, but that disappointment can be directed somewhere: internally,” Dr. Ross explains.

But when a race is cancelled, disappointment can be accompanied by anxiety, stemming from the loss of control, which is not something runners, as a group, are good about accepting. (Says Brock: “You want to be flexible when life throws you curve balls, but it’s hard to do after going through the regiments of training.”)

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Trying to look at these contests as community activities can be helpful in accepting that while you the runner might be ready, the race could not be.

Having gratitude for your good health as a result of training is important (Yeo, who also works in health care, says “COVID-19 is less scary to me now because I know I’m healthier now than I have been in a long time”), but Dr. Ross says that’s probably not enough to get most runners back out there for what now seems like purposeless long runs. (Something I wish I had known when I had tried to run 13 km a day after learning my marathon had been called off.)

So then it’s time to re-evaluate: “If there’s no marathon coming up now, it’s okay not to do those last long runs,” Dr. Ross says. “Shift the focus to maintaining fitness, maintaining excitement about running, and figuring out what comes next for you.”

RELATED: Athletics Comrades Marathon To Go Ahead As Planned Until Further Notice

Lean on Your Running Buddies

Speaking of community activities: Both Whyte and Ross emphasize the presence and value of running communities at times like these.

“What’s giving people a lot of difficulty now,” Dr. Ross says, “is that as races drop off the calendar, runners begin to feel disconnected from the sport, and from their fellow runners. But understand—the entire community is feeling this.”

Reconnecting with running communities can be really helpful, and there are ways to do that, while still practicing appropriate social distancing: Virtual races, for instance, have a lot of the benefits of in-person racing, and are easier to do than ever.

Plan Something Special for What Used to be Race Day

After adjusting your race logistics, Whyte suggests keeping that day on your calendar as a special day—just with something else. “I encourage my athletes to figure out something to do on the day that they think will be most meaningful for them,” she says.

For some, that could be finding a smaller, local race that isn’t cancelled. (Check with the race director to make sure its still accepting registrants—and make sure you’d be okay if that race were canceled too.)

Or you could be using that time for community service.

But also don’t feel bad if you want to take the weekend—or week—completely off while you mentally recover from the disappointment.

Run the Distance You Trained For—Just in a Different Way

For those like Yeo—who are either running for charity, or for whom the race was a milestone distance, or both—just running the race distance that day, by themselves or with a training partner, can provide a gratifying sense of accomplishment.

I’ve got two cancelled marathons under my belt now (I’m basically a pro, right?), my advice is: Know that it is possible to still have an amazing race-day experience. On the day that the NYC Marathon was set to run in 2012, I ran the original New York City Marathon course (four and a half times around Central Park) with thousands other people, all of whom agreed to a spontaneously organized self-sustaining race—no course support, and take care or your own waste.

While this option might be more difficult amid concerns of gathering in groups, it was a great option for NYCM. I saw buddies who never would have come out on the regular course because of crowds or location. I apologised to runners from different countries that the marathon had been had been cancelled, and most said they were just happy to have the opportunity to run on the day. (The others said something along the lines of how fun this would be if they weren’t hungover.) I got a coach I didn’t ask for yelling at me to “break four!” my final time up Cat Hill. (I yelled some unprintable things back; time was not official so who knows how that altercation ended up.) I was escorted across the finish line by my own personal cycling detail (my husband runs a bike team), and a friend put her medal from the previous year around my head and someone else gave me flowers and a bagel. It wasn’t what I thought my first marathon would look like, but it’s also an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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