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Athletes, Culture, Events, News


Merrell digs deeper to unveil what life is really like after Covid for the trail running community.

04.Since July, the world of competitive sports is spinning again. And not only is it spinning, it appears to be moving even faster than before with signs that athletes from all kinds of disciplines are returning to starting lines stronger than ever.

Over 20 new records were recorded at the Tokyo Olympic games this year and numerous course records smashed at some of the world’s biggest trail running races, including the 2021 UTMB female record set recently by Courtney Dwalter.

…that’s what the world sees on social media and on the tv anyway. But for those behind the scenes, has returning to racing really been that simple? Outdoor brand, Merrell, speaks to athletes, mental coaches and event organisers to find out what life is really like after covid.

“Two types of athletes have emerged.”

One of the most frequently asked questions is: has time off racing in 2020 had a negative or positive effect on athletes’ performance? Koen Willems, mental coach and physiotherapist to some of the world’s top trail runners, explains, “It’s not that simple”. Willems points out that as a result of no races, no goals and a lot of uncertainty, two types of athletes have emerged. One group saw this as an opportunity to switch their focus to other things they didn’t have time for before, such as family, free time and work. The other group did the opposite. They trained harder to overcompensate for not racing.

Those athletes who took time off to enjoy life without competing during 2020 returned to racing this year with more positive mental energy. They are calmer and well rested and this is being reflected in their performances. The majority of athletes who ended up overtraining due to not being able to let go of the pressure, have suffered injuries.

Willems continues: “We must remember that as professional athletes, although human beings like you and I, being a runner is a huge part of how they see themselves. This pressure of racing and running defines them and how they feel, therefore they often need this pressure and if it’s not there, they create it themselves.”

Willems points out that there has been an increase in athletes seeking mental coaching since the pandemic due to physical injuries and anxiety.

Now that racing is back, athletes are desperate to get good results to compensate for last year. That often means too much, too fast and too soon and they end up coming to me with injuries or because they are mentally struggling with bad results. Many find it difficult to focus on one goal and instead, want to do them all. There is also the anxiety that comes with travelling to races. Some athletes worry about the risk of contracting the virus or how the restrictions and new rules at events will affect their performance. Fear has a huge impact on energy levels which, again, influences performance.”

Does this mean we’ve returned to racing too soon? “Not necessarily”, says Willems. “there are also benefits. There is a calmness and feeling of freedom that comes with being in the mountains and nature that can also reduce anxiety and stress. There is much less fear here than in the cities. My advice to athletes is to be easy on yourself. The last year was tough. Don’t focus on results, first of all just enjoy running and again and connecting with your fellow athletes and team mates. We can’t influence everything; therefore, don’t lose energy on the things you can’t control.”

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Georgia Tindley (left) and Denisa Dragomir (right) at the Skyrace Hochkönig in September 2021

We can’t share the emotions and the moment like we used to.

For athletes, it’s clear that 2021 has not been business as usual. Romanian runner, Denisa Dragomir, belongs to the group who took a break during 2020 – a decision which may be behind all four of her wins of the 2021 Skyrunner World Series and national title.

I needed a reset and this was it.”, says Dragomir. However even Dragomir, who seems to be smashing the 2021 season, has struggled with new regulations and rules. “I haven’t yet had my second vaccine so I have to take a test every time I go to a race. I’ve had to quarantine and miss races because of this. I notice these complications put extra stress on the body which wasn’t there before.

Although coming out of lockdown “fitter than ever”, British fell runner, skyrunner and orienteer, Hector Haines, who resides in Sweden has only done half the amount races in 2021 compared to 2019 due to uncertainty and the inability to plan. “Many international skyraces and mountain running events were being cancelled and postponed all the time which made it impossible for me to plan my year. Instead, I chose to compete in local orienteering races as things seemed a lot more stable.”

Interestingly, it is the social side of racing that the athletes questioned miss the most. “I miss being around like minded people who share your passion and get what you do and why you do it.”, says Georgia Tindley, Britain’s leading female trail runner and skyrunner. “I like training and racing with other people who can push me. This is also when I perform at my best.

Haines shares this thought and believes that although races are back up and running, the passion is diminished. “It feels like we can’t share the emotions and the moment like we used to. Now we have to show up, be socially distanced, wear face masks, etc.”

“Through this experience, we have learned to be more spontaneous and flexible.”

And let’s not forget the effects on brands and sponsors. With more regulations and less athletes travelling internationally, are brands and sponsors worried about less exposure? Franziska Freer, marketing and athlete manager at Merrell explains: “In the end, you just have to be more creative.

Not just Merrell, but many other trail running and outdoor brands turned their focus to digital strategies to get their stories out there. Merrell partnered up with the Skyrunner World Series for their 2020 virtual circuit which saw people from over 80 nationalities get involved with skyrunning, virtually.

Through this experience, we have learned to be more spontaneous and flexible.”, Freer goes on to say. “We don’t just see our Merrell athletes as racers, only there to stand on a podium. They represent the brand with or without races.”

“We saw this as an opportunity to discover local talent.”

From the outside, events also appear to be running smoothly. Aside from the occasional face mask at the start line, everything seems to be normal again, including the spectator turnout. Thomas Bosnjak, Austrian race organizer of Kaiserkrone Skyrace, Nassfeld-Mountain-Skytrails and Hochkönigman explains that although it feels good to have his events back on, it’s been a long and turbulent journey to get to this point.

Financially we took a hit. We had to try and continue for two years with the budget from one year and that wasn’t easy.”, says Bosnjak. “There is a lot more work that goes into organizing an event now with all the new regulations and government guidelines which seem to be changing on a regular basis. This year our main problem was not with a decrease in athlete participation but with the volunteers. We had many last-minute cancellations and dropouts. But when we see our start lines full with athletes, we see the light at the end of the tunnel for our events and this gives us hope for the future.”

Seana Forbes, organizer of the Skyrunner World Series also admits it’s been a tough couple of years for the international racing circuit which usually travels to at least 10 countries around the world. The 2020 season was completely cancelled and replaced with a virtual circuit, followed by an uncertain 2021 season which began with a few races being postponed but, luckily, only one being cancelled. However, against all odds, the series has continued.

“It’s been difficult for sure,” admits Forbes, “As much as we wanted to have a fair circuit for our athletes, we also care deeply about the race organisers in our circuit and we knew they would be struggling too so removing a race or swapping an event for another one was never an option. Instead, if elite athletes were unable to travel to a race in the circuit, we saw this as an opportunity to discover local talent.

Although international racing events and circuits may have seen a decrease in elite athlete participation this year compared to 2019, Forbes says this doesn’t worry her. “The passion is still there and hopefully when the uncertainty has died down, we will have all of our top runners back behind the Skyrunner World Series starting lines.”

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Hector Haines during his training in summer 2020

A new focus on sustainability

If there is one common topic that has emerged since lockdown, throughout all areas of international racing, it’s sustainability. Both athletes, Tindley and Haines say they have become more sensitive to the impact of travel since covid.

I’ll definitely race and travel in a more conscious way in the future”, comments Tindley. “I can’t imagine jumping on a plane each week to fly to a different country just to compete for a day and then fly back, like we used to.”

Through covid I feel as though I have developed empathy to the world and suffering in general.” says Haines. “I find myself asking the question: what’s the point of travelling across the world to do a race when I can race closer to home?

Freer’s point of view is that you can’t avoid travel if you want to race against the best athletes in the world. Therefore, if we can’t avoid travel, we should instead be looking at ways to make it more sustainable. “What can we do in return? How can we give back? Sustainability has always been anchored in our brand purpose at Merrell but we realize now more than ever that consumers are being more purpose-driven too since covid.”

So, what does the future hold for international racing?

It’s clear that all parties are motivated to come back stronger in 2022 but it’s also clear there will be some changes. More conscious travelling, planning and a more sustainable way of racing and organizing events looks to be the new norm. We can expect a rise in national circuits and local races as well as new talent that have come to the forefront this year. Whatever happens, although faced with the struggles of covid, the trail running community is grateful to be back behind the starting lines again and committed to staying there.

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The podium at the Skyrace Hochkönigman in September 2021: 1st place Denisa Dragomir, 2nd place) Georgia Tindley, 3rd place) Oihana Azkorbebitia. (C) Merrell / Christian Schartner

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