Coronavirus: the spring marathon nobody wants

As we come to the terms with the real and very genuine threat of this new Coronavirus, hundreds of thousands of marathon runners around the world are anxiously and impatiently waiting to see if they will have their moment of crowning glory, something in which their very identity has become intertwined.

In jotting down my thoughts, I’ve wondered to myself whether I am writing about running, Coronavirus or the deeper theories of self and identity. They don’t necessarily go together but somehow there is a connection in my reflections between the writing of a Harvard professor, marathon running and Covid-19.

London Marathon London Marathon 2014 – my first, and a wonderful life changing experience with Mind

Coronavirus – Covid-19

Let’s deal firstly with Coronavirus. It’s patently obvious to me that this is going to get a lot worse before it improves. The statistics are frightening and we are seeing with our very eyes a real impact on all of our lives.

With neither immunity from nor prevention of a highly contagious illness, this is serious. It’s all too easy for people to talk about flu killing thousands year upon year. The reality is that there is a vaccination for flu and any epidemic can be contained. This is not containable right now based on the evidence we have seen globally.

Yes, I can make the assumption like millions of others, that I’m a healthy athlete with a great immune system. If I get this, it won’t be anything other than a mild infection. That’s exactly what I’d be doing though, making an assumption, and I think life is much too precious to base on assumptions.

Much more importantly, what right do I have to walk around glibly, risking infection, even if I think it will have minimal impact on me. I will come into contact with many vulnerable people, not least, the fact that I have a parent with a highly compromised immune system. What right do I have to put them at risk just because I’m making the assumption that I’ll be fine?

Simply put, now seems exactly the time for us to support governments, employers, our health systems and our communities by doing everything we can to minimise the spread of this illness. And that means abiding by whatever measures are deemed necessary. I’m not saying we have to stop our lives completely, but we do have to ask ourselves what we can sensibly do to stop this pandemic needlessly piling up statistics and lives.

Coronavirus is bigger than me, humanity is bigger than me.

How will you measure your life?

One of my favourite pieces of academic writing was by the late Clayton Christensen, a Professor in Business Administration at Harvard Business School and christian writer. In 2010 he challenged us all to think about how we would measure our lives. Much resonated with me about what he said but I always come back to how he ended the piece. The context is that he had just had his cancer diagnosis but he would still have ten years of life ahead until his passing in January 2020.

I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people – Clayton Christensen (2010)

On a personal level for me, Rohan Kallicharan, my life is measured by the lives I’ve touched, the lives I’ve helped to make better. That is my why, and no level of individual prominence or personal goal achievement can ever supersede that why.

The Golden Circle of Why

Furthering the theme of why, Simon Sinek talks about the Golden Circle, a concept which really emphasises the need to examine your why.

Image Source - Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action Image Source – Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

It has been my privilege, over the years, to speak to hundreds (possibly thousands) of marathon runners beginning their journey with Mind, the mental health charity. I always emphasise the need for them to remember their why on that journey from dream to reality.

As a marathon runner, my how and what have evolved constantly since 2014 when I first completed 26.2 miles for Mind in London.

However, my why has remained constant. Marathon running allows me to change lives, not least my own.

So, I’m going to put myself into the mind (no pun intended) of many marathon runners whom I have had the privilege to address over the years, with a focus on this 2020 group who are anxiously awaiting their moment of glory in Brighton or London.

The What: that’s simple, it’s the 26.2 miles that awaits you in April, the life defining moment where you achieve the impossible.

The How: that’s a little more complex. This is a combination of hours of dark mornings and late nights fitting in long runs, pushing your body where it’s never been before. It is, however, also the sacrifice of time and commitment, the challenge of fundraising, your heart and soul pouring into every physical and mental effort to get you to the finish line.

The Why: we’ll answer that below but first I want to take you back to your why and your how.

Defining your Why

To know your why, you have to nail your what and how. I link this back to Clayton Christensen; he talks in dollars, saying that his impact will not be measured by that metric but by the people who’s lives he changes. That is the journey for me as a marathon runner and, I suspect, those of many of the thousands I have spoken to. This changes everything, and it certainly redefines the what and how above.

So let me redefine…

My definition of What

The marathon is a journey, a life-changing one at that. But it does not start at Greenwich and it does not end on The Mall. It started the day you made the commitment to do something which would change your own lives and it will stay with you long beyond the 26.2 miles.

Yes, the 26.2 miles is the crowning glory and one of the most special days imaginable, but it is the entire journey that has been transforming you and driving you towards it.

The what is a journey of self-discovery, determination, resilience, overcoming self-doubt and ultimate achievement. With this in mind, your what is almost complete even before you arrive at the start line.

My definition of How

You have got to where you are now by telling yourself that you have more in you, by telling yourself that nothing will stop you from reaching your goal.

Your how has been hours of sweat and toil, it has been dark, cold mornings and evenings out running, it has been sacrificing an easy life and dedicating yourself to that life changing moment. It has been squeezing every precious penny out of fundraising, being resilient at times when the targets seem so far away.

This how has already transformed you as a person, and it will have inspired those around you. You have already given fullness to your how before you arrive at the start line.

My Why

Simple. I want to change lives. My how and my what are damn hard work but they are fuelled by my why.

Every ounce of sweat, every pound raised for the charity, every conversation raising awareness, they are the how and what and I cannot do them every day without a fierce commitment to my why.

Every day, I know a small action will add something to those around me, whether family, friend or stranger.

As a first time marathon runner (or second, third, fiftieth), you will be having that same impact.

It changes my life every day. It makes me realise that the impossible is achievable, that pain is temporary, that compassion changes not only the lives of those I will touch, but it changes me.

I have every confidence that it’s doing the same in your lives.

Coronavirus and cancellation: Tokyo, Paris & Barcelona

When Tokyo announced that the marathon would be an elite event only, due to Coronavirus, there was a lot of ire in the channels I follow. I understood why but things have changed significantly.

First and foremost, the frustration was from a number of experienced marathon runners who are on a journey towards collecting the six stars for running all of the World Marathon Majors. Tokyo just happens to be the most difficult and chaotic to get into and for many of them this was to be a moment they had worked so hard for. I would be devastated to have that pulled from underneath me.

Retrospectively, however, I am convinced there was universal naivety at that point, thinking that Coronavirus was an East Asia problem, something that wouldn’t affect the rest of us. As long as we quarantined those being flown back from affected areas that would be fine.

We know now, if we didn’t before, that this was a massively misguided opinion.

Tokyo made absolutely the right decision, and Paris and Barcelona have more recently done similar as the Coronavirus pandemic has become very much a global issue.

The Coronavirus threat – Boston, London and the rest

There are infinite reasons to ensure these events go on as planned. They bring people together in a way that few other events can, bringing a real feel-good factor to the city and  they bring a massive boost to the local economy.

More importantly still, thousands of runners rightly await their moment to shine, they await their what, that crowning glory.

Their why is also so important, as millions of pounds is raised for the charities they represent.

However, there is a but.

I won’t be popular for this opinion but I’ll say it anyway. Given the situation as it is today, it would be utterly reckless to host mass participation events with global competitors and visitors. And I see absolutely no way in which that changes any time soon given where we are with Coronavirus.

I would absolutely urge Boston and London organisers (Brighton, Manchester etc. also) to make the earliest possible decision and that, right now, means to postpone or cancel this year’s events. With no conscience can any other decision be right as it stands.

I know it’s easy for me to stand on my soapbox and say this. I’ve run 36 marathons and I suspect I would have been less calm about the possibilities in 2014 but the reality is that each of these incredible human beings deserve better for their special moment.

Each runner deserves this moment as one to savour, and not one clouded by uncertainty and doubt Each runner deserves this moment as one to savour, and not one clouded by uncertainty and doubt

And what about the runners

Yes, they absolutely deserve their moment of glory for which they have worked so hard.

They deserve to be cheered by their families and supported by the hundreds of thousands cheering for each and every one of them.

They deserve to be surrounded by the joy, celebration and carnival which comes with this most iconic achievement of running 26.2 miles.

They deserve to hug, high-five and smile their way through 26.2 miles.

What they do NOT deserve is to run their race on empty streets.

What they do NOT deserve is to have their crowning moment in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

What they do NOT deserve is to have their fundraising compromised by uncontrollable events around them due to Coronavirus.

What they do NOT deserve is the ambiguity and uncertainty in the weeks ahead, stripping them bare of any energy and joy as the day approaches.

So my message is…

To all runners

You are more than 26.2 miles and you will not be defined by that day alone – you are already a champion and hero. Remember your why. You are already changing lives.

Your crowning glory will come at some point and the best things are worth waiting for and are worth doing properly.

Keep running and keep working – better to be prepared and the race be postponed rather than it happens when you’ve mentally checked out.

And it’s for that last reason that I urge all race organisers to take the ambiguity away. Make an early decision, start working with the relevant people to rearrange in the Autumn, and think about clearly communicating all options to participants making sure that includes an option to run when the event can sensibly take place, when Coronavirus is not rampant as currently the case.

These are difficult times and it is the right time to do the right thing. The impact of these marathons has always been to transform the lives of the runners, supporters and charities being supported.

Let us not now impact negatively on many lives by putting on a show which leaves so many people vulnerable to something over which we have no control.

Coronavirus and my #20in2020 campaign

I will continue to monitor and abide by government instruction and advice, of course also observing decisions by the race organisers. I will keep you all updated. The most recent update is here.

Rohan Kallicharan

Rohan is an award-winning mental health campaigner and speaker with lived experience of mental illness. He has been involved in a number of high-profile campaigns to raise awareness and break down the stigma around mental ill-health. He is a sub-3 hour marathon runner, HR Director and husband to Claire.