Athletics fan and PB chaser James Rhodes had almighty plans for 2020, but like all of us, he had to adapt.
12:02 AM, 1 January 2020: I tweeted “Happy Olympics Year!”.
As anyone who’s met me knows, athletics defines a large part of my life, whether a fan, photographer or slightly-above-average runner, and 2020 was going to be a big year.
It’s not just elite athletes that centre their dreams and motivations around the Olympics, fans do too. I’d saved up for the past six years, got tickets for every athletics session, and agreed an extended break from work. I was finally going to the Olympics, seeing people whose careers I’d supported since day one at the biggest competition of their life, the (literal) countdown was on!
Simultaneously, last summer I discovered a pure love for racing. I’ve always run, but there was a step-change and I was excited to grow and test myself as an athlete. On New Year’s Eve I made a list of personal running goals. I was motivated and ready.
We all know what happened next.
Adopting The Right Attitude Can Convert A Negative Stress Into A Positive
COVID put my plans and dreams through a blender. In the space of a few days I went from club group training and planning races, working in an office with friends and counting down to Japan… to nothing.
Compared to the wider world – rising death tolls, a stretched NHS, and vulnerable people forced into isolation – I knew this wasn’t that important; but my life, or escape from life, was no longer there and the apparent frivolity of it made it that much harder to talk about. I am sure many athletes (and fans) had similar thoughts at the time.
After the initial frustration / sadness / stress about how much money I might lose and whether Tokyo 2021 was a-go (a trip to the Olympics, especially in Tokyo, isn’t cheap, luckily I booked some hospitable hotels that were happy to refund non-refundable bookings), it didn’t take long to find some positives.
I couldn’t control external factors, so why worry? Plus an extra year of saving could enhance a Japanese adventure in 2021. I also got to revaluate myself as an athlete.
Finding the positives
Lockdown meant I was no longer spending two hours a day commuting, and with my other past-times (theatre, film, Friday night drinks) on hold, there was a chance to train properly.
I viewed it as a form of winter training block, but with no defined end date, cemented with a belief there’d be a chance to race and reap the rewards at some point in the year. I felt lucky to have this opportunity and didn’t want to let it go to waste, and so I trained like never before.
The role my club (Striders of Croydon) played in keeping me motivated cannot be understated; weekly solo speed sessions and monthly virtual challenges were set, social virtual catch ups organised, and there was a real sense of community. I am sure many athletes can relate for their clubs.
Each good run added to the motivation, I was ready.
‘Feet, fail me not, this may be the only opportunity that I got’
My first race was a 5000m in Holland in early August. With no prospect of racing in England at the time, particularly at my favoured distance, I looked abroad with guidance from some elite athletes.
After much research and deliberation, I went for Holland. COVID rates were low but I still tried to minimise risk (a hotel with a kitchen in the room to avoid eating out, train instead of a plane).
Before every race I listen to Lose Yourself by Eminem, the lyrics ‘feet, fail me not, this may be the only opportunity that I got’ seemed more apt than usual.
It was a lot of effort to try for a PB over 12.5 laps – was it worth it? Being back at a competition felt special, and on the start line I felt a sense of calmness I haven’t before. I ran a 29 second PB for 16:50.91, breaking one of my big 2020 goals of running sub-17 minutes. All the effort during lockdown was made worthwhile by that one race.
Good for the fans too
At the same time, as a fan, it was amazing to see athletics returning. Events like World Athletics’ Garden Challenges, The Impossible Games in Oslo or Podium 5k made me smile in a way only pole-vaulting from a back garden or 400m hurdling in an empty Norwegian stadium could.
But I missed live athletics.
I couldn’t replicate the adrenaline and excitement that comes with being there in person at home; plus, I was craving the chance to grow as an athletics photographer. As COVID levels dropped and events allowed limited spectators, I began dreaming of a trip somewhere.
The Monaco Diamond League, with some of my favourite athletes, minimal COVID cases and a good risk plan in place from the organisers, seemed perfect so I booked it all. Of course, this was 2020 and quarantine restrictions were announced nine hours before I was due to fly.
It was painful to watch a 5000m WR (my favourite distance to race) from rainy south London knowing there was a seat in the stadium with my name on it. My first live athletics trip was a bit closer to home, 4km to be precise, at the Bromley Twilight Invitational. Being back at a track and seeing athletics friends I’d not seen for half a year was fantastic, so much so I have struggled to put it into words.
I remain very grateful to Mark Hookway for inviting me as a photographer and am in awe of his efforts to put on such an outstanding COVID-secure display of the best of British endurance racing.
Back with camera in hand
I was given an opportunity to photograph from the infield at the Memorial Kamila Skolimowskiej in Poland in September. I had to say yes, even if it meant I raced an 800m in Tooting 20 hours earlier and going straight to Stansted Airport in full race kit… how 2020 had changed!
Whilst being in an almost empty stadium was a bit strange, it was brilliant to experience live athletics again – especially when the performances didn’t disappoint – from a viewpoint I wouldn’t have had in a ‘normal’ 2020.
There was a case of deja-vu the following weekend. After racing another 800m on the Saturday, I decided to go to Berlin 24 hours later to see Mondo Duplantis and Karsten Warholm attempt World Records, in another stadium that holds many good memories for me.
Reminding us why we love this sport
Simply put, a love for this sport gave me opportunities I didn’t expect to get this year.
Since that race in Holland I’ve run 14 track races back home, rewriting my PBs from 400m to 3000m and setting a club record for the mile, my other big goal of 2020.
The efforts of every club who put on races in such difficult circumstances will never get the recognition they truly deserve, but I have to thank Blackheath & Bromley, Herne Hill, Belgrave, Hercules Wimbledon, South London Harriers and Harrow for giving me a chance to run.
As the UK enters a second lockdown and uncertainty grows on when racing will return, when times get stressful or bleak, I’ll look back and remember there are better times ahead, some of which will be unexpected. Hopefully you will be able to do the same.
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