Finding Meaning in Canceled Races

When a runner types in their information into a race registration page, they are envisioning a really fantastic race. Nobody is thinking about illness, injury, bad weather or an off day. Runners are looking at those sunny photos on the website and dreaming of conquering a new distance and crushing a PR. Unfortunately, as most of us now know, there are a million things – things you would never have dreamed of when you registered—that can stand in the way of you and your race.

I entered the lottery for the 2020 Nagoya Women’s Marathon at the beginning of September 2019, and three weeks later I was thrilled to find out I won a bib! There were many reasons I had my sights set on this particular race, one of them being that finishers receive a custom designed sterling silver necklace from Tiffany instead of a traditional medal. Each necklace is presented to the runners by ikemen (“hot dudes” would be a rough translation of this Japanese word) dressed in tuxedos. I was mainly attracted to this run because it’s the largest women’s only marathon in the world. More than anything else, the idea of running a marathon surrounded by over 30,000 women—on International Women’s Day—was something that I was really excited to participate in.

I was three weeks away from my March 8th race, amid rising concerns about COVID-19 in Japan. News broke that the Tokyo Marathon had been cancelled for general participants. My initial heartbreak for the runners and organizers quickly turned to panic when I realized that my race, set to be held one week after the Tokyo Marathon, might also be jeopardized.

One week later, I got the email I had been expecting: the Nagoya Women’s Marathon was cancelled for general participants. However, unlike Tokyo, runners would not be guaranteed a spot in the 2021 race. Instead, we would have an opportunity to run an online marathon.

I’ll admit it; I was quite upset. I’m quite new to marathon running, and idea of attempting the full distance without water stations, cheering crowds, or race day adrenaline honestly sounded like the stuff of nightmares. I was feeling pretty miserable, but it wasn’t long before the comments on the Nagoya Women’s Marathon’s Facebook page snapped me out of it. Like me, people were worried; unlike me, their concerns were a little more valid. Some of the women lived in hot, humid climates, which would make running a full marathon without water stations dangerous. Others didn’t feel that they had access to safe routes that would cover the distance. Others still had never conquered the distance before and didn’t want their first ever marathon to be a virtual race.

This all gave me some perspective. I live in Vancouver, BC where we have no shortage of safe and easily accessible running routes. The spring climate – as long as I waited for a day without rain – is ideal for running. Bolstered with a new sense of optimism, I made a plan. Within an hour, I had a route mapped out and a potential date set. I had the right gear and friends who offered to help along the way – some would set up water stations which would allow me to refill the H20 SPI companion bottles on my SPIbelt, and others would join me for legs of the race. Everything was ready, and I just needed to wait until the details of the virtual event were released.

Two weeks later, the details were posted and they were not what I had been expecting. While we would be required to run the full marathon distance, we also had until May 31st to do it. Once again, my plan changed. I would take the extra time to train, and then double up by running the 2020 BMO Vancouver Marathon on May 3rd. I excitedly registered for the new race that very day.

However, in the days that followed COVID-19 became a major concern in Europe and North America, and my situation became much less unique. It seemed like everyone’s races were now being cancelled or postponed, and it wasn’t long until the BMO Vancouver Marathon was cancelled as well.

While most of the runners I know support and respect the decision to cancel these races, that doesn’t mean we’re not feeling disappointed. It’s in these moments that your reasons for racing become important, and over the past few weeks I’ve figured out that, as much as I had wanted to run this one particular race. What I had really wanted was the challenge of a marathon and being surrounded by other runners. When both of my marathons were cancelled, these things didn’t go away. A challenge was still possible, and my running community had already offered me so much support.

I see the same online support being offered to almost everyone I know. In times of fear and uncertainty, I see runners constantly lifting one another up. Whether it’s empathizing with someone about the postponement of an important goal, or simply telling our friends we are proud of all the training they did for their now cancelled race. We’ve all shown up for one another. If that’s not the very definition of camaraderie, I’m not sure what is.

So instead of running amongst the crowds in Nagoya or Vancouver, I will earn that Tiffany necklace along my usual training route. I know I’ll have so many people wishing me well as I do it. I’ll still be missing out on the dudes in tuxedos, but there’s always next year.