The pull of the ocean, the lake and the hills
For those who rely on the great outdoors for their sport, it’s been a tough four weeks. But a top paddler, trail runner and surfer say they've all found a silver lining in lockdown.
Kayla Imrie longs to return to her office.
Especially when her workplace is Auckland’s tranquil Lake Pupuke.
“I miss being able to get on the water, especially on Pupuke in the mornings, when it’s a glass-off and there’s an amazing sunrise. Man, you think ‘I have the best job in the world, and this lake is my office’,” the Olympic paddler says. “It would be a dream to be back at work again.”
Under alert Level 4, Imrie and her New Zealand canoeing team-mates have not been able to train on the water. For the first few days of lockdown, they kept heading out in their kayaks, but in their “separate bubbles” – paddling alone and in different corners of the lake.
But then the slightly ambiguous rules around outdoor recreation were clarified, and kayakers, sailors, surfers and ocean swimmers were kicked off the water.
“We paddle probably more than we walk,” Imrie says. “So when that’s taken away from us, it feels more risky going for a bike ride than going for a paddle.”
The situation has presented a whole raft of new challenges for Imrie, who was preparing to head to Europe in May for 13 weeks – the final build-up to the (now postponed) Tokyo Olympics. Now this will be the first New Zealand winter she’s endured in five years.
And although lockdown is difficult for an elite athlete who usually trains 14 times a week on water, Imrie says the enforced changes to her daily routine may, in fact, be beneficial to her sporting career.
She’s not alone. LockerRoom also spoke to history-making trail runner Katie Wright – who’s been working as a doctor at Blenheim Hospital through lockdown – and last year’s national surfing champion, Aimee Brown, about how it has affected them, and the good they’ve taken from it.
A three-time world canoeing championship silver medallist, Imrie has made some gains both physically and mentally over the last month.
Cross training on land in lockdown, she’s been focusing on an area of her body that hasn’t been given the same time and attention before.
She’s concentrating on strengthening her lower body – with running, biking, gym work and tabatas (high intensity interval training). “But man, my body is getting a shock,” she says.
“In a race, my legs are the first things to blow up, and it’s a pain train - all through my quads and glutes - getting across the finish-line. We use our legs a lot. But the volume of the leg work has increased one hundred-fold in lockdown,” she says.
Week four of lockdown has been a struggle for body and mind, Imrie admits. Her legs, she says, are pooped.
“It was easy in week one and two, all exciting and new. But I think when you get into week four and your body starts struggling as the training builds up on itself, it’s mentally challenging,” she says.
“A few athletes have talked to me about having those days now where it’s hard to find the motivation.”
But the time in isolation has also made her grateful for the small things in life. Like taking a walk outside to breathe fresh air.
“Training 14 sessions a week, I’d be too tired and I’d say it’s almost detrimental to what I’m trying to do right now. But now, it’s like ‘Wow I didn’t know what was on my back doorstep. We have a golf course across the road, but now I walk though it every day. It’s so scenic, so much space.
“I definitely realise there are so many little things I take for granted. Like driving a car. And it’s been really nice to be forced to slow down.”
She’s now waiting for her fiancé, Samoan rugby player Josh Tyrell, to finish his fortnight in government quarantine – last week he returned from his rugby season in France.
The couple have plans to get married beside Lake Taupo in December. But Covid-19 has already interfered with their plans. “After the Olympics, I was going to experience living with him in France for six months. Then we’d come back, get married, and I’d get back into paddling,” she says. “But that’s all been flipped on its head.”
When New Zealand goes down to the pandemic Level 3, the kayakers should be allowed back on the water – training individually at a distance on rostered times. They’ve already trialled the system successfully.
The toughest part of training in an Auckland winter will be the wind. But as Imrie points out, the lockdown cross training has prepared them for many days off the water.
When a four-week lockdown was first announced, Katie Wright was virtually living out of her car – with no job and no fixed abode.
She’d planned to spend the month running and walking long distances, preparing for ultramarathon races in Australia and the United States. You may remember Wright became the first woman in the world to win a last-runner-standing ultra, running 30 hours non-stop in Auckland’s Riverhead Forest around this time last year.
So the British-born doctor had 48 hours to secure herself a job – ending up at Blenheim Hospital, as one of the junior doctors on the emergency relief roster during the Level 4 period – and somewhere to stay: right next door the Wither Hills, and its wide tracks.
The rapid change of plan has actually made Wright the athlete, “a lot more structured than I usually am – which isn’t a bad thing.
“I’ve sat down and done a proper training plan - with speed sessions, intervals, and weight training. So I’m a lot more like a normal athlete than I’ve ever been.”
She has stuck to the rules of lockdown and stayed close to home with her training runs. “I’m literally 1km walk from a farm park,” she says.
“It’s fantastic – the owners have put up signposts with Covid-19 rules, and they’ve gone through and opened all the gates so you don’t have to touch anything. The tracks [there are around 70km of them] are wide enough so you can easily stay 2m away from other people.”
Her flights to Australia to run in a backyard ultra have been cancelled, but she will carry on training to compete in the 2020 Big’s backyard ultra world championships in Tennessee in October (last year she got down to the final four runners after 50 hours on her feet).
“If it doesn’t happen, it just means I’ll hopefully do a couple more races here this year,” she says.
On the work front, Wright has been thankful that the coronavirus hasn’t struck the top of the south hard. The Nelson-Marlborough region has had 48 cases of Covid-19 – with no new cases since April 9.
She feels for her medical friends working at the coal face in England, and keeps in regular touch with her family there.
It’s been important for Wright to be able to head into the outdoors after a hospital shift.
“Getting outside, getting fresh air and getting exercise has been hugely beneficial to keeping on top of my emotions,” she says.
Living in Raglan and watching the surf pumping these last few weeks has not been easy for Aimee Brown.
“It’s been super-hard for me to stay out of the water, because I practically live in the ocean,” the talented teenage surfer says. “Before lockdown, I was surfing twice a day, every day.
“But I’ve been kept out of the water before because of injuries, so I’ve learned to deal with time out.”
Brown was about to compete for a wildcard in the Corona Piha Pro – one of the biggest professional surfing events to have (almost) hit New Zealand’s shores – when both the qualifier and main event were postponed because of Covid-19. They’ve since been cancelled.
When the lockdown was announced, Brown decided to stay in Raglan, where she’s part of the surfing academy, rather than return home to her family on Great Barrier Island. And it was made clear that surfing was banned, Brown changed her focus.
“I’ve just been training heaps, pretty much every day, to stay fit," she says, "so when I get back in the water, I’m just as strong."
Allowed back in the water at Level 3, Brown has her sights set on making the New Zealand team to compete at the World Surfing Game in El Salvador - the May event has been postponed until possibly the latter half of the year.
“Because of all the uncertainty around whether we’ll be allowed to travel or not, I’m just focusing on improving my surfing and getting as fit as possible,” she says.
“Looking at the positives, it’s been a cool opportunity to sit back and reset, and focus on my physical and mental health.
“You’ve gotta make the most out of this situation.”