ESCAPING from the epicentre of America's mushrooming coronavirus crisis has put Milly Clark's latest Olympic challenge into perspective.
After Victorian Lisa Weightman ran 2:26:02 in Osaka in January, Clark found herself relegated to fourth place among Australia's candidates to run the women's marathon in Tokyo, with only three spots available on the team.
Last week's announcement that the Games have been postponed to 2021 gives the Tasmanian plenty of time to replan her schedule. But as she self-isolates in the relative safety of her home state, there were far bigger issues on her mind.
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Keen to improve her marathon personal best of 2:28:08 set on the Gold Coast last July, Clark recently embarked on a round-the-world trip targeting the Rotterdam Marathon in early April.
However, the trip included the New York Half Marathon as a warm-up, landing the Rio Olympian in the Big Apple just as the pandemic began to tear through the city.
"I got out just before it hit," said Clark, who lived in the US as a student. "It was really strange. It was so quiet and I actually felt safe there.
"Normally I worry about getting hit by a cab or getting robbed on the subway but instead I had Fifth Avenue to myself. It was such a weird and surreal experience. But it was pretty stressful trying to get out."
"It’s a good thing that the new dates have been released already as it allows the athletes time to reset and work out a plan of action.”@tassiesport@AUSOlympicTeam athletes @eddieockenden@Stewy_mac3@millyjane14 united about new @Tokyo2020 schedulehttps://t.co/eqiFO1YDet— Rob Shaw (@TheShawThing) March 31, 2020
The day after arriving, Clark went for a run and returned to learn the half marathon had been cancelled.
"I had not been in the country for 24 hours and then had a Europe trip planned so I thought I would stay in New York to train because the marathon was the main priority.
"But when I heard they had cancelled the Rotterdam Marathon and started closing borders and cancelling flights, I thought 'I've got to get home' and flew straight back to Melbourne."
Within days the number of coronavirus cases in New York had reached 60,000 and the death toll surpassed 1000.
It was a tough call, but the right one.Milly Clark
Reflecting on her fortunate escape during two weeks' self-isolation at her parents' house in Launceston, Clark said it was the second time she had been thwarted from posting a new marathon qualifying time.
Three weeks before she was due to run in Houston in January, Clark tore a calf muscle and had to pull out.
The latest setback means she has not run the distance since last July.
"When I found out Rotterdam was cancelled I was thinking I'd had two marathon build-ups without being able to pull the trigger which is frustrating because I feel I'm in great shape.
"I feel I've got a good one in me, I just need to get to a start line."
The Launceston-born 31-year-old, who lived in four continents before returning home a couple of years ago, was not surprised by Weightman's result in Osaka and is expecting further competition when South Australia's dual Olympian Jess Trengove returns from a maternity break.
"I was half expecting [Weightman] to do it and I thought I was probably going to need another time, which is cool because it makes it interesting and I would rather earn my spot. This does give me a bit of extra motivation and I enjoy testing myself.
"Jess will be looking to do a qualifier so the postponement favours someone like her and also a lot of other people coming back from injury. It makes it competitive so if you do make it, it will be even more rewarding."
Clark welcomed the Games' postponement and is confident of returning to the top of her tree having been Australia's best finisher at the 2016 Olympic marathon in Rio (18th in 2:30.53).
"I've got that card to draw on. And just because someone runs quicker does not necessarily mean they will get picked. It's at the discretion of selectors and takes into account results.
"I have to be confident that I have what it takes and can get the time down.
"Once races started getting cancelled I think we all knew the Olympics would be either postponed or cancelled. It was the right thing to do because we cannot train at the moment. Swimmers need pools, weightlifters need gyms, basketballers need courts and these are all shut at the moment so it's only fair.
"You don't want to go into a big competition like the Olympic Games off a month of training. It was a tough call, but the right one."
Clark is coached by Philo Saunders at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, but, given the current climate, said she would prefer to stay in Tasmania.
"My partner brought up a treadmill for me to train on," she said. "I hate treadmill running but at least I can keep the legs ticking over."
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WITH 2020 OLYMPIC MARATHON QUALIFIERS (2:29:30)
- 2:24:11 Sinead Diver (Vic) London, GB 28.4.19
- 2:26:02 Lisa Weightman (Vic) Osaka, JPN 26.1.20
- 2:26:21 Ellie Pashley (Vic) Nagoya, JPN 10.3.19
- 2:26:23 Sinead Diver (Vic) New York, USA 3.11.19
- 2:27:07 Ellie Pashley (Vic) New York, USA 3.11.19
- 2:28:08 Milly Clark (Tas) Gold Coast, AUS 7.7.19
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