In this alternate universe of sport in which we currently reside, one marked by far fewer training options than normal, Darren Jermyn knows that his athletes have fared far better than most.
"Let's face it - middle distance and long distance runners do train a fair amount of their own, typically," said the Track North Athletic Club coach, who also oversees the Laurentian University cross-country teams along with Dick Moss.
"Given that we are primarily distance coaches, it's been far easier on us. It would be preferable for our athletes to train in groups, both for their easy day runs and their hard workouts. But many athletes have had to train in isolation in the past, whether they are away at a different school, or they are on holidays, or whatever it may be - but never for this protracted a period."
Still, the real fly in the ointment for Jermyn, Moss and company has less to do with the environment in which their workouts can be accommodated, and more to do with the lack of competition to put their training to the test.
"Our big challenge is not having any goal races to train for," said Jermyn. "It's been interesting to see just how much the motivation of the athletes has waxed and waned, with nothing to train for. Without a target event, it has been a challenge."
The fact that many have risen to the challenge has not surprised the Track North coaching tandem. The fact that some are excelling in this environment, well, that's a little more of a revelation. "Some athletes have actually embraced this time with their training," stated Jermyn.
"Some athletes are breaking through a little bit because there is no pressure, and they're embracing the fact that they are running for themselves. For some athletes, that's a huge turn-off. They need competitors beside them, they need to get into that head space."
Not the case for Laurentian graduate and Bishop Carter CSS product Caleb Beland, who is posting times that easily rank as personal bests, as much as one can record personal best times without the more official benefit of electronic timing and such.
"He's had a breakthrough in the middle of a pandemic, which you're not going to see a lot of," said Jermyn. For Beland and his teammates, there is at least some sense of normalcy to the manner in which they are approaching their athletic pursuits.
"We've always coached in a style where at the beginning of the week, you receive an email and the week's workouts are listed," explained Jermyn. But where the standard summer might inside track-side consultation three to four times a week at practice, along with the aforementioned feedback that comes courtesy of a race setting, a weekly Zoom call is now the norm.
"We check in on their training," said Jermyn. "Our athletes are pretty honest about where their motivation is at, and the more mature athletes are really honest. A lot of athletes are choosing to simply train through this, doing basic mileage with one hard workout a week."
Zoom, however, is but one facet where the use of technology has been amplified in light of the pandemic. Unable to make use of the Laurentian track where they might normally meet with the runners, even if on an individual or small group basis, Jermyn and Moss have made great use of the Strava software and application.
"It's basically Facebook for athletic geeks," said Jermyn with a laugh. "When you go for a 5 km run, you track it on your GPS watch, and after you're done, it uploads your map, it uploads your splits, it uploads your heart rate, if you have a heart monitor, it uploads your step cadence."
"Dick and I are able to go on to Strava and follow the workouts of our athletes almost as closely as if we were there."
And with an additional expenditure, one could tap into the Cadillac of workout feedback, making use of the Garmin technology. A more elaborate data-based rating would allow a runner to be aware not only of the average heart rate, but how long it took to reach this average as well as time required to reach your peak heart rate.
"We don't get to see the body language, we don't get to see the technique, we don't get to see them falter, when they do," Jermyn added. "But it's been really neat to see the social side of it, because athletes these days are really willing to share the information."
"They will share their bad workouts too."
With the OUA fall sports season already cancelled, including the cross-country campaign, Jermyn and others hold out hope for the possibility of some Athletics Ontario sanctioned races, or possibly even a provincial university cross-country championship in the spring.
With a men's team that was poised to make a serious run at the top five in Ontario, there is understandable disappointment. Yet the tougher pill to swallow speaks to the relationships that Jermyn and Moss have continually built with their squads, year after year.
"We're sort of enjoying a bit of a break from coaching, but we're really missing being at practice with our athletes," said Jermyn.
All the while understanding that there are coaches, in many other sports, missing it even more.