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Stratford AC rises to the challenges faced through the Covid-19 pandemic

RISING to the challenge is something which Stratford AC is familiar with when it comes to competing in events locally and far and wide – and it’s that very same can-do attitude which has helped them cope through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Stratford AC junior coach David Coach out for a run on Stratford Recreation Ground. David, aged 71, took up running at the age of 59 and is currently British 1500m champion in his age group. He was pictured along with brother and sister club members Niamh Hillard, aged 13 and currently 1,500m country champion, and Seb Hillard - a Warwickshire country cross country runner. Photo: Mark Williamson R3/1/21/9489
Stratford AC junior coach David Coach out for a run on Stratford Recreation Ground. David, aged 71, took up running at the age of 59 and is currently British 1500m champion in his age group. He was pictured along with brother and sister club members Niamh Hillard, aged 13 and currently 1,500m country champion, and Seb Hillard - a Warwickshire country cross country runner. Photo: Mark Williamson R3/1/21/9489

A big part of the attraction of athletics is being able to meet and get to know like-minded individuals, making friends with like-minded individuals and competing with like-minded individuals. It’s also about the individual’s physical and mental wellbeing.

For a large part of the last ten months, many of these attractions have been denied to the 500-plus members of Stratford AC, a local community club that seeks to look beyond these members in an attempt to involve the wider community.

The lockdown in March last year brought all the winter training and competition to an abrupt halt.

Government guidelines dictated what could and couldn’t be done and so as well as encouraging senior members to stay active with various initiatives, the juniors, with safety in mind, have been encouraged to get involved with home coaching programmes.

These had been devised by the club’s volunteer coaches and overseen by their parents, which kept the families of these juniors engaged, including virtual pentathlons for the U11s and U13s arranged by their respective age group leaders.

So how exactly did the members, coaches and officials at the club, with an active age range of eight to 78, respond to the many challenges presented to them by the pandemic?

Despite the restrictions, it would be no exaggeration to say that without exception they all rose to the challenge magnificently.

For the juniors, when the guidelines were relaxed in June, despite initially not being able to train at the Stratford School track, a few weeks travelling to the Leamington track enabled a limited number of youngsters and their coaches to ease their way back into a familiar routine, albeit in unfamiliar surroundings.

When the Stratford School track was available in July, it was deemed a Covid-secure location, but not before stringent protocols were put in place to protect everyone.

It meant that sessions could include more athletes and involve groups of up to 12 per coach.

This enabled socially distanced sessions across many disciplines and across all junior age groups to resume.

The relaxation of restrictions also allowed the club’s junior endurance group to once again resume their Sunday morning training sessions on the Welcombe Hills, with groups of five juniors and a coach.

Such was the popularity of these sessions, which in normal times attracted approximately 25 participants, that it wasn’t unusual for 60 juniors to take part, meaning several of the coaches had to take double sessions to accommodate these numbers.

Domestic track and field competition was effectively wiped out and the athletes who were aiming to compete in the national championships were devastated as one after another the championships were cancelled.

Fortunately for members, the Pingles Stadium in Nuneaton was one of the first stadia in the country to reopen its doors and one of the first to hold socially distanced track and field competitions for both juniors and seniors.

This limited competition, with the indoor track and field season completed just before the first lockdown, resulted in many of its members occupying top-ten UK rankings.

On the international stage some competitions were run and hurdler Andrew Pozzi was expecting a trip to Japan for the Olympics, but with that delayed until 2021 he took advantage of competing very successfully across Europe and he finished second in the world rankings.

Domestically, Lewis Byng finished his U20 career with a British U20 shot put record with the 6kg shot, becoming the first British U20 in history to break the 20m mark, which gave him a place amongst the top juniors in the world.

For the bulk of senior members who are primarily road and cross country runners, despite limited opportunities, the club continued to arrange many activities.

An unfortunate casualty of the current pandemic has been the postponement of the club’s free to join Couch to 5k initiative, which culminated in the participants “graduating” by taking part in Parkrun.

This scheme saw several hundred members of the public take part, many of whom went on to join the club and indeed some have graduated to competitive 10k runs, half marathons and even full marathons.

One member, who joined one of these groups at the age of almost 70, never having run before, has now run a half marathon and hopes to run a full marathon this year. In 2019 she achieved a top-ten UK ranking for her age in both 200m and long jump.

A major part of the club’s normal activities has been the monthly Shakespeare Races. These have usually been held on the first Wednesday of the month for ten months of the year.

It is a highly competitive competition, traditionally involving approximately 60 members per race, running in and around Stratford over a 10k distance.

Of course this wasn’t allowed, so the club arranged for it to be competed virtually. This involved a monthly run by members, on their own or in groups of six when regulations allowed.

Each month there would be a different distance, restrictions were put in place to ensure members didn’t run downhill for a majority of the race and there was a two-week window for results to be submitted.

The result of this was that instead of some 60 competing, many months saw over 100 entrants.

When the distances involved complied with the England Athletics guidelines for younger runners, these virtual races also gave some of the club’s juniors a chance to compete with and against the seniors, many for the first time.

As a result of both this and club secretary Tony Jackson becoming mayor of Stratford, a Mayor’s Magic Mile race was introduced.

Again this was extremely popular and it also gave many of the juniors the chance to compete against their elders. With many club members also being enthusiastic cyclists, a virtual cycling time trial was also introduced.

Other initiatives included Zoom resistance and stretching sessions, quizzes and alphabet runs, which involved members submitting Strava runs (an internet service for tracking exercise which incorporates social network features using GPS data) in the shape of the letter of the month.

Several senior members also competed in the virtual London Marathon, raising lots of money in the process, while in the local Warwickshire Road Race League, which also went virtual, the club dominated.

However, Stratford AC realised that, as important as the physical wellbeing of its members was, their mental wellbeing was equally important.

The upshot of this was that the club’s welfare officer penned articles for the club’s weekly newsletter, offering advice and links to various organisations that might be of help for anyone requiring it.

For many members, the highlight of the pandemic-hit year was the Club Championships.

With restrictions lifted to enable a limited championship to take place and with the full agreement of Stratford School for the use of the track on condition of complete compliance to regulations, on a glorious sunny day in September the event went ahead with over 120 athletes taking part.

The championships, which normally take five weeks to organise, were organised in just 11 days and run by over 40 of the club’s volunteer officials and coaches.

It was hugely successful, with over 200 personal bests recorded on the day, and proved that the hard work of both members and coaches during the difficult circumstances of lockdown definitely paid off.

Then came another round of restrictions and for a few weeks in November the track was closed but afterwards, with the protocols in place, training carried on until Christmas with an eye on a return to competition.

However, the signs weren’t looking good with the indoor Sportshall League and the cross country season completely decimated.

The current lockdown meant the indoor track and field competitions had also been cancelled.

So that was then, but what about now? Quite simply, the club is pressing the restart button and, similar to the situation in March 2020, it will continue to provide programmes of activities that try to keep everyone engaged, fit and healthy as they look ahead to post lockdown.

The current level of activity is obviously very restricted because of the lockdown, but the club is determined to continue to put its members and their families at the forefront of its efforts to maintain both their physical and mental wellbeing while maintaining the community spirit that is at the very core of what the club does.

Although restrictions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, the vaccine programme is in full swing and the club’s volunteer leadership teams are already looking ahead and planning for hopefully a burst of late spring and summer competitive activity.

The club strives to be so much more than an athletic club: it strives to be something more akin to an extended family for its members and their families. Hopefully, very soon, everyone will be back together and have some more fun and enjoyment along the way.

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