Eleanor Davis had intended to spend Sunday on a 42,000-step journey towards Team GB’s squad for the 2020 Olympics. Instead, at 8.55am, when the London Marathon elite women’s race was due to start, Davis will be on a Covid-19 ward saving lives. “It’s gutting that the race has been cancelled,” says Davis, a doctor at Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport. “But there are more important things going on.”
In December, the 31-year-old put years of injury niggles behind her by running a 2hr 33min marathon in Valencia – putting her in the UK’s top 10 last year – and believed she was on course to go under 2:30 in London. That would have given her a live shot at securing one of the three places for Tokyo. But when the virus spread, she volunteered for extra shifts and put her ambitions on hold.
“I’m working more hours than I normally would, mainly on the coronavirus wards,” she says. “It’s been difficult. I have seen some heartbreaking days, but there are also some uplifting moments as well. There are also some difficult phone calls you have to make. But for every difficult phone call there is a nice one when I am ringing to say the patient is getting better and we are hoping to discharge in a few days. I have also seen some care and compassion that I will take with me for the rest of my career, so it’s not all bad.”
However, Davis feels she is likely to get the virus at some point, especially as her wife is also an A&E consultant. “I am generally not fearful when I am in hospital,” she says. “I am fit and healthy, but I know it doesn’t always discriminate.
“From personal experience there have been no problems with PPE but I guess each day I do wake up feeling quite lucky that I am still well considering I have had so much exposure. My wife is an A&E consultant so our house is probably quite a hot spot. I worry a bit because it can be so harsh on the respiratory system and how I might recover to get back into running. I am kind of expecting to get it at some point.”
After Davis finishes her shift, she will join other elite British women marathoners in running 2.6 miles as part of the 2.6 Challenge, which intends to get as many people as possible to dream up an activity based around the numbers 2.6 or 26 and to fundraise or donate to their chosen charity – via twopointsixchallenge.co.uk – as part of efforts to save charities that risk going under during the lockdown.
Davis, who is running for the mental health charity Mind, admits she has had a few low days herself recently. “But I don’t think there are many who won’t be struggling with their mental health through this. So it is a charity that a lot of people can relate to and might need help from in the future.”
Last year, the London Marathon raised £66.4m for charity, making it Britain’s biggest single-day fundraising event. The race director, Hugh Brasher, is urging the public to join figures such as Gareth Bale, Sir Steve Redgrave and Jessica Ennis-Hill in order to help the £1.5m already raised grow rapidly.
“We are trying to highlight a vitally important issue, that the charities that underpin our society are in dire straits and need our help,” Brasher says. “We have lots of sporting stars and celebrities on board and the hope is that lots of incredible and crazy activities will take place, under social distancing rules, of course, to raise money.”
This was supposed to be the 40th edition of the London Marathon, which was set up in large part due to the drive, vision and energy of Hugh’s father, Chris, then the athletics correspondent of the Observer, and his friend John Disley. In the first race in 1981 there were 6,255 finishers, 5% of whom were women, little fundraising and nobody in fancy dress. Now, thanks to their vision, 45,000 people run it with millions watching on TV and donating to support charities. As the former Observer editor Donald Trelford puts it: “there was something of the great Victorian” about Brasher. “He had a kind of manic energy, and a bustling single-mindedness that brook no opposition.”
His son agrees. “Impossible wasn’t a word he accepted,” Hugh says, laughing. “If a door was shut he would bulldozer it down or try a different one.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a unique challenge to the organisers but Brasher Jr still hopes to hold the event as normal, in October, although he says they are planning 10 other options, including staging an elite-only race.
Meanwhile, Davis says she is still running 90-100 miles a week, to and from hospital, which she finds therapeutic. She hopes when life resumes again, she will be in a position to fulfil her dream by running for Britain. “I’d like to get on the GB team,” she says. “I’ve made the first reserve for the world half, but I think I have definitely got more to give.”
Few would doubt it. Although, as Davis’s patients would certainly testify, she has given plenty to the country already.