A year ago, early in the pandemic, my sister, who works for a very large global organization, sent along a helpful article. I feel lucky, because of the scope of her job, and how there are teams of people managing other teams of people, she filters out and sends a lot of useful articles my way. This one advised, quite sagely, to treat the pandemic as a marathon, not a sprint. We have all heard that expression so many times in our life: we are in it for the long haul, so pace yourself accordingly. It’s going to take 3 hours, not 15 seconds so you’re best to parcel out your energy and take the long view. In the case of the pandemic, it was hard to imagine we were in it for months on end, not merely weeks. A year later, and I see exhausted people everywhere. They are not only exhausted, but also stressed out and anxious and sleepless because their batteries are never able to recharge. They have been doing a series of sprints for months now, never really recovering from the first big sprint in April, when they were so busy pivoting they were gassed before the pandemic was even into its second month.
Recently I started thinking specifically about marathons and life. The Covid vaccines are here, but I am not about to start my sprint finish just yet. If the pandemic is a marathon not a sprint, it feels like we are still at mile 20. And I don’t know this course. With only six miles to go in the marathon, I can usually start feeling the pull of the home stretch and start dreaming of the finish line and the beautiful relief of stopping, but the reality is that anything can happen in those last six miles. In almost every marathon I ever ran, that last 6 miles were a mixed bag of excruciating pain, incredible elation, joy, despair, anticipation, disappointment, confidence and cool out of body experiences. Pace wise, that final stretch had the potential to be all over the place. One minute I would be running, and the next I would be walking, or limping; a minute later, and I was back to running, literally willing myself towards the end.
I am a distance runner. Most twelve year olds can sprint faster than me. I have run over 10 marathons, completed 3 Ironmans, countless half marathons and half ironmans and a handful of longer trail runs. As soon as I read that article, I could relate and I took it to heart. It was as if I had this clear vison and recognition of what a marathon is and even though I had no idea what was happening, marathons and endurance are my wheelhouse.
This has been like a marathon in all kinds of ways. Marathons are not easy. Marathons are hard, maybe the hardest kind of race I have ever done. Most of us, even those of us with good genetics, need a lot of patience and a lot of resilience to take one on. I think that is why people do marathons and the Ironman – they want to see what they are made of, without the risk of Himalayan mountaineering. The marathon at the end of the Ironman might be one of the most difficult, especially if you are not having a great day. You hit the pavement at about two in the afternoon, usually during a 30 C hot summer or tropical day, after having been up since 4:30 AM, having swum four kilometres and having been riding your bike nonstop and hard for six hours. Your legs are like jelly, or worse, like wood, your guts hurt from all the sugary gels you’ve been eating, and yet, somehow, off you go, mile after mile, working through physical discomfort and every emotion you’ve ever known (and a few you suppress most of the time such as anger and self-loathing). You want to stop so badly, but you don’t want to be a quitter, you make bets with yourself about how if you finish this you never ever have to do another one. (Similar to the negotiations that mothers make with the universe while in labour during a drug free birth when they swear that if they get through this, they will never have another baby, ever.)
It occurred to me today, that all my marathon training has really come in handy during this pandemic. Marathons are hard for sure so you learn over time that there are ways to successfully train for and approach a marathon. The more you do, the better you get at them as well, as you refine your planning and training, your nutrition, your mental skills and your overall strength. Of all the distances I trained for, marathons also took the most patience and forgiveness and acceptance. If a 10k didn’t go well, you lost maybe a week of training and you were good to go. When a marathon didn’t go well, it was a much larger cost because the investment was so great. Each marathon was about a 12-16 week focussed commitment but this was only after I had already been training and building for over a decade. During that training build, I would not race that much and every single moment of my day was spent thinking, preparing, or resting for the next training session. It is a pretty boring lifestyle by many standards, but I liked it. I spent a lot of time with the same people and had a very limited social life. I did a lot of training on my own. Training was tiring, often exhausting and consisted of one or two runs a day on a tired body, fighting through self-doubt at times, but mostly just on a mission to get through every training session like it was a rung in a ladder, moving towards my goal. That’s why the planning was also so important. Without a plan, it is very hard to train for a marathon. I trusted myself and my coaches and maybe that’s why I trust Dr Bonnie Henry and the government. It may not be perfect, but it’s at least a plan.
Like the pandemic, with our face masks, line ups and restrictions to living life, marathon training comes with all kinds of obstacles. It is never a straight shot from the beginning of the training plan to the start line. Training needs to be adjusted weekly, if not daily, and you are always making the best possible decisions based on where you are right now and where you want to be. Some of the obstacles, like injuries, take some re framing: acknowledgment of the setback, while continuing to find meaning, or a way ahead. Dealing with weather, life and work schedules and children, all became opportunities to grow awareness and evolve the way I was relating to the experiences of life. This curiosity has become my personal theme over the last year. Where can I find meaning in all this?
As I alluded to earlier, one of the reasons that marathons are hard, is that they can be such a roller coaster of emotions. Within one three hour race, I would often go from elation to despair within minutes. One minute I would be sailing along on pace, smooth and rhythmical, feeling confident and strong and the next minute out of the blue I would be cramping in my hip flexor, or my hamstrings, or mysteriously crashing from lack of energy. Over time, I learned to find some middle ground between the highs and the lows, to not get so worked up all the time. Marathoners get good at suffering. I am not saying that this is a good thing, but being good at negotiating through discomfort has had its benefit as the pandemic life drags on and on.
There is, however, one way in which running a marathon is nothing like this pandemic. Can you imagine a scenario, in which you are running along in the middle of a marathon and you are counting the kilometre or mile markers one by one, and every one brings you closer to the finish, your goal? As you reach the 25 mile marker you can almost feel the relief and joy at being able to stop. And then a race official suddenly jumps off the curb in front of you, with a big sign that says “10 miles to go!” Just when you thought you were done, there is another hour and a half! Or, as you approach the finish line, legs screaming with pain, the people holding the finish line tape start running away from you! In the real marathon, the finish line is a concrete thing. It is a huge visual in the distance: a massive gantry with a clock, and sponsor signs, usually a thousand colourful balloons, crowds of people cheering, and lots of loud music. It does not keep moving. For all of us in the pandemic, it is very unclear where the finish line is, what it looks like and when we are going to get there. I understand how this is a hard concept to live with. In the meantime, we have to keep on exercising our patience, our resilience, supporting each other and using all we can from this experience to be better humans.
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.