One of the (infinite) reasons why I love ultramarathons is because there is no room to hide when you’re dozens of miles deep on the trail. The mental and physical exertion that you have to expend to keep your body moving forward and upright leaves no extra energy left for pretense. In the ultra world, the trails become nature’s stage on which we display our true selves – the courageous, the vulnerable, the inspiring, the angry and the weepy bits – and it is in all of that glorious messiness that I find comfort. The walls come down and our true selves are revealed (whether through tears, snot, vomit or a giant grin).
In many ways, this COVID-19 pandemic is exposing us, but unfortunately in a lot more negative ways than a regular ol’ ultra. It has subjected all of us to unrelenting stressors, whether physical, mental, financial or otherwise, for an extended amount of time…. and frankly, people are breaking down. It is revealing a lot our weaknesses and the parts of ourselves that I’m sure most of us would like to keep hidden. If only a gel or a timely piece of pizza could pull us out of this life bonk, eh?
Like in any race, I’m certainly not sailing through this pandemic unscathed. The first weekend that France announced the lockdown measures last month – one hour allowed outside per day, within one km of home – I spiraled down an emotional hole. I was angry at all of the people who hadn’t taken COVID-19 seriously and even angrier at the people who were refusing to follow the very lockdown measures that their actions had made necessary.
On top of that, being alone for 24 hours a day for weeks on end is…. weird. I really love my own company, but not having another human being to interact with off screen does strange things to your brain over an extended period of time. In brutal honesty, I think it is affecting my work (and I will take this moment to acknowledge how lucky I know I am to still be employed). My old job in Afghanistan was emotionally taxing, but I felt competent and, yeah, smart. Starting a new job remotely is a whole different ball game and I have started to really doubt my own abilities. I wake up most days feeling stupid or worse – feeling like everyone else I’m working with thinks I’m stupid. The more doubt that creeps in, the more it starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy… The rational part of me knows this is probably all in my head, but there isn’t anyone in my physical space to knock me out of it.
It is hard not to see all of this as shit. Just an absolute stinking pile of putrid shit. And, well, a lot of it is. I don’t need to review all of the horrible things that have happened… we are all tired. But in every pile of shit there are always some fully intact berries. Okay, this analogy is losing its relevance. The point is that I think some good can and will come out of this horrendous period. If you look hard enough, you can see the signs already.
Today, the lockdown restrictions in France were eased from one hour max allowed outside, within one kilometre of home, to three hours and 20 kilometres. What a gift!!! Everyone I passed today seemed so happy to be outdoors. I could tell that no one was thinking of all of the restrictions that remain in place – rather, we were all celebrating the freedoms we had just gained, which I am sure many of us had previously taken for granted.
So, let’s employ an ultrarunning strategy to keep moving forward through this pandemic. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time, checkpoint by checkpoint. Whatever you need to do to keep moving forward (within the realms of general health and safety), just go ahead and do it.
Are you stress eating? Fine. Drinking a bit too much? I am. But fine – this isn’t forever. Haven’t worn pants with actual zippers or buttons since March? Not a problem. Embrace the stretchy pants. I’ve been at my new job for three months already and no one has seen the lower half of my body over video meetings. Feeling sad, lonely, or angry? Totally normal in an ultra and totally normal in a pandemic. Lean into it, let the emotions out, and keep moving forward. Miss your friends and family? Yup. I went to a physio appointment this morning just to talk to another human being in person and I’m pretty stoked my hip is actually a bit messed up because that means more social engagements – I mean physio appointments. It is all fiiiiiiiine.
We will get through this and at some point, we will get to that steaming hot cheesy pizza (um, highly effective and widely available vaccine) at the finish line. So let’s keep our heads down, pump the legs, and give ourselves the same space we do in any race to be our vulnerable, slightly crazy selves, so that we can come out of this okay. The same goes for your weepy, angry, temperamental, pants-less friends and family members: they also need the space to be a bit abnormal, so don’t forget your crew hat and give them a wide berth.
Oh, and thank your physios (thanks, Neil!), and whomever else you are paying for friendship these days.