What running taught me about getting through a global pandemic

I took up running at the end of 2008 as I closed in on my first full year as a parent. Something about the rhythm of that movement helped lift the fogginess of being a new mother.

Running has provided me a physical outlet for the ups and downs of life. Bringing experiences from everyday life into those steps, during training runs and on race days, has helped me get through those trips in the pain cave while aboard the struggle bus.

Now, as we face what feels like an insurmountable amount of fear and uncertainty that comes with a global pandemic, that formula is flipped. It’s in “regular life” when I am increasingly finding myself chugging through those “I think I can, I think I can” rhythmic mantras that I had used for running. They’re helping me get through the next day, the next hour.

Five lessons I’ve learned from running, often the hard way, that are helping me now.

1. Keep with your feet.

This one also can be labeled “Be present” or “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” It usually requires months of training to be “race ready,” which just means you don’t go from registering for a 13.1-mile race to running it the next day. At least not if you like walking. In training, I feel better when I focus on what’s right in front me -- whether it’s a scheduled training run or a targeted workout. Getting too far ahead of myself and looking at weekly mileage a month out can create too much anxiety.

I think this one is important right now, especially because we need to tamp down on the phrase, “Light at the end of tunnel,” which we’re hearing a lot. Let’s just take on the day, the hour, in front of us. Let’s focus on the people and the tasks that need our attention instead of allowing the enormity of this pandemic to swallow us.

2. Watch your pace.

Often in running you hear, “Don’t go out too hot.” What they’re really saying is, “Be careful of all of that adrenaline on the start line. It will make your body go out way too fast and it will punish you in the end.”

I think we all had a big hit of adrenaline in mid-March when shit got really real and we were hit with school closures and shelter in place orders. What happens after that? A huge drop in energy is what. We’ve still got to be vigilant and attentive and proactive, but keeping up that level over a sustained period of weeks is exhausting. It’s hard, but keeping an even pace is going to help us avoid burnout before the virus burns out.

3. Realize that comparison is the thief of joy.

It’s easy to look around, whether it’s at the start line of a race or just in “regular life,” and say to yourself, “They’re doing it so much better,” or “They look so much better!” That way of thinking, though, just takes away from the experience of doing something; it steals joy.

I know, I know. Nothing about the current collision of an economic dumpster fire and a public health crisis is “joyous,” but to face all that AND feel bad about not doing “more”? While coronavirus resolutions appear to be a thing, I have one thing to say to that and it’s “Nope.” This whole situation, with its anxiety, stress and fear, is difficult enough to manage without adding an entirely unnecessary component that makes you feel bad for not organizing every closet or baking all the things or exercising.

4. Tap into your superpower.

It may seem silly, but desperate times, right? We’ve all got a superpower. Whether it’s being calm in the face of a storm or being organized in a disorganized time. Whatever it is, remember it and tap into it.

I can’t sew masks for health care providers on the frontlines of this crisis. I don’t play a musical instrument that would allow me to tweet short performances aimed at bringing comfort. And I can’t speak a foreign language that could help COVID patients understand their diagnosis and treatment. But, god bless America, I can show up.

That’s it. Showing up is my superpower. Day in and day out I can keep going like no one’s business. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems, but maybe it will make my kid feel slightly less anxious in a period of very high anxiety. And maybe it will help my spouse turn off his brain when everything is just too much.

5. Remember the journey.

In running, sometimes you can do all the training, make all the right decisions about nutrition and hydration and get all the way to race day … and then realize it’s just not going to be “your day.” You feel off or the weather doesn’t cooperate. Whatever it is, sometimes the best laid plans don’t produce the best results. But that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, take away from your work.

The thing that scares me the most about COVID-19 virus? That you could do everything “right” and you could still end up sick. We don’t know everything there is to know about coronavirus. You could stay home, wear gloves to get the mail, put on a mask at the grocery store, wash your hands all the time … and still end up sick.

The stealthiness of this mega-contagious virus is staggering. You don’t know you have it, you walk around with it for days, unknowingly infecting others. You feel ill, then really ill and then … maybe it’s a trip to the emergency room. And then maybe you need a ventilator to continue breathing. All this could happen within a few weeks.

It’s that part of the equation that has me thinking this virus is way more about living than it is about dying. For hundreds of thousands of Americans, there won’t be time for getting closure, tying up loose ends or making amends. So really it comes down to what you did, or you are doing right now, with the life that you’re living.

The most heart-breaking part of this whole thing? You go through it, or you watch a loved one go through it all alone. There is no hand-holding, no warm embrace, no soft touch on a cheek. You’re just done and, if you care for the people around you, you’re on your own. So let’s do the things that need doing and say the things that need to be said.

Just like there is uncertainty about how a race will go, we don’t know how all this is going shake out. But, just like a start line, we’re all going through it together. There is power in a shared experience even if we’re “alone together.”

Amy Bailey was a member of the Michigan Capitol Press Corps from 2000-2006. She lives and works in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with her husband, son and an easily excitable Australian Shepherd named Max. Amy's guest column, Something to Say, publishes periodically. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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