I put away my phone and lace up my sneakers. The sun is streaming in from the windows even though it is early in the morning. Spring is here. It is a beautiful mid-March day. Nothing in the moment speaks to the panic and chaos the world is in. I slip out into the fresh air, grateful for the chance to move my body, feel the wind pushing against me and the rhythmic movement of my breath. I have no idea if this will be my last run for a while or not. The news about the coronavirus has gone from bad to worse and every time I think about it, my chest tightens with panic. This is why I run. Each footfall chases the panic away into the practical – one foot in front of the other.
I think back to my last race, lucky to have run it two weeks before races started getting canceled. Back then, the race itself was the biggest thing I had to be nervous about. And I was so nervous beforehand. I had never run so far – 40 miles. It seemed doable, a short ultra, until the night before. Suddenly, the distance felt insurmountable. Sitting in my hotel room, alone, I kept repeating the mantra my coach gave me, “You can do hard things.” This, along with her sage advice, “Just run aid station to aid station.” In some ways, the conditions of my training had made it possible for me to already feel this advice as deeply true.
I have three little kids, one with special needs, which means no run is a guarantee. This training cycle, every training cycle, I am stressed out. Will I get my runs in? Each week, I had to schedule them in, sneak out around cases of pink eye, stomach bugs, and melt-downs. I had to get up early, get babysitters, and just hope for the best. Each long run was hard – they meant missed birthday parties and trips to the playground, coming home to a house destroyed by children in my absence, dogs that didn’t get walked, dishes that didn’t get done. The price of my miles was rising into the frigid darkness, literally running in the door to start rushing kids off to school. Some days my legs were tired and kids wanted more glasses of water, rides up the stairs, and extra books at bedtime. I would watch the clock calculating how quickly the night would turn into the drone of my alarm and my footfalls in the quiet of the morning. There wasn’t enough time. I never had the luxury of thinking about a whole block of training – it was only one run at a time. Aid station to aid station. But, eventually, all of those training runs built up to that starting line. And I already knew I could do hard things.
In this experience, I am not alone. Even before the pandemic, for so many of us, our next run was not a guarantee for factors we have no control over. And now, the universe has launched all of us into this lesson in real-time. We have no control over our circumstances, of whether our trails will be open, whether we will face lockdowns in our neighborhoods. We only have control over how we react, how we plan, what we do next. Our training is now aid station to aid station, rather than a race to the finish line. But, I have been training for this one since I started running. For me, my children taught me that lesson. Not knowing if I would get my next run in, a lesson hammered home every single day, turned into a blessing not only of my training, but now of the chaotic time we are living through. And a lesson I have long been resentful of.
For the past year, I have been annoyed. I was annoyed at the time I spent caring for other people, missing potential time in the gym, time to really foam roll, time to do core work, time for my training. I resented the uncertainty of whether I could run when I wanted to, or as far as I wanted, or have the time I wanted to recover when I got home. That annoyance became the foundation for the lessons that are now carrying me through each day. Incrementally, we build up towards our goals. Sometimes they are close and sometimes they are farther away. But, as I look at each challenge individually, I find I am better able to cope with them in running, and in life.
This is especially true right now as life becomes more uncertain. Which brings me back to the mantra, “You can do hard things.” I wasn’t sure if I could do hard things. Had I ever really done anything hard before? It wasn’t until mile 20 that I really started to take in the lessons of my training and my race. It is mid-February in Pennsylvania and the cold was just shocking. I needed to change clothes and socks when I reached my drop bag. It was part of a plan that I had come up with my coach to stay safe in the frigid temps. But the cold and the wind made the change physically painful. My legs stopped working and my fingers numbed with pain. I didn’t think I could keep going, not one more mile, not one more step. But, there was still another aid station to reach for, so I did. And after that another and another. As I ran, I started to realize, I am doing hard things. Right now, this thing, it is hard. On the trail, hard things are simplified by circumstance. It may be hard, but once we are out running, we often have little choice but to keep going. You have to finish and get back to your car. When you race, you have to get from point A to point B, if you possibly can. And, to do it, you just put one foot in front of the other one. So, we do. And then, for that perseverance, we are rewarded.
A mile or so from the finish line, my thoughts have turned from the pain to my children. They are waiting for me for the first time since I started running a year ago. The thought of their little faces propels me forward. My legs feel light with the joy of seeing them and I’m floating as I turn up the last hill onto the grass. Snow flutters lightly down as three little kids clad in thick winter jackets jump out of our van and start to run towards me. I stop to let them catch up as the volunteers at the finish line start yelling to step across the line. I take the last few steps and am surrounded by red little cheeks and frozen noses. They giggle at the salt crust on my face and look on in awe as I’m handed a little wooden house with “3rd 19-39” engraved across the top. For a moment, their faces glow with pride and excitement before all three collapse into tears. It is really cold; their hands are cold, they are hungry. The moment passes and I bundle them into my van sending my partner out for burgers and milkshakes. The noise in the car is deafening after spending the entire day in the woods with only the sound of the wind in my ears.
But, this is why we do hard things. For those beautiful moments of joy, for those transcendent lessons that get us through to the next moment of joy – whether it’s Mountain Dew at an aid station, the smiling faces of our family and friends, or the finish line. Running, and racing in particular, is a microcosm of our lives. All the lessons that I learn on the trail become skills I take into my life. Today, in the face of uncertainty and fear, I know that I will be ok, that we runners will be ok, because we have resilience in the face of challenge. We know there is another aid station and we know we can all do hard things.