Running is so many things to me: a measure of my mood, my physical health, my self-worth, my community. My running journey is a marker of passing through this life. It began during the summer of my studying for the California bar exam, as I slowly and gingerly walked, then jogged, and finally ran on an oval track in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; it raced through my days in northern California, where running in the Redwoods was synonymous with developing great friendships; it slowed during the years of juggling heavy career responsibilities and two sons; it picked up speed as my boys graduated from college, leaving me more time to run longer and more often; and now, in my late sixties (how did that. Happen?) it has leveled out (and, at times, stopped due to injuries). No matter at what stage of my adult life, though, running has been a lodestar, leading me forward.
The beginning of 2020 portended a good year for running—as well as life in general. Doug and I were splitting our time between Boulder, Colorado, where I ran at altitude, on snowy trails, and in single-digit weather, and Georgetown, DC, where I ran at sea level, in mild weather, along the Potomac River and among the memorials lining the National Mall. The diverse terrains, temperatures, and scenery pushed me out-the-door, while I contemplated life –and running—in two distinct topographies.
After a short trip to Bermuda in early March, where Doug and I ran together on old railroad beds through the island and I ran on the beach with my four-year-old grandson, we returned to DC—unbeknownst to me at the time, I ran my final long (ten mile) run of the year. The next day, during a planned short run, sharp pains radiated from my heel through the bottom of my right foot. I was stopped, literally, in my tracks. A later diagnosis confirmed plantar fasciitis, the bane of runners. I hobbled around Georgetown as the country was shutting down due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Almost simultaneously, my husband decided not to continue his position in DC. Life changed before my eyes.
Those few days became a template for the rest of the year, rush then think quickly and act. We drove to Pennsylvania to help with our grandkids as schools closed and teaching at universities went remote. We shuttered our Georgetown apartment to return full-time to Boulder. We entered the world of masks and stay-at-home orders, wondering how our lives might change, whether temporarily or longer-term. My running became sporadic as the foot pain slowly ebbed and I tentatively ran outside in the still Boulder winter. Progress felt backwards as the weight of stay-at-home orders forced us to change our daily routines while energy levels plummeted.
In April, I broke my left little toe in a fluke accident, slamming it against the metal leg of a chair in our living room. Once again, the little running and hiking I was during were put on hold. We decided to try to sell our house, amidst the pandemic, wanting to be closer to family (as travel by plane, at least, became more difficult) and to live in milder weather. The uncertainty about life moving forward and lack of control during the pandemic accumulated—a slight malaise settled into my bones, something that even a joyous run couldn’t quite kick. Still, I was more fortunate than many by finding isolated trails that permitted me to be outside, to run, albeit slower and for shorter distances, finding some solace in the beloved mountains and streams of Boulder.
We sold the house and decided, at least for this year, to move to Asheville, North Carolina. My older son and his family were going to be in Durham and Alex hoped to be in Paris, France—so the “being closer to family” piece of the equation for moving was met. The move was complicated: putting Boulder furniture in storage for an indefinite period of time; staying in a tiny AirBNB for a month (with churlish air conditioning during a very hot spell); slipping in a week’s long trip to Alaska’s Inside Passage; returning to Boulder for a few days before the actual move. Two days before we moved to Asheville, North Carolina, excited to run after seven days on a boat, I likely started too quickly, without warm-up dynamic stretches. I had barely gone three miles when, again, a sharp pain in my right foot. Not like before, this almost unbearable pain spread along the edge of my foot and over the top. I could barely limp back to our rental, not having time to go to urgent care as my flight to Asheville was early the next morning. I hobbled through the two airports, arrived in Asheville to move some furniture into our temporary condo and made an appointment with a doctor. His diagnosis—a stress fracture along the metatarsal bones. He immediately put my right foot in a boot—for six weeks! Doug explored the trails around our neighborhood while I put in miles in the swimming pool (thank you, YMCA, for opening up just when I needed the ability to move without any pressure on my foot): all in all, a rough introduction to our home for the next year (at least) when I’d hoped to quickly get acquainted with running and hiking trails, only to be thwarted by that right foot!
I naïvely thought running would be easier here in Asheville with the elevation almost three thousand feet lower than Boulder. I didn’t take into account the humidity (for which there are a number of studies dealing with higher temperatures, wet or dry heat, dew points, etc., the take-away being that running hard in heat and humidity definitely affects performance, including slower pace) or the biodiversity of this area, which can wreak havoc on lungs unaccustomed to all the pollens and other particulates in the air (translated to a lay runner: don’t expect to be immediately able to breathe easily). Once I was released by my doctor to begin walking and then slowly running, trying so carefully to pace myself, not wanting another injury, I bumped into the running in humidity issue (although not as bad as parts of the East Coast and the South in the middle of summer, Western North Carolina is humid in the early fall). While I was slowly building up my foot strength—along with the other muscles, ligaments, and tendons that had lost strength and flexibility during my recovery period—I was running on days where I’d be soaking wet before I’d gone a mile…not at all the experience in the dry heat at the higher altitudes in Colorado. Expectations crashed and burned!
All the while, getting acquainted with our new home has been difficult: while North Carolina was no longer in the stay-at-home regimen by early fall, businesses, coffee shops, and restaurants were restricted, social gatherings were limited, the happenstance meetings and chatting in person, so critical to our basic human social instincts, continue to be almost non-existent. The loneliness of having moved during a pandemic hit me in full force, as my community shrunk quickly to my husband and our monthly visits to our son and his family.
I haven’t done any virtual races (my two key events were cancelled, the Cherry Blossom ten-miler in April and the Vancouver (BC) half marathon in May), struggling to maintain a semblance of shorter daily runs. Our family has participated in Thanksgiving Day runs off and on for years, beginning when the boys were young at the Sacramento Food Bank’s Run to Feed the Hungry. The giving spirit of thousands of friends and strangers walking and running together on Thanksgiving morning before thoughts turned to cooking, family gatherings, and too much food, is powerful. We ran together on very cold mornings in Boulder and in State College, PA, in prior years. This year, with gathering prohibited, we created our own event, meeting another family at the UNC-Chapel Hill cross-country course to run in the heavy leaves and mud. I miss the crowds, the visceral celebrations, the milling around, the faces wide with smiles. Still, a tradition even in disguise can cheer us forward.
I’ve had the mantra, deeply ingrained, to run with joy, to put aside daily stresses, to find solace and comfort on the roads and trails, no technology to distract me and my thoughts, alone. These days, my mind stays cluttered with my lack of energy, aches and pains, not bad but there nonetheless, frustration over seeming stagnation, worry about the world and my place in it, the list is long. I suppose many of us are experiencing some type of fatigue; being a runner with its physical exertion magnifies the toll.
It’s difficult to sum up this year, but running is my metaphor. Even as I’ve tried to adjust to running as an older person—mentally—to slower paces, more niggling aches, longer recovery periods, less “bounce,” in my steps, the desire to run well doesn’t slip away. Should I keep at this sport that tugs at my heart but that strains my muscles, joints, ligaments, and bones? The short answer: my body craves the movement while my mind argues the efficacy (and at times, sensibility) of continuing to do what I so love. And so I must also adjust to current restrictions on visiting friends and family, to in-person meetings, to touch, to travel where and when I want. I must continue to seek the internal guidance that has moved me forward in the past—to handle our current environment as best I can.