The Road Ahead

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is authored by runner and physician assistant John Goldfield. Visit John’s website to learn more about him. In this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport and wildlands in creative and innovative ways. Submit your work for consideration!]

The road ahead of me stretches out, over hills and around corners. I’ve been on this rough, gritty path for what seems like forever. Despite the fatigue in my body and my brain, I’ve no choice but to keep plodding onward. There’ve been obstacles, false summits, and hard and seemingly easier times. I know that what lies ahead is fraught with more unknowns, but still I put one foot in front of the other. Though it might sound like it, this isn’t a long training run or a point-to-point ultramarathon. This is my life on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March of 2020, I found myself N95 mask-deep in the sudden changes and stress involved in gearing up for what we expected would be an onslaught of sick folks coming into the suburban emergency room where I work as a physician assistant. At the time, I found solace in my daily trail runs. The singletrack threads running through Umstead Park and along the shores of Falls Lake where I live in North Carolina were the fibers that held my spirit together in between shifts. Mine and everyone else’s A-races were canceled, and we all had to find other motivation to continue training. It was a healthy dose of perspective that set me on course. I reveled in my ability to keep doing what I loved and used that as the primary means of providing the self-care and wellness that ultimately proved to be critical in the long haul.

The problem was, the dang virus just kept hanging around! The protocols and precautions evolved and changed. The classic signs we looked for morphed into too many subtle presentations. Every patient seemed to have it!

All photos courtesy of John Goldfield.

COVID-19 fatigue developed next, the feeling we providers and the general public began to have, that we were just tired of all of it. No one wanted to keep being cautious and careful. The community strain became immense. Politics muddied the waters. More events got canceled. Businesses closed their doors for good. Mental health worsened for those most at risk, and even for those with no prior diagnosis.

More than before, my escapes to the dirt and trees became a vital and necessary activity to keep my sanity and personal happiness. That’s the thing about those trails; they are always there to welcome and embrace you. Sometimes a little root will even grab your foot so that same trail can give you a little “kiss.” It’s real, it’s tangible, it’s grounding. It’s a reminder that if you can take care of yourself,  you can survive just about anything this world throws at you. Additionally, this self-care makes you better able to provide some of that light in your heart to others, and for me that means my kids, my patients, my dad quarantined in his assisted-living facility, and my family and friends connected only via a Zoom screen.

I was lucky enough to toe a starting line recently at the Pinhoti 100 Mile, before this latest pandemic surge started. The event managed to pull out all the stops of safe COVID-19 mitigation and nearly was derailed after all that by the destruction of Hurricane Zeta. I was thankful to even start that race, especially as my main training buddy got sick with COVID-19 just three days prior to this race we were to run together. So when I unexpectedly found myself pushing the cutoffs, I had this sudden realization that finishing this race and holding that buckle would finally be the one, big positive I could get out of 2020! I pushed myself harder than I ever thought possible and completed the race having left it all out there! It was a gigantic, emotional sigh of relief.

No sooner did I get home though, that I found myself back in the thick of the pandemic ramping up all over again. It never left. Europe struggles with new outbreaks and increasing lockdowns. News came out that my town is canceling all outdoor gatherings, parades, and races through March of 2021. I started seeing more and more sick people, even young people and those without other illnesses! I found myself back in the mental struggle, the motivation abyss. A promising vaccine on the horizon but not soon enough.

The high of the finish line has faded, and the buckle sits on top of my dresser unworn. It seems I have come full circle, but this time I have a plan. I recall how good it felt to get out on my local trails. I remember the feeling of mild soreness in my calves as I saw patients in my mask, gown, and gloves, knowing I’d been outside with the breeze and leaves falling just hours earlier. I know that each day I manage to get a slice of time, I’ll be communing with the trees, and the dirt, and the biting cold. It energizes me once again.

I’ll start training for a spring race that may or may not happen. I’ll virtually kudos my run-club pals, and if lucky, wave excitedly to them in passing. I’ll revel in the postings and adventures of the worldwide trail running community. I’ll get out there and do what I do, to keep trying to find the awesome in every day. It’s not about the finish line after all; it is and always has been about the process. If that means inventing run-ventures, trail shenanigans, and other socially distant and safe things to look forward to, then so be it. I’ll once again put it in perspective, and thank my lucky stars that I have this incredibly healthy and positive outlet to continue carrying me through the darkness. One foot in front of the other, on down the path, over the hill, and around the corner to whatever lies ahead.

Call for Comments

  • Are you also using running for self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How this is going for you?

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