Running the Race

An essay comparing racing to the uncertain COVID-19 pandemic journey.

By on December 23, 2020 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is authored by Dr. Anthony Fleg, a runner, professor, and founder of the New Mexico-based Running Medicine, a program of the Native Health Initiative, which aims to eliminate the health inequities faced by indigenous communities through health and wellness programs. 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!]

We find ourselves in an interesting race.

This endurance event that has us at a point of exhaustion and fatigue has no clear finish line.

As runners, we sign up for a race knowing what distance we need to cover. There is comfort in having that finite challenge, a distance defined. Okay, sure, in trail running a 50-kilometer race might be 33 miles, but still within a margin of error of what we signed up to do.

But COVID-19 gives us no such comfort. We are on the course, facing daily and weekly questions that sound more appropriate for a real running race.

How much longer? Can I really finish this thing? Why aren’t there more aid stations out here?

I offer two perspectives as we all try to figure out our pandemic race strategy. First, given that our finish line is in an unknown location and at an unknown time, we turn from what we don’t know to what we do know. We focus on our progress as we plod up yet another steep, rocky incline. We change our gaze from looking for the end of the race that doesn’t exist to instead focusing on the progress we are making.

Today, we are one day closer to the finish than we were yesterday. This week, one week closer to the finish than we were last week. And this month, we find ourselves a month closer to the finish than we were last month.

We avoid the runner’s pitfall of incessantly asking, “How much more is left?” We instead focus ourselves on forward progress, one step at a time. We provide an airtight argument for our internal dialogue, reminding ourselves that we are getting closer to the finish with each passing day, week, and month. That is true regardless of when or where the finish line lies.

Sit with that for a few moments. Better yet, run with it.

Second, a story from a running friend who heard this pep talk and added his own gem. He reflected, “It makes me think of a race I once ran where I couldn’t figure out where the finish was. It was a bit disorienting and frustrating, but then I was able to let it go and start to notice the beauty of the course. Because I couldn’t see the finish, I was able to appreciate things I would have otherwise dismissed, since it would have been all about the finish.”

The lack of a finish line becomes an opportunity to sit with the present, embrace the moment, live for now. Caution: this quest can even produce joy, gratitude, and tranquility.

Put yourself on a beautiful race course that you have run. Imagine for a moment that midway into that race it was announced that the race distance and the finish line would now be moved secretly, with no information given out about how far the race would be. Once the shock of the unknown destination calms, soak in the beauty of the course for a moment–take in the smells, the sounds, the vistas. Once you free your mind from the finish line, you are more able to take in the beauty around you in a fresh way.

May your running bring beauty to your being.

May being bring beauty to your running.

May running and being get us to the finish line.

Call for Comments

Do you also find that staying in the moment helps in this uncertain COVID-19 pandemic journey?

Anthony Fleg. All photos courtesy of Running Medicine and Anthony Fleg.

Anthony and his family.

Anthony and his wife, Shannon, after Anthony ran a self-supported 50 miler during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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