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Opinion: The Pandemic Is Not A Marathon

It's time to stop comparing this to sports.

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It’s been a year.

It’s been a year since the first cities went into quasi-quarantine, for just a few weeks we said. It’s been a year of figuring out what that means and trying to stay afloat. It’s been a year of running in place faster than ever. It’s been a year and it’s not really over yet, not quite.

There was a meme recently: Share the moment you remember when it all became clear nothing would be the same. I remember flying home from training camp on March 2, 2020 so hung over that I looked deathly ill, which freaked out everyone on the flight. I remember standing in an empty San Francisco airport two weeks later and freaking myself out, canceling my flight to Boulder as it boarded (thank you Southwest). And I haven’t been back in an airport since. I remember us all telling each other this was a chance to use the skills we’ve learned as athletes: be flexible, be patient, be realistic, be adaptive. Be something. I remember thinking we’d be back racing by the fall, and I remember realizing before my training partners did that that wouldn’t be happening.

Maybe it didn’t all become clear in one moment but over many, as hopes canceled all at once and then one at a time.

It’s been a year and so maybe it’s understandable that we want so badly for those days to mean something, for our workouts and our goals and our sports to mean something. So many of us need stories right now of triumph and overcoming adversity, of hard work paying off. We need to know what’s possible—and that’s what sports have always been for us.

But this is not sports.

It’s been a year and it’s time to stop comparing the pandemic to sports, to stop looking for meaning where there are only facts. It is not a marathon. It’s not an Ironman. We’re not rounding third base or hitting the home stretch. We’re not in mile 24; we don’t know for sure what mile we’re on. It’s not even one of those crazy ultra races where you run loops around someone’s backyard until you can’t run anymore, and the last man standing wins. No one is winning. This is not a sporting event of any kind. There are no spectators in this race, no finish line banner. You can’t go faster and get done sooner. And, most definitively, none of us are making our way through this by choice, for fun.

At last year’s unique Backyard Ultra, Mike Wardian won after running 262 miles in 63 hours—until he was the only one in the world still going, every hour on the hour, in loops around his backyard. He almost quit too, hours earlier. At 44 hours, 44 loops in, sleep-deprived, by himself, he just didn’t want to be doing this anymore. And then his wife told him that wasn’t a good enough excuse. ‘You need a better reason to stop.’ So he got back up and kept going.

There was a part of me, when I heard that story, that identified with the wife. That’s not a good enough reason. Get over yourself and keep going. Here, I thought, was a metaphor actually apt for the times. You don’t get to decide to quit.

But the more I thought about it, the more that analogy didn’t work either. The reality is it was always still his choice (or his wife’s). The reality is these events we put ourselves through are always voluntary suffering. We choose to do this. For fun. We can just decide we don’t want to be doing this anymore. That’s always an option.

Endurance athletes, triathletes, are by nature goal-driven. We want there to be clearly defined steps, processes, outcomes. We believe that if we work hard enough, if we go to bed early and drink the correct amount of water and do our mobility work, if we do everything right, then we will succeed. Sure, there are ups and downs. We all have bad races—often more bad ones than good ones—but that’s part of the promise. That’s part of what’s supposed to make this deal worth it.

Of course, that’s not really how triathlon works. It’s not really how anything works. And so maybe that’s why so many of us have been struggling in the late-stage of the pandemic. Because we keep comparing this all to sports and it’s not, because that’s part of our group narrative, because we think we just need to work harder or stay more positive, because we thought we understood this deal—and it turns out there was no deal.

It’s been a year of watching friends die and family members enter the hospital, of Zoom funerals and Zoom school. It’s been a year of big and small tragedies, both COVID-created and COVID-exacerbated, until they have built into one giant tragedy that can never really be made whole again. A race you can never choose to have not run.

There are lots of valuable lessons to learn from triathlon, to learn from sports, lessons that carry over into life. You learn how to keep going when you think you can’t. You learn that most of the time the answer to your problem is just: eat more, sleep more. You learn what you’re capable of and how it’s more than you imagined. You learn to troubleshoot and deal with discomfort and be flexible. You learn that if you just take one step at a time eventually you can cover almost any distance. You learn a lot of lessons from endurance sports, and so many of those lessons have been valuable things to know this last year. But there are also some lessons we need to unlearn now.

We need to unlearn this idea that we can power through anything, that there is going to be a clear finish line to the world’s upending. We have to unlearn the belief that we’ve been promised something, that hard work guarantees a successful outcome—it only increases our odds. We need to learn that not every finish line or workout or race or game means anything more than what it is, that sports are not the world and the world is not sports. I made this joke on Twitter earlier in all of this, but at this point I want to get it put on a t-shirt: “Not every run is a metaphor. Some workouts are just workouts.”

Many endurance athletes struggle with mental health issues. Many people in the world right now are struggling with mental health issues. And there are innumerable mental health benefits to exercise, to movement and the outdoors. But as one of my colleagues at Trail Runner likes to say too, “Running isn’t therapy.” Therapy is therapy. And if you lost family or loved ones, if you’re struggling to make ends meet, if the day-to-day pressures of just trying to keep it together are too much, if you’re fighting overwhelming depression, then there’s really no number of miles you can run to make that go away. And that’s OK.

It’s been a year, and I keep thinking about that point near the end a marathon where people have heart attacks. This isn’t a metaphor; it’s just a fact. I read once that some race directors will place medics right at the point where you can see the finish, when you come around that last turn, because there’s an abnormal number of cardiac arrests at that point. Some people’s fatigued hearts simply can’t handle the surge of adrenaline that comes when the end is in sight.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately and about how I always cry at the end of a marathon. Every single time. In Ironmans, instead, I’m five for five in crossing the finish line, stumbling 20 yards and vomiting. (Both are surefire ways to get immediate medical attention.) My body can make it to there and then not a step farther. Sometimes all those tears are because that finish line means so much, because it’s the successful end of so much hard work and struggle. Sometimes it’s everything that’s gone wrong, everything I’ve had to overcome, wrapped up into one day, one race, one finish, and it’s imbued with more meaning than any 26 miles has a right to be. But sometimes I start crying simply because I’m so happy to not have to run a step farther. And then I lay down on the ground and wait for someone to come pick me up—because in a race you can do that. You can’t do that in life.