Saturday, 11 April 2020

An Ultrarunner's Thoughts on the Irony of Physical Distancing and Human Behaviour



As an ultra runner, I have a lot of practice at social and physical distancing.  While I often enjoy the company of other runners on the trails and at post-run gatherings, I crave a whole lot of alone time.  Most ultra runners do as well, and if they don't, they quickly become ok with it.  The very nature of our sport conditions us to become very comfortable spending long hours alone on the trails far away from civilization and other humans. Heck, many people find ultra precisely so that they have an excuse to be alone. I am one of those people.

I get up at ungodly hours, am often the first to arrive at the trail head for a run, and jump out of my skin when another human surprises me on the trail and unknowingly interrupts my deep state of flow. Relax mom I've taken self defense.  Even when given the opportunity to run with someone, I will often chose to run alone, content with the company of me, myself and I.  I have spent years seeking out solitary places to run.  Years learning to become self-sufficient for hours on a trail. Years developing the strength to carry food, water, medication, and emergency supplies on my back for all my runs, and years training my legs to carry me far away from other people...before I must come back again.

Ultrarunning has kept my body strong.  It has kept my mind strong, and it has kept my lungs strong.  I have been seeking out solitary places to run in nature several times per week long before COVID-19 caused a world-wide pandemic and public orders requiring physical distancing were issued.

As a health care worker and a single mom during a global pandemic involving a respiratory virus, I take it all very seriously. My top priority is to reduce exposure to others while staying strong enough to fight the virus when I inevitably am exposed to it myself.  I wash my hands for the full 20 seconds, I stay 6 feet away from EVERYONE, and I suspect I've gotten mildly intoxicated from hand sanitizer absorbing through my skin.  I don't have time to be sick.  I need a strong body, I need strong lungs. And right now I need a strong mind more than anything else.  This doesn't happen passively or by accident. It happens intentionally and actively.

I awoke this morning and prepped exactly as usual, turning my car into a self contained aid station (aka no need to interact with anyone).  I packed enough food and water for myself, and stuffed my running vest with TP and extra "leave no trace" baggies (even the outhouses are closed now, but any experienced ultra runner knows what to do).  I told one person where I was going and left the house thinking, "it's a good thing I have a sport that I love that requires no gym, that allows me to be alone, and far away from anyone else.  I don't have to change a thing!"  I usually have to tell someone where I am going because if I disappear or get injured, no one would come upon me for hours if not days or years. On any other weekend morning of any other month in any other year this would be the case. Sadly, not this morning.

Runners rant coming...but this is my personal blog so there is no disclaimer

I know we are all supposed to stay at home.  I know we need to balance that with the mental and physical health of not only ourselves but others.  I know I left my house which in many ways makes me a hypocrite. That said was it wrong of me to get more than mildly irritated when I found my usual utterly vacant trailheads ironically crammed with more people than I've ever seen?  I haven't changed my routine, but everyone else seems to have done so.  They have decided it's time to get active and back to nature.  That's great.  So now I can't?  My rational mind told me that was clearly an irrational thought, but this had nothing to do with COVID and I was angry!  I actually really needed to be alone, only to find that one of the places I could always count on for that was...filled with people!!!

Ok.  Deep diaphragmatic breath.  Change the plan but never the goal...

It's a good thing I have more secret spots where no one else ever goes.  Those spots where there is no cell service and I can run for hours comfortably knowing no one will ever find me, more less come within 2 metres of me.  I managed to find one of those spots today and ran in blissful solitary peace contemplating how physical distancing requirements have created a human osmosis of sorts, drawing people out of the cities and towns and back into nature.  On one hand I think it's awesome that parents are getting their families outside and finding safe places for them to do so.  Fresh air and exercise are powerful medicine that will keep us strong while awaiting a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19.  However, there is still a piece of me that resents the sudden intrusion of the masses into the sanctuary of quiet stillness that I've treasured for decades.  In this time of exponential change, I was hoping I'd
at least still have that.

And so ironically those of us who have a sport that physically distances us are finding it harder to do even that.
"It's the good advice that you just can't take." Alanis Morissette
None of us are immune to the changes in our society and it is what it is.  I guess I'm just going through the grieving process like everyone else.  You can criticize me for leaving my house, but for now I will keep running. I will try my very best to be alone, not because I'm told to but because I need to (or I will go bat shit crazy.)  I may have to get up even earlier and run a little longer into the bush to take the trail less travelled, but I will run for my health, and I will run with gratitude.  Gratitude that I can still run on the trails because I am well aware that what I describe here is the rationale used for closing our parks.  Gratitude that I have strong lungs and that it's spring.  Gratitude that I am a trail runner and don't need a gym, treadmill or paved path for my workout.   Gratitude I live in a province with a very low incidence of COVID-19, a population density of 2 people/square km and a whole lot of open space. Yes, I'm finally grateful to live in Manitoba.

Ultra running has trained me in many ways to cope with this pandemic.  It has given me mental as well as physical endurance.  Ultra has trained me to be ok with being alone, and it has given me serious perspective. Mantras pop in my head every day now with new double meanings, no longer reserved for the running context.

Nothing lasts forever.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Pay now or pay later.
Trust the process.
Deal with the little things now before they become big things.
Don't catastrophize the unexpected.
Change the plan but never the goal.
Just keep going.  (but)
Sometimes it takes more strength to stop than to keep going.
It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.  Pace yourself.

I could write many more blog posts on the duality of meaning hidden in those mantras and the parallelism between managing global pandemics and running ultras, but the ultra runners who make up the vast majority of my audience already know.  Don't you?

Good luck finding places to run alone.  Be well my friends.

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