Movement. Nature. People. I’ve always believed that is the formula for a life well lived and my favourite way to practice that formula is through trail running. But, like the entire world right now, I have had my share of moments where I find myself questioning how to continue to live well in the midst of a global pandemic that seems to be unravelling everything we have considered safe. So, I remind myself, as many times as needed, that amidst the uncertainty, the answer remains the same. Perhaps the way it plays out will need to shift, but if we are going to make it through this unprecedented time, we need to keep moving, we need to heal alongside the earth that sustains us, and we need to stay connected to those we love, now more then ever.
I swear, I’m not just making this formula up, it’s backed by research around trauma, mental health and building resilience. Our treatments often lean heavily towards talk therapy to get through difficult times, which certainly has value, but on its own is not enough because it does not provide a new framework from which to grow and develop.
Our brains cannot grow and heal if our bodies are not moving. Physical activity, of any kind is the best thing you can do to bring yourself back to your centre and remind you of who you are. It literally benefits every cell in your body, brain included. Of course, I’m totally biased towards running as the best way to do that, but it really doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you’re challenging your muscles out of sedation and find a rhythm. Whether it’s shuffling feet on trail, swinging hips to music, passing a ball between feet, breathing through a yoga pose. It is in the rhythm of those motions that the body can focus on the present and the mind can quiet. Meditate.
So what does that mean now that gyms and recreation centres are closed and our regular routines are pulled out from under us, threatening to push us into even more sedentary lives then normal as we figure out ways to ‘work from home’ with even longer days in front of a screen? Thankfully there are plenty of online options for at home-work outs and basement yoga which should leave us with no excuse to get our endorphins flowing and find ways to make a new exercise ‘normal’. I am lucky enough to have a pretty incredible basement home gym including a rower and a bike trainer, and yet I still find it difficult to get down there and push myself. Music helps, including the kids helps…sort of. If running outside is no longer an option, I am fully prepared to try something crazy like running circles around my basement!
Motivation comes much easier for me when I take my movement outside and thankfully we are still able to get outside although I realize that too could change any day. Again, trail running is my preferred happy place and most of the trails I tend to frequent have been empty enough that I’m quite comfortable being on them and still away from people. (I have definitely noticed that the city greenspaces are busier than usual which is great to see so many getting out to explore as long as we can still keep our distance!) And with all this time with the kids and no place to go, we have been spending hours each day taking long walks through the ravine trail system near our house. It feels so good to just play. They climb trees, we slide down hills, break ice and flop in the snow. It’s so simple, yet the benefits are incredible; rosy cheeks, improved mood, voracious appetite to follow. If the province decides to lock down completely and getting out on the trails is no longer an option, I’m still prepared to find nature in anyway I can; the backyard will become my study and rays of sun through the kitchen window will have to suffice. Maybe this is our chance to give earth a bit of a break so she too can heal, and maybe, just maybe we will learn to shift our ways to use less, consume less so we can help save the forest that was put there to save us. If you think I’m being over-dramatic then I encourage you to find a place in the forest, preferably by water, and sit. Wait. Get lost. Be found.
It’s the last piece of this formula that is feeling so uncomfortable for so many of us. Social connection. We know we need each other to navigate life at the best of times, and of course this pandemic is triggering a wave collective grief where no one is left untouched. It feels so foreign to me to stay away from people when my impulse is to draw towards them, particularly during difficult times. A big key to my run success is that I run with others whenever I can, whether it’s with one other person or a big group, the kilometers pass quickly and easily when you have someone keeping you going, it becomes a form of therapy with benefits that far outweigh the physical ones (See: Running with the Tribe) Along comes ‘social distancing’, a concept we hadn’t even known about one month ago, turns all of that on its head and has dismantled every group run and race for the foreseeable future. It feels so counterintuitive to show love to humanity by closing our doors and staying away.
I hate it. I get it. But I hate it.
For now, I have chosen to run alone or with one other person and keep our distance from each other and others on the trail. Of course, all that could change if there is any hint of sickness or the province goes into further restrictive measures, in which case I will adhere to those guidelines and just have to get even more intentional about remaining connected to others. Social media, a tenuous place at the best of times, has not been my favourite lately. While I certainly appreciate the incredible humour that is coming from this pandemic, and I weirdly love the mundane oversharing of friends from their own self-isolation, I know my own mental health is better when I limit the amount of other information I take in. Right now, getting information on the pandemic feels like trying to take a sip of water from a firehose and I’m not too keen to do that. Instead I have been enjoying the time with my family, watching my kids turn back into their goofy little selves without all the stress from our regular lives has been the best part of all of this, and I have also been intentionally connecting with friends instead of relying on social media for connection. The hardest part is resisting the urge to arrange to get together, but this is only temporary, and may I never take face-to-face interaction for granted when this is all over.
In run training we use the concept of Run, Recover, Repeat, with each of those pieces equally important. Training hard is what breaks down the muscles, so that they can be rebuilt stronger during the recovery phase to adapt, so we get back at hard work of breaking down again. That pattern requires intention and consistency to ensure we are coming out of the training cycle stronger than before.
Think of this crazy self-isolating reality as a strange new training cycle. This is hard, but that’s ok because its only through the hard times that we are broken down to become stronger in the end. The really weird thing is that this simultaneously feels like the ‘run’ phase with the hard work, and the ‘recover’ phase with the rest and lots of snacks. And every single day (I think we are on day 14? I will have to check the prison style tally my daughter is keeping on the wall by her bed!) we wake up to the reminder that this is a pattern on repeat, and we don’t know for how long.
I’ll say it again. It’s hard, but that’s ok. In running ultras, I’ve come to reframe difficult moments by asking myself two questions:
How do I feel?
How do I feel about how I feel?
Running ultras can bring about all kinds of discomfort and the emotions that come with it and it is incredibly important to connect with how you feel, acknowledge what is going on and decide whether or not you can do anything about it. And just as important is the second question. How do you feel about the discomfort you are experiencing? If everything was easy during an ultra there would be no pride in finishing one.
One year ago today, Tania and I were running Rim2Rim2Rim of the Grand Canyon (Rim2Rim2Rim: Running the Grand Canyon in a Day). I will forever remember that day as one of the most incredible of my life, not the easiest that’s for sure, but absolutely incredible. Every moment of suffering out there is now long forgotten and all that remains are the memories of the views and the experiences we had out there. It’s worth it.
We get to choose how to emerge from this bizarre time in history. Stronger, rested, with a renewed appreciation for the beautiful aspects of our lives that remain after everything else has been sifted out.
This won’t be a sprint. This is an ultra. It will be hard, but it will be worth it. And none of us will leave the finish line until the very last of us have crossed safely, no matter how long it takes, because we are all in this together. And you can bet that when that time comes, I’ll be ready with sweaty hugs and high fives for everyone, social distancing be damned.