It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over four years since I ran my last marathon. For the better part of a decade, I ran at least one per year. My favorite run, though, was a one fifity-mile ultramarathon in the Bay Area of Northern California. Yes, this was crazy. But it was nothing compared to the craziness of other runners. (There are people who regularly participate in races of one hundred miles and beyond.)
The fifty-mile run took place on trails through beautiful mountains. It involved lots of ups and downs — physically and emotionally. I remember the crowded starting line, as the runners gathered in the brisk, 5:00 a.m. air. The crowd was surprisingly boisterous; in all likelihood, this was the result of the cocktail of adrenaline and nerves. Everyone knew — at least theoretically — what lay ahead of them that day.
The moments leading up to the starting gun dragged on. But finally, the race was on. The word “race” is used here quite generously. Most of us, save the handful of elite runners near the front of the crowd, knew that this would be a painstakingly slow run, bordering on a hike. In fact, half of that “run” would be hiking up mountains that were impossible to run up (without destroying one’s body). This was not the days of high school, when young, eager teenagers would take off as fast as they possibly could and run for perhaps 100 meters. (I guess it’s no surprise that most people who enter these sorts of long runs are at least thirty years old. In running and in life, they’ve learned to pace themselves better than their younger counterparts.)
The first several miles breeze by. I guess that this is not surprising, since training runs leading up to the event occur nearly daily and involve at least five miles, and up to thirty. People tend to find a running buddy for those early stages. You end up next to someone who’s taking a pace similar to yours, and you run slow enough to chat, anyway. Where are you from? What led you to Northern California on this Sunday in October to run fifty miles at 5:00 a.m.?
One mile. Five miles. Ten miles. Twenty miles. Legs are feeling good; the weeks leading up to the run were spent resting, so they seem eager to be out on the trails again. By twenty miles, nearly every young man has at least one faint thought: What if I win this?? (Spoiler alert: it’s not even possible.)
Plenty of fluids, beautiful scenery. I stopped to take several pictures along the way. The rush of endorphins and adrenaline, combined with the cool mountain air and the staggering views, nearly led me to tears multiple times.
The run was an “out and back” run — runners move toward one point, then turn around and come back to the start. The halfway point was twenty-six miles. (No, this is not due to the inability of these types of people to add and realize that twenty-five is half of fifty. The run back took the shorter path around a lake.) By twenty-six miles (roughly the length of a marathon), my legs were tired, but strong.
But I was beginning to approach a mental obstacle: in my training, I had never run beyond thirty miles. I was nearly to that point. But twenty additional miles beyond that? How would I survive?
Thirty miles came and went. I felt surprisingly good. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
At this point in a race — any race — the mood has changed dramatically. The jovial conversation of mile one has turned into deafening silence by mile thirty. People run in isolation. At some points along the way, I could look as far as my eye could see in any direction, and see no other human.
As any runner will tell you, the last stretch of a run is always the hardest. The final ten miles of the run led me to some dark places. I contemplated withdrawing the whole time. My legs were on fire. My foot had begun to hurt. My head ached. I felt as if I would vomit. I moved back and forth between almost crying and almost shouting obscenities.
The run comes to a point where it seems that it will not end.
We find ourselves in strange times in this world, friends. Seemingly out of nowhere, our lives have been thrown into chaos — we are stuck in our houses, we don’t see people or places, many of us have fashioned ourselves to be makeshift homeschool teachers. Even as we face uncertain futures, many of us have found space to see the humor in it all. Clever memes and videos abound about life in isolation. We are in the first five miles.
But I know that the miles will add up. My legs will start to tire.
I keep reminding myself that we have entered an indefinite period of trauma. Perhaps many of us have not been directly affected by COVID-19. But we have seen our lives disoriented. And there’s a good chance that many of us will have more close encounters with the virus, as time moves on.
But even if we do not, our lives have been turned upside down. No matter how many times I might try to convince myself otherwise, the reality is that I’m not just “working from home,” I’m not now a “homeschool teacher.” I’m a human who is in the midst of a worldwide ordeal. This is about survival. The goal of this race isn’t to win; it’s to make it to the finish line. It will eventually get hard. It will wear on me. And the earlier I’m willing to admit that, the better off I’ll be as I start to fatigue.
Psalm 13 opens, “How long will you forget me, O LORD? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (v. 1, Common English Bible). How long? My guess is that this question will eventually become my own. When the novelty of the current situation wears off, I will wonder, How long, God?
Friends, I want to encourage you. It’s O.K. to be affected by this event. As time goes on, please, do not downplay what we are experiencing. This is a tough, unknown road ahead. The end will come. But until it does, life will be hard, in many ways. For some of us, we will be virtually removed from human contact altogether. For others, we are trying to juggle more balls than is humanly possible.
If you go into this thinking, “I’m going to win!”, then you are setting yourself up for failure. The goal is not to win the race, but to finish it.