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  • John Thomas Dodson

Running the Coronavirus Marathon

I have never run a marathon, but I have helped others who were running them. I’ve driven the car to meet a runner at numerous rest stops during the Boston Marathon. I’ve filled the water bottles for the training sessions, and I’ve shouted from the top of many a hill toward someone I was assisting - encouraging them to keep going. I’ve painted “You can do it!” signs for the middle of the race, and I’ve made “You’re almost there!” signs for the final sprint to the finish. After the marathons have ended, I’ve listened to the runners who were both ecstatic and exhausted. I’ve asked them questions and sat silently as they shared stories of each mile they ran. So, although I’m not a marathoner, I have gotten to learn from those who have run the race.

As the scope of this Coronavirus has become clear, I now think of this experience as a marathon – a particularly challenging one because the finishing line is not yet in sight.

When you decide to run a marathon, you commit yourself to undertake a structured training program. You train every day, and then build in a rest-day each week. You gradually lengthen your training time and daily running distance until you can get through at least twenty miles. As the race date approaches you rest during the final week before the race. Although you’ve been really careful with your diet and food choices during the training period, you carbo-load the night before – eating spaghetti and bread and other foods that are high in carbohydrates. And then you run. You run the marathon, and you finish, or you don’t, and after it is over, you sit down with the other runners and you talk about the journey. You celebrate and console each other, you savor the experience and reflect on how it changed you.

But what would happen if suddenly one day you just found yourself thrust into a situation that you hadn’t really prepared for? What if you were just thrown onto a marathon course and someone just said, “Run. Run a marathon. Run it right now.” That’s what this experience is like. It’s as if the Coronavirus just announced, “You may not have trained for this, but you have to run the Quarantine Marathon right now, and you have to last until the end!” Suddenly, you would want to know what those distance runners know. You would want to know how they are able to finish one of the most difficult things in the world to complete. You would want to know how to endure.

So, what can you learn from a marathon runner that could help you get through this quarantine?

Have a strategy.

Learn the course. Where are the hills and valleys? Where are the water stations you’ll need along the way? Where are there curves and straightaways? Where will you pace yourself in order to conserve your energy? How can you break the race down into smaller parts? All marathons are run one step at a time, but you can decide to think in terms of other units: One block at a time, one mile at a time, one hill at a time, or, in the case of quarantine, one day at a time.

Don’t pretend this is a sprint. If it were, you would need a different strategy. This isn’t about running as fast as possible; it’s about finishing. It’s about distance and endurance. The fatigue points are not evenly distributed. In a real marathon you run two races. First you run twenty miles and then you run 6.2 miles. At the twenty-mile mark, the chemistry of the body changes. By then, you have used up all your carbs, so your body starts burning up its own reserves of the fat it has stored. You start depleting yourself from that point on. With each new mile you burn up your body’s own energy. That is the part of the race in which your soul will truly be challenged. You don’t know if you have what you’ll need to finish. You’ll have to budget yourself to survive the whole race. You’ll have to save something to make it to the very end.

Your strategy for the quarantine operates just like the marathon. You can’t use up all your resources right away. I’m not only talking about your food resources, but about your interior reserves. Your emotions have to be rationed and your patience has to be budgeted carefully if you’re going to last to the conclusion of this course. You have to save something inside yourself for the point when you are desperate to get this quarantine behind you but the front doors of your home aren’t yet ready to open. You’ll need to protect your reserves of tenacity and persistence. You’ll need to boost your resilience.

Treat yourself and others well throughout the race.

Hydrate without fail. Realize that this is an extraordinary situation and act accordingly. Don’t run past a water station even if you think you don’t need it. You do! Treat yourself appropriately - especially considering the situation in which you find yourself. A marathon is an extraordinary experience so don’t act like it’s a normal day. If you can’t run the whole time, there is no shame in walking, but, whatever else, keep moving. Respect the other runners. Don’t block others who are also trying to get through the course. Everyone you know is in the same race, so be supportive of all of them. Each runner in a marathon is suffering in some way. And just as you respect everyone else, make sure you are looking after yourself too. Respect begins by seeing to the needs of your own body and spirit.

In the same way, expect your quarantine to require new levels of self-care. Expect to need to look after yourself in new ways. Expect to make more phone calls to family members and friends; expect to need more rest at certain times of the day when you never needed rest before. Forgive yourself for not being able to be normal. It’s an abnormal time. Treat yourself abnormally well. Commit to a high level of self-care for the duration of this stressful time.

Find purpose.

Have a reason to run, a person you dedicate this race to, a story that inspires you to do this, the personal transformation inherent in running the race. Ask members of your team to shout out their support on the toughest hills. You may be running each step all by yourself, but there are people around you who can help you keep moving. Reach out to them for help. Marathons create a new category of human being. The runners who finish the course have been carved into something different through their marathon experience. You’ll be changed by the end of this race. Be intentional about that change. Let the marathon help you become something you have always wanted to become. Make it more than a race, make it a cause.

Although it may not be obvious, try to find purpose in your own quarantine. This is a time to renew old friendships and to increase your spiritual reliance on each other. Don’t isolate, even though you’re alone. Get to know yourself better, but if this quarantine ends up being only about you, you’ve missed the real opportunity it offers. Staying inside is an act of love. You’re going through the quarantine partly to keep the doctors and nurses from having to treat you. You’re staying healthy so that your family and friends won’t get infected. You’re staying well so you can live a long life. You’re recognizing that you’re a part of a larger society under threat, and you’re doing your part to flatten the curve. You’re willing to transform yourself through this Coronavirus Marathon. You’re willing to run the course to the end. You won’t be the same after this experience.

Run with your mind.

You have to want to run each mile. If you see each mile as an enemy, you’ll never be able to finish this course. Your attitude will be a big part of this marathon. That attitude is completely up to you. It’s your choice whether you’re miserable or whether you can keep a light touch throughout this marathon. There are no shortcuts, so this is an opportunity to face reality. You can’t shorten this distance. It is what it is. While your body takes every step in a marathon, it is the mind that makes every step possible. Although a marathon is 26.2 miles, most of it take place within your own mind. In the end, it will be your mind that will finish this race!

The hardest part for this particular Coronavirus Marathon course is that we don’t know when we’ll recognize the finish line. Marathons don’t last forever, but they can feel like they will never end. This one already feels long, and we’re still only in the first part of the race. That understanding is where your mind will actually help you to continue through the end of this quarantine. The real distance you’ll cover during this Coronavirus Quarantine Marathon is the mental space between the two sentences, “I want to go outside and play,” and “I want to survive – both for myself and for those whom I love.”

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