COVID-19: Finding Purpose as a Runner

by Tom Chobot

A friend has a brother who has been in a dark place almost his entire life. A talented musician as a singer and guitar player in the Baltimore area, his story is nonetheless a series of bad life choices, drug addiction, and poor personal money management. He was never able to stay with the same band for very long, keep a steady job, nor own much more than the shirt on his back. For decades, his sense of purpose and self-worth were at rock bottom. Then came COVID-19. Somehow, he landed a job in a grocery store stocking shelves. Almost instantly, he became showered with expressions of appreciation by his employer, his fellow workers, and customers, for filling a vital and, some might argue, risky position. For the first time in his life, he is doing something with high responsibility and importance, at least by his own standards, and is being recognized for it. Our friend said that she has never seen her brother take such a dramatic turn for the better. For the first time in his life, he has found purpose.

Perhaps the point to all this is that humans, by nature, seem to have an instinctive and burning desire to find purpose. Moreover, we all have one somewhere. It just takes some more time than others to find it. Two weeks before my mother passed in 2006, she told me that she never understood what I got out of running. She had only watched me race twice out of the hundreds of races and thousands of training miles over 4 decades. In fact, she told me she thought I was nuts. But what she did understand is that it made me happy. She then told me something that has changed my life. She said, “If running is what makes you happy, so be it. But don’t keep it to yourself. Find a way to use it and share it to make other people happy. Let running be your way to make the world a better place.” In other words, she told me to find a way to make running my purpose.

This brings us to the present–the days of COVID-19. What can we do as a club and as a running community? As I pondered this, I was reminded of the many discussions I have been part of, involving strategies and mindsets needed to be successful in the wonderful sport of ultrarunning. These discussions were often led by a few well-seasoned and highly respected gurus in the club who some regard as the Jedi masters of the sport (including myself), and are largely responsible for its immense popularity, at least within our own group. They have mentored most, if not all, of us to some degree.  Many of their lessons can be applied during these trying days with a little creativity. We have an opportunity here. Perhaps in some way, we can indeed brighten the lives of those around us simply by sharing these thoughts and applying what we have learned.

  1. Don’t think about the finish line. It’s too far away. Think about getting to the next aid station. When you get there, regroup, refuel, and focus on the next. One section, one mile, one obstacle, one step at a time. Relentless forward progress.

No one knows when this will end. Keep your thoughts here and now.

  1. You are going to feel good, then you’ll feel bad, and eventually you’ll feel good again, many times over. An ultra is a series of ups and downs over a long period of time. Be ready for it.

There will be good days and there will be bad days, but not every day will be bad.

  1. This sport is about problem-solving on your feet. Unexpected things are going to happen. You won’t know what, when, where, or how long it will last, until it happens. Evaluate what’s happening, and what you can do about it. Can you do something now, or can you make it to the next aid station and deal with it then? Be resourceful, work the problem, and take them one at a time.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the grand scheme of the circumstances. Break things down to manageable degrees.

  1. Stay disciplined. Maintain a realistic pace. Monitor your hydration and nutrition intake and do what needs to be done, and don’t base it on how you feel.

Stay healthy, not just for yourself, but for those who depend on you.

  1. Don’t try to do this by yourself. Utilize your crew, your pacers, and the other runners around you. Except for a few ringers in the front, the other runners are not your competitors–the course is. They want to see you succeed as much as you do. Learn to feel the same way about them.

Your friends, neighbors, loved ones, and co-workers are a resource to you just as you are to them. They, too, need to find purpose. Let them.

  1. The dark times (night running) are the hardest times, and the easiest times to give up. The sun will always come up eventually and change everything. Just get through it. 

Constantly remind yourself and others that this, too, shall pass.

  1. Solitude is part of the game. There will be long stretches, sometimes hours, where you won’t see another living soul. Don’t just accept it. Embrace it. For some, this is the best part.

We are trained to deal with solitude. Not everyone is. Remember that.

  1. The harsh reality is that not everyone will finish. In some races, it may be as low as 50%. This is part of the challenge that we all accept going into it. Be supportive and encouraging when needed, but also be compassionate, consoling, and caring when appropriate. 

Not everyone will make it out of this situation unscathed. Each of us has a human responsibility to support not only those who are struggling, but to comfort the loved ones of those who don’t reach the banner.

  1. Remember that everyone else is going through the same thing. We’re all in this together (heard that recently?). The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, especially when it comes to the human spirit.  

As runners, we can indeed contribute to the greater good. We know how to deal with adversity and struggle. More importantly, we know how to come together and draw strength from each other. We have skills which we can share and use to mentor those who are less skilled for something like this. Let’s do our part.

Keep running and stay safe.                                       

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