“When you’re going through hell, keep going.” ~Winston Churchill
A couple weeks ago the Greek government announced that our quarantine would continue “well beyond April 6th,” the original date for which it had been set. We knew this was coming, but it was still hard to hear. And it was this same moment that my memories as a long-distance runner came flooding back.
I started running track and cross country when I was eleven years old. I joined the Los Gatos High School Track and Cross Country team when I went to high school where we trained hard and all year round. Our coach would give us a program for the summer and at the end, we’d spend a week in Lake Tahoe, training where the air was thinner. This thin air made it so our lungs had to work harder, and we’d get stronger.
I wasn’t just a long-distance runner, I was a long-distance runner with asthma, and that made things a little trickier. Running wasn’t a matter of mind over body for me, it was a delicate balance of my mind pushing my body but staying within range of what my lungs were capable of.
Most of the time, my asthma wasn’t an issue. But sometimes it was, and if you’ve ever suffered an inflammatory lung condition, you know that even the strongest will is rendered powerless if you can’t breathe. It humbles you, and that humility is useful.
As a former asthmatic long-distance runner, I understand we can’t beat the coronavirus through force of will. We beat it with patience, intelligence, discipline, and persistence.
We stay home so the virus has fewer opportunities to spread. We wait while doctors develop first an antibody test, so we know who is now immune, and then a vaccine, so we actually can eliminate it. This takes time, and this will take patience.
When I focus on my day-to-day life in the middle of a lockdown in Athens, it feels familiar—it feels like I’m on a cross country running course again.
The first week of self-isolation was like the first half mile. I started out fast and optimistic. “This is going to be fine. I’ve got this!” I told myself as I cleaned my house, made healthy food, set up video meetings with my friends all over, bumped up my at-home workout regime, and organized my new work life.
But at week two, the second half of the first mile, I started to feel the effects. It wasn’t so fun. I missed going out to restaurants and events. I missed human interaction. “When will this end?” I wondered. On a cross country course, this is where your body starts to settle into what it understands will be a long journey peppered with pain, and that’s if you do it right.
Because I’ve been a distance runner, when I look over the horizon of this pandemic, I know what’s coming. It’s waves of pain, moments of boredom, and waves of determination all threaded together. In a race, I’d keep my mind on the long view, the finish line, but I wouldn’t obsess about it. It’s too far away.
Mainly I’d look down at the ground in front of me to make sure I didn’t trip. I’d manage my breath, check my energy, push myself when I saw other people getting tired, and pace myself for the long stretches in between.
When I’d start to get really tired, I’d begin to count in my head. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 and then start again. Something about putting order and structure around the situation made it easier for me to go on.
This quarantine is sort of the same. I break my day into tiny chunks and just focus on the piece in front of me. I take the dog for her morning walk, I prepare my home studio and teach a live-streamed yoga class, I make my next meal, I spend two hours answering emails and writing, the list goes on, and the day finds a rhythm. It’s more solitary than it was before, but I’m adapting and finding my way.
And I learned to have a flexible understanding of the finish line. I had a truly great coach in Willie Harmatz. He’d push us hard, but he cared about us so we worked hard to make him proud. And his efforts paid off. Our teams were some of the best in the state.
I remember one track meet at a neighboring city where we’d raced, done well and were heading back to our school. About a mile and half away, he had the bus stop, told us to get out and run home. I was shocked. But he looked us straight in the eyes and said “You’re tired. It’s a good time to run.”
I hated him in that moment, but he trained me well since that’s probably going to be how this pandemic journey will be.
It’ll be hard to know when the race is over. And probably when we think we’re done and we’re tired, that’s when we’ll be called on, one more time, to do a little more. But if your thinking is stable and you have the right tools, the road might be long, and the journey might be painful, but it’ll be okay.