Back to Fitness: Finding Purpose in the Era of Cancelled Races

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Nichole Heon, a former WAHS track runner and soccer player, now a second-year nursing student at U.Va., was scheduled to run her first marathon March 22 in Virginia Beach, the Shamrock Marathon. When the race was canceled due to COVID-19, she decided to run a marathon anyway in her home town of Crozet. Cheered on by former track runner teammates, neighbors and friends, 6 ft apart, she ran 26.2 miles on race day and finished in front of her home in Grayrock. Submitted photo.

Okay, this isn’t so much a “back to fitness” column, but more “confessions of an endurance athlete whose reasons to get up at 4:30 a.m. have been ruthlessly stripped away.”

Since getting into endurance sports many years ago, I have always described myself as someone who was doing it for the purity of living a healthy, fit life and enjoying the process. I have always loved the training.  

I can remember early in my running exactly how long I thought running three miles was—forever! But as I ran more and more, I became somewhat in love with the process of improving. “Wow, that three miles didn’t suck!” “Wow, that was 10 seconds faster than last week.” “Wow, I ran three times this week!” These were tangible improvements that motivated me for more. I loved the process. I loved being my own “experiment of one” as I tried to improve myself and train up for the next race/event.  

As my running advanced, and my distance progressed, I began to love the process even more.  You would think after years of running marathons and ultramarathons that you would start to feel like you know everything about your body. Nope. It’s still a daily process of “how can I do this better?”  

I also loved the experience. The amazing scenery we have in our area. The weather. Countless sunrises. Countless amazing wildlife encounters. Feeling the rhythm of the dark mornings throughout the changing of seasons and years. I am one to stop, turn off my headlamp, and look up at the stars and just enjoy being in those moments.  

Mostly, I enjoyed the camaraderie. My best friends are my running friends. We get up early together and run in the dark together and share some life before the rest of our world wakes up. We train together and race together and carry each other through the low days and celebrate the high days.

Analyzing my relationship with running and training and living a life of fitness, I would give a long answer of how I run to experience all of these amazing things, more so than the whole “being healthy” bit.  My reasons would sound pure and idealistic and Zen-like.

Then all of my spring races were cancelled.

I was signed up to run the Boston Marathon in late April, followed three weeks later by the Massanutten Mountain 100-mile trail race. I was training for both of these very different races, and I was crushing it. I had a plan and I was fired up. Steep trail run on Monday. Long runs on Skyline Drive on Tuesdays. Track workouts on Wednesdays. Mountain run on Fridays. Long mountain run on Saturday and hard tempo run on Sundays. Rinse and repeat every week.

I was loving the process. I was loving the scenery and experiences, and I was having an awesome time with all my friends.

And then all of our races were cancelled.

Almost immediately, that 4:30 a.m. alarm would go off and I would have to answer the question, “Why?” And let me tell you, it has been hard to answer that question!

I found it quite astounding how quickly my motivation for training dissolved after my spring races were cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic (decisions that I do agree with). Why get up early? Why go through the pain of a hard workout? Why go long?

I thought I loved running! I thought I did it for the purity and the idealism and the Zen!  

Apparently not. It was the races. The goals. I needed the thing to work towards. Now that’s gone and I can’t run with my friends anymore because we’re all freaked out that we’re going to get each other sick.

This made me come face to face with that ever-important question of why that I thought I knew the answer to. If you don’t really know why, how the heck can you encourage others to do the same?

I’m still struggling a bit with this question.  

On one hand, no, I’m really not. I can’t imagine stopping exercising all together and getting out of shape. I think I would go crazy. I also think that alarms would start to go off if I started slipping below a baseline of fitness. So, yes, I believe that everyone should focus on their fitness and keep that a strong part of their routine.

On the other hand, for the endurance athlete, why work hard with nothing on the horizon? Who knows if any races will happen in 2020?

I thought that my running was a big part of what defined me as me. Doing the hard stuff was not just in the races, it was in the weekly routine and it carried over to the rest of my life.  

Since all of our races are cancelled, my weekly mileage/time running has dropped about 60 percent, and what I’m doing has been really easy.

Then last week, motivated by a friend, I did a hard run. It was one of my regular routes and, as expected, it felt harder than usual. Motivated mostly by wanting to “clear the cobwebs,” I pushed myself and felt exhausted for the first time in weeks. As soon as I finished, a feeling came back to me that I had been missing. It feels good to do the hard stuff. I felt gritty. I didn’t quit. It made the rest of my day better and me a little bit happier.

So, as we find ourselves in this coronavirus limbo, its okay to take a break. Sleep a bit more. Spend more time with the family and on the yard. But don’t forget to get out there occasionally and do the hard stuff. Make yourself sweat and wheeze and want to give up (but don’t). Those are the times where you will experience the purity, the idealism, and the Zen. Let’s never let anything take that away from us. 

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