Culture

Running Through the Night

With no finish line in sight, we need to find a rhythm that lets us keep going as long as it takes.

For the second week in a row, my Strava app has told me that the relative effort of my week’s training has been well above average. “This was a significant increase compared to previous weeks,” the app reports, warning me that I may be increasing my risk of injury and overtraining. I’ve not been intentionally running harder, simply going by feel, which has, it seems, dictated an intensity to match my internal turmoil.

And yet, I still can’t seem to run far or fast enough to lose the cloud that muddles every waking minute and some sleeping ones. I can’t seem to find my usual clarity and peace despite those ever-harder miles.

I’m learning that sometimes you can’t outrun all emotions. To borrow words from Paul Simon, I’m finding sometimes even running cannot substitute for tears.

Compared to most, I have little reason for pain and confusion: All my loved ones are safe. My job is only slightly disrupted by being remote. I live in a part of the country least affected by the epidemic, so far. From my high plains home, I can run wherever and whenever I want without encountering or endangering another person.

So my anxiety is general and my tears for others, for the global human suffering both now and to come—of which there is plenty for each of us.

Given my reality, however, I have no basis to give advice. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I know what you are experiencing and how you should deal with it.

Instead, I’ll settle for sharing a couple of stories that have helped me get through rough miles and tough days.

The first comes from Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life. One day, Dillard recounts, she asked her neighbor on one of the San Juan Islands, a painter, how his work was going. Instead of answering, the painter started telling her about a friend who once saw a valuable log out in the ocean channel, rowed out to it and started pulling it ashore. But the tide shifted and began dragging the log, boat and man away from his house.

“He was rowing to the north and moving fast to the south,” the neighbor explained. “He traveled stern first. He wanted to be going home, so toward home he kept pulling.”

He rowed against the tide, through the evening and into the night, being dragged farther down the island, past the end of the island, and slowly out to sea. Eventually, however, still pulling, he felt the tide relent, go slack, and then reverse. He kept rowing, back to the tip of the island, back along the beach, and, finally, home, at sunup the next morning.

“So,” the neighbor told Annie Dillard. “That’s how my work is going. The current’s got me. Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.”

The story has served me well through the years. I’ve drawn on it during rough patches in marathons and during the heart of hard training seasons when it felt like forward progress had stopped and instead I’m slipping backwards. When all I can do is keep rowing and hope the tide will turn soon.

It helps me now to keep at the daily routine, to keep working and living and running and caring. It provides me hope that, even though we seem to be sliding relentlessly out to sea, some day the tide will change.

The ocean’s tide, however, is predictable and reliable. That man in the boat knew that if he kept at it, within six hours the tide would turn and sweep him back. We don’t, however, know when or how this pandemic tide will change, and that makes it harder to hope, harder to pace our efforts toward the finish line of relief.

What we need now is another story, a story I heard from Judd Esty-Kendall, a 70-year–old lifetime runner in Maine, explaining how he deals with that tide that never turns: age.

running in the night
photo: Getty Images

Near the end of our interview for my book, Run Strong, Stay Hungry, Esty-Kendall told me that, for him, the key to not giving up on running as you age was coming to terms with what your body can do now. And he told me this story:

 “One time I was doing the Katahdin 100,” he said, referring to a relay in northern Maine. “There’s a big hill, Abol Hill, in the park. Abol Hill is a mile-long hill with some steep pitches.”

Abol Hill is usually feared, a place you know you will suffer, a section of the trail to endure. One year, however, Esty-Kendall’s relay segment fell in the middle of the night. “It was pitch dark, so I couldn’t see the hill,” he said. “So I was just running based on how it felt.” He ran on through the dark as hard as his body would allow.

A while later, as he approached the relay exchange, he heard people up ahead and one said, “We ought to go back and get Judd, he’s running up the hill.”

I just did Abol hill?” Esty-Kendall remembers thinking. “I didn’t realize it.

In the dark, unencumbered by expectations or comparisons, the difficult hill had disappeared. He wasn’t trying to keep up with anyone else. He couldn’t see the top, so he didn’t anticipate future relief and push harder until he got there. He wasn’t trying to maintain a particular pace.

“If it is dark and you don’t know what you’re doing, you just run that pace that feels right for the body,” Esty-Kendall said.

This is what he’s doing now, in every mile he runs. “I’m right here now,” he said. “Whatever the pace is, that’s it. Feel the pace, rather than the distance or time, feel the pace. That’s what I’m trying to do now.”

No matter what changes come, Esty-Kendall says, “I can keep that standard. It doesn’t matter what any of the outside measurements are, it’s an internal measurement.”

This is what I’m aiming to do in the coming days and weeks. We can’t ignore that we’re on a steep hill. But we can stop trying to outrun it, stop looking for the top when things will get easier. We can accept that this is how things are right now, tears and all.

But acceptance is not giving up. We need to find an internal measurement, free from expectations of how things are supposed to be, a rhythm that lets us keep running strong and comfortably, over whatever terrain we face, for as long as it takes.

And, although we’re prepared to run through the long night, some day the tide will turn, and we will have grown stronger and wiser and better equipped to adapt, endure and excel.