Culture

What If There Is No Finish Line?

There’s a reason you feel tired: Not knowing where the end is. How the running mindset can help, and how living through the pandemic might make us better runners.

What if I asked you out on a run and said we’re going to do four solid miles. We push the pace a bit, but settle into a rhythm we can comfortably handle for the distance. Now imagine that as we pass the three-mile mark, feeling strong and in control heading into the final mile, I said, “Just kidding, we’re actually doing 10.”

How would that same pace feel then? How tired would you feel compared to how you felt a few seconds ago when you thought you were nearly done?

Considerable research shows that how we experience fatigue isn’t just based on biological signals from our muscles, but is a complex system of evaluation designed to prevent bodily harm and ensure optimal performance. One of the key elements of that evaluation is duration; by knowing the finish line and how far we have to go until we get there, our brains calculate how fast we can go and tell us how tired we are.

But what if the finish line is unknown? Studies show that, lacking an end point, not only does the same effort feel harder than if we know how far we’re going, our bodies will also reduce the level of effort we’re able to put out in order to conserve energy for that unknown possibility. And, in a study that replicated the “what if” scenario above, when runners who were told they were going to run 10 minutes at a set pace, then, when the 10 minutes were up, had to keep going for another 10 minutes, their perceived effort during the second 10 minutes was significantly higher than when they knew from the beginning that it would last 20 minutes — even though they were running the same pace for the same distance both times.

Paralyzed by Uncertainty

Our lives these days resemble that diabolical study: Like the rest of the country, on March 16 my company announced that we would work remotely for two weeks. On March 25 that finish line was moved back three weeks to April 17. Before we reached that date it was moved back another six weeks. We’re still operating remotely, still running this strange race with no end in sight.

If knowing how long we have left in a race — or a crisis — determines how we set our pace and mete out our energy, we can’t help but be paralyzed when the finish line extends out to infinity. And we’re all feeling somewhat paralyzed. Even elite athletes are struggling with motivation: In a study by Strava and Stanford University released today, 17% of elite endurance athletes surveyed reported “little interest in doing things” more than half of the days in a week — compared to 2.4% before COVID-19 restrictions. One in 5 said they had difficulty exercising; 22.5% reported feeling down or depressed. You are not alone.

Alex Hutchinson, author of the book Endure, described to me how his family reacted to schools in Toronto being closed for two weeks, then another two weeks, then another… “Each time,” he wrote, “My wife and I buckled down and said, ‘Okay, we can get through this for two more weeks by skipping this and compromising on that and so on.’ And each time the finish line got pushed back, it got harder to deal with. Eventually, we realized we had to stop anticipating the finish line and focus on making right now sustainable.”

When the finish line is either unknown or so far away it doesn’t provide any anticipated relief, we have to figure out how to move forward at a sustainable pace, establishing patterns and habits that are more than temporarily endurable. “I think a key is to shift your perspective so that you’re no longer focused on an end-point,” Hutchinson said.

Harvey Lewis on day 3 of the 2020 Big's Backyard Ultra
Courtney Dauwalter and Harvey Lewis on day 3 of the 2020 Big’s Backyard Ultra Photo: Howie Stern

A Race With No Finish Line

Given the parallels between how we feel when faced with unknown running finish lines and unknown life situation end-points, I wondered if running could shed some light to help us deal with the pandemic, and if, in turn, we could look for ways that enduring the pandemic will make us better runners in the end. And, who better to ask than someone who has excelled at an event as close as possible to the current world situation: a race with no finish line?

As I write this, Courtney Dauwalter, ultrarunning champion, has just won the 2020 U.S. Big’s Backyard Ultra. The rules of this race are simple: You have to show up at the start at the top of each hour and complete a 4.2-mile loop before the next hour rolls around. Last person standing wins. Two years ago, Dauwalter got 2nd, completing more than 250 miles over two and half days. This year she tied the previous record, going 68 hours and 283.3 miles.

Change the Focus

How do you get your mind around such a race? “Keep the focus on, ‘What can I do right now,’” Dauwalter told me last week, echoing Hutchinson. “Because I know that I have to keep moving forward. So… not wrapping it all up in focusing on a finish line. Then trying to be really present in the moment. If the reality is that forward motion is required, then I try to think through the facts and stay where my feet are, on how to move forward as best as I can.”

Assess the Facts

Dauwalter finds it important to assess the current facts and separate them from the emotions of the situation. “’How’s it going, what do I need right now?’” she asks herself. “And then pushing past any of those speed bumps along the way, and forgetting them. Leaving them really in the past, and not dwelling on what they did to me or how bad they wrecked me in the moment… Just taking account of the facts, what are the facts of this situation right now, and then adapting.”

Avoid Expectations

She’s also leery of setting expectations that can get dashed and make emotions worse. “When people ask how many miles or hours I’m trying to go at Big’s Backyard, I don’t have an answer for that,” she said. “I do think it is dangerous if you get attached to a certain distance or marker in life or this race. If I’m attached to 300 miles, and then we get to 300 miles and the race is still going — and that’s not the end — it would be kind of a blow, and it would feel like you need to get your mind back in it and get your body back in it and physically ramp yourself back up into battle again. Attaching to those finish lines if you’re not sure there is going to be a finish line is a little bit tricky in anything.”

Control the Controllables

Not attaching yourself to a variable you don’t know and can’t control just distracts you from the tasks of assessing, adapting and keeping moving. “That factors into the pandemic, and also races,” Dauwalter says. How long is it going to last?  “That’s not something you can control, so not something to lose energy or sleep over, if you can avoid it. Because, controlling the controllables is how you can make it a little bit easier, I think.”

Ian Sharman hiking
Ian Sharman Photo: Daniel Petty/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Ubiquity of Uncertainty

Extreme ultra-runs aren’t the only place where we learn how to deal with an uncertain end point in running. Ian Sharman, another ultra champion and host of PodiumRunner’s Endurance Podcast, says that given the variables of a long race — the weather, the chance of getting lost, how your body will react, and more — mean you truly can’t count on a finish time or distance. “You might be assuming if you keep running you have only 3 hours left, but then start feeling really bad, and, oh, that will be six hours more,” Sharman says. “It can change so quickly — can be the kind of thing that means they DNF.”

Prepare for the Worst

To counteract this, he adopts a strategy of preparing for it to be longer than anticipated. It’s a strategy called defensive pessimism, and it works outside of the running sphere too. “If I sort of assume it is going to be longer or harder or tougher than it actually is, then I can cope with those things,” Sharman says. “If you assume that pandemic is going to be three more years, then it is one more year, then at the end of the year it is a positive rather than negative.”

Game On

Sharman is big on turning negatives into positives in many ways. “Remaining positive in the face of adversity, no matter how bad things get, and therefore keeping yourself motivated,” he says, “is the biggest skill for a distance runner.” The goal, Sharman says, is that when things get rough — even when your race is going off the rails and you’re vomiting in a ditch — you’re able to say, ‘Here’s a new challenge. The reason I’m doing this race is that it is really hard; that’s the value to it. And the thing I’ll care about afterwards is how well I deal with challenges.’

Duration isn’t the only variable that is uncertain in a race. You can use positivity to become the type of runner that powers through surprises and rough patches, a runner who is more successful when the conditions are tough — because you deal with the difficulty better than others. It requires letting go of expectations, accepting the facts, adapting to new parameters and keeping motivated in the new reality.

“And that can be the case with the pandemic,” Sharman says. “You can be someone who thinks, ‘I’m someone who deals with challenges well, I’m going to take this on, and I think I’m going to come out of it better than the average person. I’ll be looking for opportunities, I’ll be trying to take advantage of anything that goes my way, and anything that doesn’t go my way, I’ll let it go.’”

Getting Better Through the Pandemic

Those opportunities may come in any area of life, but are there lessons from living through a situation without a finish line that we can apply so we come out of this better runners? Sharman thinks so.

Primary among them is the chance to learn how to train sustainably rather than just bounce from race to race.  “A professional marathoner will have a 6-month build-up to a race. I can’t think of anyone in the amateur level who would ever give that much respect to a race,” Sharman says. “‘If I don’t have a race coming up in 6 weeks I can’t be bothered to train’ is a fairly common mentality.”

The lack of races, and their finish lines, can actually be a benefit for us. “This is a chance to work on things and get consistent training, rather than train, taper, race, recover,” Sharman says. “ It’s a great time to work on speed. Have a few months where you’re not having that backing off for a race and then recovering from it…make yourself a better runner for the long term.”

In the process, we might find that we can move away from a cycle of training over our heads toward short-term goals, getting injured or overtired, taking time off, doing rehab — and starting the cycle over again. We can, instead, create more sustainable training and recovery patterns that will keep us healthy and, in the process, lead to new heights of training and racing. “It’s kind of like the difference between a crash diet that you’re only trying to maintain until beach season and a sustainable shift in eating patterns. We all know which works better,” says Hutchinson.

Beyond physical training, Sharman sees in the pandemic an opportunity for emotional training. We don’t have a choice whether or not we face this time of uncertainty in the world — it has been thrust upon us — so we’re going to have to deal with it. And when we do, we build the skill to use later in our lives, and in our running.

“Just searching for something that allows you to remain more motivated and more positive, rather than focusing on the negatives, because it’s just so unproductive to think about those negatives,” Sharman says. “Every time you do it right, you reinforce the ability to do it. Every time you allow yourself to get negative, it reinforces the difficulty of overcoming it next time.”

We’re not wired to deal with situations without finish lines. But those who tackle distances that stretch over the horizon are better prepared than others to handle the ambiguity, embrace the challenge, keep moving and keep growing.