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Bad news comes from back home, and running provides a way to cope

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: February 13
  • Published February 13

I made a very lazy half-marathon training plan this week about an hour before I found out my grandpa died.

I had decided I need a half-marathon to train for because I’ve been experiencing something called stress. Of course, I’d heard of stress before. I’ve experienced it some. But I’d never allowed it to get to the point that it had, where it was suddenly wreaking havoc on my body. I kept getting sick (and I rarely get sick). I found myself low-key depressed most of the time. I felt stuck.

This was partially due to a bad case of the low-light Decembers, which bled into January. But I also realized I needed a consistent training plan to pull me up onto my feet, support my mental health and boost my immunity.

So I drafted this lazy training plan, scrawled out on a piece of notebook paper. I worked my way back weekend by weekend from the half-marathon itself, subtracting miles until I landed on that very morning. Six miles. I needed to go for a 6-mile run and thus I would kick off my plan. I’d be back on the road to health.

Then my dad texted to “call me about grandpa urgent.”

No, it’s not a surprise. I sincerely feel more at ease knowing grandpa is no longer stuck in the horrible purgatory between actually living and, finally, death. His life for the past few years hasn’t been a life, and he was ready to go. We both expressed our love multiple times in person and over the phone, and I was fortunate to be in a position to spend quality time with him semi-routinely for someone living in Alaska.

But his death posed the problem that he, and everyone, is back east and I’m up here. My entire family urged me not to come home for the funeral, but I spent that morning obsessing over tickets and itineraries anyway.

It’s not out of guilt. This is simply one of those moments where the decision to live in Narnia, as my sister calls my house and neighborhood (better known as the Butte to those of us in Palmer), conflicts with my desire to easily be with the rest of my family.

And at that moment my desire to sit on the couch and stare at the wall conflicted with the half-marathon plan I’d just drafted on paper, the plan that told me I needed to run 6 miles.

It was 1 p.m. and I hadn’t had any breakfast yet. I had already been on the phone with my dad, sister and grandma, I had been on hold for 30 minutes with Alaska Airlines before giving up, and I was feeling terrible by the time I finally pushed myself to lace up my shoes and get out of the house.

It wasn’t immediate, but things slowly started to click into place as I ran. The cold air felt good on my face and my breathing became routine, alongside the cadence of my footsteps.

About a mile in, I had visceral relief as I felt my living brain take over and my defeatist, sad brain fade.

The first thing I needed to do, I realized, was actually get through to the airline. I wanted advice on traveling during the snowpocalypse that was hitting Seattle and Portland, to see what impact that could have on my plans.

If they green-lighted me, I’d book a flight back east. If they cautioned against it, I would pick another time to go home and put the money I would have spent on a ticket into savings. I’d take Friday afternoon off to focus on honoring Grandpa and would focus on being kind to myself wherever possible.

Running allowed me time to reflect on memories of him and the impact his life had on my family. It allowed me to begin to mourn the loss of him, and also to mourn the possibility that I wouldn’t go home.

I took in the always-stunning beauty of the place I’ve chosen to live and also felt deep sadness about how far it is from my family. Again, this isn’t about guilt. It’s about choice and reckoning with it, and ultimately coming to accept it with all of its opportunities and flaws.

Grandpa was one of the first people in my life to expose me to the idea that the world is a big place worthy of exploring. He had both curiosity and patience. I don’t think he modeled these qualities for me intentionally, but I know he was both proud and awed that I’d decided to move to Alaska.

He appreciated my visits home. In these last few years at the end of our conversations he made a point to tell me, “I love you more than you’ll ever know” — the last part being a new add-on, both a beautiful sentiment and a gut punch. Visits and calls took on a new level of priority and importance.

I got home from my run, made tea and got on the phone again.

By the time I waited on hold for 40 minutes with the airline, the woman on the other line audibly groaned when I told her about the decision I was making and my potential travel dates. She told me the likelihood of me getting stuck somewhere was strong.

I hung up resolved, and sad.

The easier thing to do is get on a plane with my fingers crossed — to spend the money, be on the redeye, throw the week out the window and be with family. I was close to making that choice and would have gladly gone with it.

Instead, I made the other choice — I stayed. I stayed and I forced myself to do the every-day life things, like following the running training plan, asking friends for help and going to work.

There is something about the practice of running, and especially about having a plan, that encourages me to simply keep up and focus on that underlying drumbeat of life. It’s my life and my Grandpa’s life, and those whose lives he touched, that open up to me as I’m out there breathing the fresh air and moving along.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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