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A good citizen during COVID-19, but only after a good run

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: August 15, 2020
  • Published August 15, 2020

A landlady’s kid once put it bluntly about her mom: “When Mommy doesn’t run, she gets stupid.”

I was just getting into running as an 18-year-old when I heard this anecdote. My landlady shrugged off her child’s bluntness as truth, and used the rationale to explain why she prioritized her daily 4-mile run.

This was fascinating for me as a young person. It made me reflect on the power of routine and how I could possibly train myself toward a new baseline, if I were consistent about running. Maybe I’d get to the point, too, where the option of not running was actually worse than the activity itself.

And this is why I am forever grateful for all of the incredible role models I’ve had in my life, including my former landlady. Over time and many, many runs, I got to the same point: when I don’t run I, too, get stupid.

This relates back to how I’m adapting during this pandemic.

That last line makes it sound easy, like I have a solution for the bizarre, anxious, interstitial sense of time and circumstance at this point in 2020. I’m afraid I do not have a tidy solution, and adapting is a process that sometimes has five steps back for every one ahead.

But, informed by this whole “not getting stupid” running thing — I do have some thoughts.

First, I am in an incredibly privileged place of being employed and having the ability to work from home. I am that meme that shows how we can best show up as a good citizen and neighbor during this pandemic (if we’re able): from our couch, at home, away from other people. Aside from writing this column, I work three quarters time as a consultant, and run my small art business. My business has taken a swan dive since COVID-19 arrived, and that’s OK. I’m taking steps to revive it slowly, but I am not dependent on it for income. The majority of my time on any given week is spent working remotely, from home with my firm and various clients over calls, email and Zoom.

As someone with already-terrible lungs and underlying asthma, I am essentially quarantined. I’m in the middle of month five of not going to stores, being incredibly wary about even outdoor/distanced social gatherings, not traveling and not doing in person meetings. I have only a hazy clue of the toll this is all taking psychologically, but I also know it’s peanuts compared to what others are experiencing. This isn’t to diminish my own or anyone’s hardships during what is a grueling and heartbreaking time. But I am not required to be on the front lines. My job is to stay out of the way, stay healthy and support as I can.

It could be a whole heck of a lot worse for me. That said, this is “worse,” too — it’s perhaps worse than I’ve felt at any time in my life; watching near-helpless as a global pandemic rages on and exposes, brings to a fever pitch existing injustices in our country and across the world. This, combined with a sense of being trapped. I’m trapped in paradise, yes, but it’s like being in slow motion, with no particular aim.

I’ve found that joy is tougher and tougher to come by. I started the year meditating on those little moments that I can’t anticipate that fill me up — the sunlight on a drive filling up the trees, or the amazing thought that riding bikes through the woods in the winter in subzero temperatures isn’t just possible, I’m doing it, and getting to witness that kind of wide stillness is incredible. Now, I get little blips of this feeling. But overall I feel diminished. I’m not fully myself. I’m not in my usual “feel like I’m going to explode, so much to feel and do” mode — I’m in an emotional hibernation, conserving my energy.

And it’s not even fall yet!

What keeps me at any semblance of myself is running. Mountain biking and hiking work too — anything that gets my heart rate up. But the easiest way to get what I half-jokingly call a “dose” on any given day is to lace up my sneakers and head out running right outside my front door. I typically go in the mornings. It gives me a springboard for my day. Harking back to the wisdom of my landlady’s kid all those years ago, running early and often ensures that I don’t get “stupid.”

The interesting thing is that even though I know how essential running is for me, and how good it makes me feel in the aggregate, it’s still hard to actually go for a run. I mean, expending energy is expending energy. I’m hard wired to conserve calories as a human, and I think my brain (and slow thyroid) does a pretty good job!

So, like the concept of “adapting” during the pandemic, I don’t want it to come across that it’s hard to get into a running practice but once you’re in, you’re in. It’s still work.

What has changed all these years and runs later is that the fear of not running is bigger than my laziness. When I consider all those hours of the day ahead of me without having jacked my heart rate up first, I know there’s lethargy and irritation in store. If I run or otherwise exercise outside on any given day, there’s still some tiredness but I’m a lot more level-headed.

I don’t think you have to be a runner for this major take-home to resonate: any practice at all that fortifies body and mind right now yields a net positive, especially during a time with such high anxiety and uncertainty for each of us. It’s important even and especially now to pick that practice and have sharp elbows around protecting it — from others, and from the part of yourself that prefers the couch.

We can still be good citizens by sitting on that couch, but maybe only after we’ve gone for the run.

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