As multiple COVID vaccines roll out many of the most vulnerable are weeks away from protection. For the first time in nearly a year, the idea that we can slowly begin to “return to normal” feels plausible. Yet, with a bitter irony, many are facing the toughest period of this pandemic. Infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths are at their highest causing health services to teeter on the brink of collapse whilst the general population experiences some of its toughest and longest period of heavy restrictions in, what for many is the bleakest part of the year: winter.
As a long distance runner I know that the toughest part of a race is around the two-thirds mark when you suddenly become overwhelmed by fatigue. This is true for all races but especially in a marathon. The notorious 18-20mile/28-32km mark, known as “The Wall”, is when both your body and mind doubt their ability to keep going and beg you to stop. Thoughts of stopping, giving up, the relief of release overrun and darken your mind with malicious temptations. There’s a particular psychological arduousness about the fact that even though you are far further from the beginning than you are from the end, you still feel very far away.
In these moments no amount of the usual “positive thinking” or “cheering yourself on’’ will work. In fact they will probably do more harm than good. There’s no point thinking of an end which, whilst it might be in reach, still feels very far away and you have little left to get you there.
In a message to Channel 4 staff, CEO Alex Mahon told her people of the impossibility to find enthusiasm in this period. Usually when times are tough we create things to look forward to, treats to ourselves. Plan a party, celebrate something, book a holiday. Yet for many, all the usual coping tools are not available. The fervour of finding a “silver lining” to lockdown to pursue a passion, learn a new skill, achieve the project you’ve been putting off, feels naive and empty. Even if we could find one, there is no energy left with which to generate any form of productive focus.
We must be thoughtful for those who are enduring real hardship. Whether because the disparities of poverty have put them in ever vulnerable positions or because their jobs demand they risk their own health to battle the virus on our behalf on a front line they never believed they would experience. For those of us lucky enough to be safe this doesn’t mean we should discount the suffering from forced social isolation. Whilst boredom is usually a vice of the privileged and idle it is also the punishment of the imprisoned and tortured. The Idea of luxury without liberty is a theme explored since ancient times to today. From the story of Daedalus and Icarus was one of escape from King Minos who imprisoned them forever in luxury, wanting for nothing but their freedom; to The Crown about a royal family who want for nothing except to speak and do as they truly feel.
Alex’s simple advice is to accept boredom and frustration and rely on pure stamina as we wait for this bit to end. As a runner this resonated with me. These are the “endure” parts of “endurance” sport. Thoughts of glory and the finish line are not productive, they feel too far away. At these points there is only one tactic that really works. To switch off and wait for it to pass. Forget about the end goal and focus on the basics: keep my breathing in time with my pace, count my steps, visualise the lifting of my legs. This helps push any thoughts of pain or discomfort away. Many runs have taught me that if you simply wait it out then the negative feelings will pass. Suddenly and unexpectedly, out of the darkness, you will look up and realise that the end is in sight and become flooded with the endorphins and strength you need to sprint to the finish.
When the feeling has passed don’t turn to yourself. Everyone is going through their personal race and will be in a different place to you and would have reached this point from different circumstances. It is not simply a matter of an individual’s strength or resilience. Look at those around you and see those who are struggling. There is nothing more powerful in those darker moments than a fellow runner appearing beside you, matching your step and simply saying “well done, keep going”. It reminds you that despite how hard you are finding things you are moving, one step at a time. It reminds you that there are people around you, running alongside you, enduring this with you.