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50 miles by foot: What now?

If running offers salvation, why does choosing to run feel so conflicted?

The weekend before everything shut down, I knocked out a major training goal with grueling back-to-back runs totaling over 26 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing. I felt strong and fresh throughout both runs, like I could keep going for hours and never get tired.

Everything fell into place. My gear was right. My nutrition and hydration needs were satisfied. Even my recovery was on point. It had all come together in that 48-hour period thanks to years of experience, months of training and days of careful planning.

Now, less than two weeks later, it’s threatening to unravel. Like everyone else, I’m confused and conflicted. Experts say running alone is one of the best things you can do, especially out in nature where personal exposure is limited. Yet everywhere I run, there are way more people on trails that used to be empty and unbothered.

Some people on the trails are exercising safe social distancing parameters. They step aside and give you space to pass. We say hello and encourage each other. That’s been my default mode even when I’m blazing down a trail and starting to get into a much-needed flow state. Better to set a good example than a blistering time no one else cares about.

Many people are not, and their behavior makes every encounter feel tense and unwelcome. They carry on in packs as if nothing has changed, charging up hills with their heads down, not even grunting when they pass. They let their dogs run hundreds of feet ahead of them, oblivious to leash regulations, not to mention everyone else’s safety and security. It’s stressful to run stressed.

I worry about the effects on my immune system. Some say an hour of exercise is good, but hard workouts can leave you susceptible to infections. Most of my weekday runs range from one hour to two and my long runs stretch out to four hours or more. I’m at the point in training where my runs carry greater intensity, either through covering longer distances or speed workouts.

Is it too much? Will my baseline fitness help me if I get sick? If running in the woods is my salvation, can it also be my undoing? I worry about all of this, which feeds my already hyperactive anxiety and drains my defenses. In the absence of definitive answers, I’ve made a few adjustments.

First, I cut the number of weekly runs down from five to four with days off in between workouts to minimize exposure and give my body a chance to rest.

Second, I tweaked my night time routine to make quality sleep an even bigger priority. No news or Twitter for an hour before bed time. I read books on meditation before falling asleep, the lessons absorbing into my consciousness as I drift off.

Third, I’ve started meditating first thing in the morning, while my family sleeps, as opposed to after my runs. I’m grateful for my family, of course, but I miss having the space to practice. I miss being still.

Fourth, I’ve cut alcohol out completely and put a greater emphasis on eating real food. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ve actually become a vegetarian, but that’s a whole different post.

All of this may sound extreme, but so is training for an ultra. I made the decision years ago to protect my runs and these measures are simply a natural outgrowth of where those choices have led, albeit on an accelerated time table. It was always in the back of my mind to make these lifestyle changes. Now they feel necessary.

Is this good? Is this healthy? Is it responsible? I don’t know.

Some days, it feels selfish to go out for my runs. Other days, it feels like the only thing holding me together. I long for a return to normalcy, knowing it’s well beyond my control and thus counterproductive to wish for things that can no longer be true.

Ultimately, what I believe is that my training has prepared me for this moment in a way nothing else can. I can’t give it up now.