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Beyond The Marathon

Yesterday I read a quote from the Swedish Deputy Prime Minister, “Covid19 is a marathon, not a sprint.” I have been hearing this same comment made by many as a useful analogy to help people process that the virus (and our response to it) would be with us for quite some time. As I thought more about this statement, I reflected on my own marathon days when I was on the faculty at the United States Military Academy. With our cadets occupied every day from 11:30-1:30, I, and several of my fellow faculty, used that time to run long and far. While my body type does not lend itself to long-distance running with what others have often referred to as ‘tree trunks’ for legs, I was quite proud of my running. While I didn’t break any records, I could have qualified for the Boston Marathon.

 The first marathon I ran was the Marine Corps Marathon run in early November in Washington DC. The final miles were alongside Arlington National Cemetery and you have to make a loop around the inspiring Iwo Jima National Monument. The crowds cheering you on from the sidelines are still, to this day, something I will always cherish. Having run the race twice, I vividly remember miles 19-22 as the hardest. Back then, in 1991 and 1992, the course contained a loop around Haines Point, an island park, that sat in the middle of the Potomac River. Those miles were especially physically and mentally challenging, knowing I still had a long way to go before I finished. I was physically depleted, and, at this more remote location, there were fewer crowds cheering me on to lift my flagging morale. However, once I had crossed the Potomac River and was running alongside the crosses and graves at Arlington, I felt a surge of energy, purpose, and inspiration knowing the end and the crowds were near.

With this pandemic, though, we can’t really see the end in sight and the analogy of the marathon may be inaccurate and unhelpful. Instead of running a race where you know it will be 26.2 miles and hopefully crowds of supporters at the end cheering you on, what we are facing is a race where every day you have to get up to run a bit further and deal with the psychological challenge of not knowing when and how the pandemic will stop altering our lives. For many of us, that can be incredibly stressful and debilitating. Each day feels a bit more like Groundhog Day. We are living with a global pandemic that says we have to stay away from one another for an unanticipated amount of time. And how and when that ends is a mystery to even the most knowledgeable around us.

 So how do we make our way when we don’t know where and when the race ends? Perhaps we start by taking a page from that great American hero, Bill Murray, who played the arrogant, full-of-himself news anchor, Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Phil eventually realized, by living the same exact day over and over again, that he could use it to his advantage to be the best version of himself. He mastered the piano, invested in friendships, took time with the elderly, learned French, and tried to save the life of a homeless man. He eventually figured out how to say the right thing at the right time so that he grabbed the heart of his producer, Rita Hanson, played by the talented and beautiful Andi MacDowell. While we don’t have Phil’s knowledge of what will come before us, we do have the opportunity to use this time to improve our health and well-being; strengthen our relationships with our family and friends; find ways to help others; and learn a new skill, possibly one that could be useful in helping those around you recover and reimagine a new future.

So, this is not a sprint, nor a marathon. Instead, it is a race that, for today, requires our best selves to stay the course, believe in humanity’s ability to heal, and, as Winston Churchill reminded the citizens during the London Blitz of 1941, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”


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