Lessons From Ultra Running to put into Practice during the Pandemic

Right now, times are pretty tough.  The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over our lives, challenges us daily to keep the curve as flat as possible, and there is no set end in sight.  Sounds to me like we are on kilometer number 30 of a 100km race, where the 30kms from the start of the race are starting to really take a toll physically and mentally, but it is also way too soon to start thinking about when it will all be over. While the COVID-19 pandemic is an entirely new situation for me, ultra running is not, and a lot of the strategies and lessons that I use to get through an ultra race can apply to the COVID-19 situations we all find ourselves in…

 

So, here is what I do to get through an ultra, and what I’m doing to work my way through this pandemic one step, or should we say, one day at a time.  It’s cheesy, but ultra-running can be a pretty cheesy sport, in terms of lessons learned and also the delicious quesadillas or pizza at feeding stations.  So, here we go!

 

  1. Pace Yourself.

Whenever I am at the start line of a race, the overwhelming instinct is to go out strong – “run hard while you still feel good” type mentality. I think the same things happened to a lot of us when COVID-19 first really hit us here in Canada in March 2020 – so many people went hard and self-isolated as if this would last for the 14 day prescribed quarantine period.  Going out hard has never been a good race strategy for me (despite trying it for almost every race in high school and college into adulthood for longer than I’m proud to admit).  When it comes to self-isolating and physical distancing, try to keep things as normal as you can while keeping safe.  Go out for walks, talk to your friends and family (virtually or in-person 2m apart), get essentials when you need them.  Know what pace you are able to maintain.

 

  1. Smiling and Thanking People can Really make Everything Seem Easier.

Really, try it.  No training required 🙂

 

  1. Not Knowing / Seeing the Finish Line is a Mental Battle

For longer races, if you think about how much longer there is to go at the start or even the middle of the race, it can be defeating and make you want to quit before you really get going. A mental strategy to deal with this (that I rely heavily on when racing) is rather than thinking about how far, total, you have to go to the finish line, you think about the next aid station, the top of the next big climb, or any smaller segment that you need to get to and put your energy / mental space into getting to the next place.  COVID-19 is the same thing – it is an ultra-marathon where we cannot see the finish with no set deadline and it can be overwhelming to think about this way of life lasting 1, 2…5 years.  Maybe it will, maybe it won’t… what matters for you is just getting yourself and your loved ones to the end of the month / week / day as safely and healthily as possible.  Then, you can regather and deal with what you need to do to get through the next portion of this pandemic.

 

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This sign was posted several hours before the actual finish line…cruel indeed.
  1. Eat and Hydrate Well.

No further explanation needed on this one I think.

 

  1. Take Breaks When You Need Them

In ultras, jogging, walking, standing, and sitting down for a while (even napping!) are all cool – just do what you need to do.   The same applies for COVID: Maybe some weeks you’ll get all the work you wanted to get done, you’ll run a PB, and you’ll cook extra delicious meals. Then other weeks you’ll do none of this and struggle just to get through the week.  Don’t beat yourself up about it.  Everyone needs walking / napping breaks in an ultra-marathon.

 

  1. Your Crew (Friends, Family, and Community) is there for you and will be the Reason you make it Through.

Sometimes all that gets me through to the next aid station is knowing that my crew is they’re waiting for me.  The same applies for COVID-19.  Don’t underestimate the value of your social support system.  Ask for help when you need it, and you’ll likely be surprised how far your people are willing to go to make your life better. (I’m looking at you Adri – drying off the inside of my sweaty rain jacket and you mom – somehow switching my compression socks while I laid in the grass drinking a juice box).  I know my crew is there for me when I race, but I also know that they are here for me now should I need them to get me through a tough spot.

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Friends that wake up at 4:30am to see you off at the start line are keepers:)
  1. Take Care of Yourself / Address any Issues as they Pop-up.

Bad stuff will always happen, whether it is cramping from bad water/salt intake, blisters/chaffing, getting lost, or hunger.  When you do a lot of ultras, you learn that it is best practice to deal with whatever happens as soon as you first notice it.  Whether it is eating / drinking more, putting Vaseline on a high friction area, or backtracking to the last trail marker – it is better to just address the problem, right away, and then move on with your race. Not addressing these small “annoyances” as they pop up may save you time in the short run (pun intended;), but when you’ve got many kilometers and hours ahead of you, you’ll almost always save a lot of time and pain in the long run.  The same applies for this COVID-19 ultra: Expect plenty of bumps along the way and as soon as you notice it, deal with any problems that pop up.  Whether it is anxiety, financial challenges, getting physical exercise, or just taking some time for self-care, prioritize dealing with these issues however you are able to in the moment.

 

  1. Stay Positive.

Negative thoughts will creep in, but it’s important not to let them linger.  Yes, it is important to be realistic and to recognize when you are having a really, really tough time, but if you can somehow get out of the cycle of negative thoughts, you’ll be making your life a whole lot easier.  I know that this is easier said than done, but by practicing this habit on training runs, it will be a lot easier to apply on the big ultra race day.  The same thing applies for COVID.

 

  1. Just Keep Running

This is a silly, straight-forward mantra, but it is really easy to remember, and the directions are quite easy to follow.  It is also quite adaptable to COVID – “Just keep hand washing” “Just keep physical distancing”, and “Just keep keeping on”. Insert whatever actionable item you gotta do!

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Just Keep Swimming

 

  1. We’re all in this Together, from the First Person to Cross the Finish Line to the Last.

Ultras are all about everyone getting to the finish line.  Watch the finish of any ultra race and you’ll see what I mean (there are a lot of tears involved).  In ultra, like in COVID, everyone is making their way through this challenge at the same time.  Some are doing better than others, some are struggling, but it is essential that you do your part to make sure that everyone gets to that finish line.  Some people will not need any support and some people will need a lot, and you never know which end of this spectrum you may find yourself.  The point is, by supporting and encouraging one another, no matter how fast or slow, everyone will have a better run and make it to the finish line.

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