Making Sense of a Runaround 2020

by Ben Heller

As 2020 comes to a close, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on myself and our community. This year has not turned out how most of us anticipated. I remember bringing in the new year and seeing many in t-shirts that said: "Welcome to the Roaring 20s", like we were about to bring back the Charleston, silent movies, and a carefree attitude. I remember looking forward to competing in the Hangover Half for the first time (albeit with a mild hangover), personal redemption in the Boston Marathon, and a year filled with excitement and new experiences. 

Instead of the "Roaring 20s," we find ourselves in a perpetual Groundhog's Day. Every day we wake up, the virus rages, people are dying, our political system remains fractured, we are isolated, and at times it feels like our society is ready to explode in a supernova of anxiety, fear, and hate.

How does one make sense of this chaos and uncertainty? Are there opportunities for reflection and growth that we can hang onto and lean into in these times? I think there are, which I've realized through the lens of running.

I have a tumultuous relationship with competition and self-worth. As much as I would like to say that 2020 helped me turn a dramatic corner, I cannot. I still spent too much of 2020 feeling that competition defined self-worth. This summer, I decided to participate in the New York City virtual marathon and break three hours. I thought that if I broke three hours, life would be ok, even just for a little bit of time during this lockdown. Despite my best efforts, I fell into the trap of coupling my three-hour goal with my self-esteem, like running a three-hour marathon would bring me to the fountain of youth that would grant me eternal joy and carefree living. 

I also thrive on the competition: I love the feeling of tenseness at the start line, the handshakes of good luck, the feel of a rival closing in and forcing you to reach down just a bit more to try to hold them off. Virtual racing, or races where participants go off in small groups, is not the same as the real thing. Without the crowded start line, the smell of sweat, the sound of panting, and crowds' cheering, running feels very different. The challenge to maintain motivation is amplified. Without that competition, I have only my inner thoughts to propel me down the road. Often, those thoughts are negative and self-defeating.

Nevertheless, I dug deep, and I came close to breaking three hours in my virtual New York City Marathon. In retrospect, I have to smile at the experience: running a grueling virtual marathon as a "gift" to myself for turning 32; singing happy birthday to myself interrupted by an occasional groan from cramping; the physical agony I felt at mile 24 as a raucous political rally drove past me on the State Office Campus for a politician whom I revile. The irony of the pain of the end of the marathon, mixed with the disappointment of not quite meeting a goal, plus the disgust of a political rally for a politician I despise, made for some epic irony. I still laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

But that experience taught me something: that as competitors, we strive for that next goal, judging ourselves against our fellow runners or a former self. It is great motivation, but like any high-octane fuel, it can sometimes blow up in our face. It can lead to depression or obsession; it can be a vampire that sucks the joy out of running. It could have happened to me because I didn't hit the goal I set for myself. But I didn't let it.

Resiliency is the key. Resiliency has a particular value to running, but it can apply to all aspects of our lives. It is likely that at some point during this seemingly endless year, you were tested, pushed to the limit, stretched beyond your capacity. You may have suffered, tasted defeat, or lamented a loss. Yet as runners, we can embrace the pain and suffering because we know that it is a part of our running experience, just like it is part of human existence. The pain and exhaustion of a never-ending track workout is the same pain and fatigue we may feel in our daily lives. 

Resiliency allows us to remember the many blessings in our lives, even if they tend to get fogged up in the inertia of our day-to-day lives and a sea of negative news, isolation, and stress. I am blessed with a wonderful girlfriend who shines a light into my world, a family that cares for me, friends I can lean on in tough times, food to eat, and two legs to carry me forward. This year may not have been the fairy tale year that we all hoped. But if you are reading this article, then you are alive! Being alive is the ultimate reason for celebration, the ultimate victory. We still can right our wrongs, grow, adapt, and make the best of things, and have a seat at the table of humanity.

It is an unwritten part of the runner's creed that runners make the best of circumstances no matter how bad they get. Runners do not run from scary things; we do not flee discomfort. Bad weather doesn't make us back out of a race, so why should the struggles of 2020 make us back out of our lives? We must steadfastly march forward, one foot in front of the other, not looking to the past but seeing what is in front of us for the future.


The Nature of Competition is Up To You
Running and Competitiveness: Keeping a Healthy Balance
Living in a Corona Colored World
Running Life Resiliently
Life has a Finish Line; Running Can Help You to Cross it Victoriously

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