What ultra-endurance running can teach us about resilience during a pandemic
While many of us are looking with a renewed sense of optimism at what the promise of a vaccine and mass immunisation will bring, the reality of the next six months (if we are not careful) will likely feel similar the home stretch of a marathon – exhausting. If you are based in the UK, any optimism you may have felt leading up to the new year, likely subsided fairly swiftly. Instead, many likely felt an overwhelming sense of dread or lethargy take hold, as the nation entered into its third national lockdown since the pandemic began. Certainly, there is a genuine concern for people’s mental health, as the finish line (in whatever guise it eventually takes) still seems like an indistinguishable dot on the horizon. In addition, unlike with previous lockdowns, we find ourselves in the darkest months of the year. The darker winter months are known to negatively affect people’s mood (typically 50% of Britons notice a drop in their mood during the winter) and the pandemic is let alone in the midst of a global pandemic.
Evidence compiled by the Lancet journal found that by late April 2020, just over a month into the UK’s first lockdown, people’s mental health had already significantly deteriorated compared to pre-pandemic levels. As more data emerged, it became clear that many people, who had never previously experienced mental ill-health, were beginning to struggle. Since the autumn I have been raising awareness about the risks of burnout, as workloads, homeschooling, loneliness, and lockdown have taken their toll. Of the thousands of people I have interacted with in recent months, more and more are feeling exhausted. While we may have treated the first lockdown like a sprint, we now find ourselves in an ultra-endurance event of epic proportions, with many of us recognising that we may not have had the necessary training to emerge the other side unscathed.
It reminds me of my very first attempt at running 450 miles from Scotland to Wales via the three national peaks in October 2015. I was underprepared, I had no idea what to expect, I would be at the mercy of the elements and things would, invariably, not go to plan. In fact, with 12 weeks to go until we were due to set off, disaster struck. I developed a stress fracture in my right metatarsal due to overtraining, which saw me sidelined for over six weeks – no running, just short walks. In September, with less than six weeks to go, I tentatively started running again; first on a cross trainer in the gym to minimise any impact on my foot and then, with four weeks to go, outside for no more than 6 miles. Over the following few weeks I gradually upped the mileage until, with just one week to go, I had managed to run 20 miles in one go. A far cry of what would be required of me just one week later, when we attempted to run up to 60 miles per day for 8 days.
We set off in earnest from Fort William, engulfed in darkness, at 6am on 9 October 2015, with only our head torches to guide our way. After we successfully summited Ben Nevis a little over three hours in, we slipped on our trainers and set off for the next stage of our epic ultra-endurance run, which would take us up Glen Coe to finish at Bridge of Orchy. I genuinely had no idea how my foot would fare. It turned out that I should have been less worried about my stress fracture and more concerned with poorly fitting footwear. By the end of day one, some 55 miles in, my feet were sore, but we were in good spirits. However, 25 miles into day two, all was not well. We stopped at the northern edge of Loch Lomond to inspect the issue. Both of my feet were in bits, with deep blisters having formed on my heels and toes. We would venture another 10 miles, until I could no longer bear the pain and we would face our worst fear – failure.
Our support crew picked us up and we drove solemnly, our heads held low, to the hotel in Glasgow. At that stage, I could not see a way forward. I genuinely thought our epic attempt had ended. Yet, our support crew had other ideas. They were not willing to let us stop. Yet, we were time bound. We couldn’t make up the lost mileage and I had no idea if I could even run on such deep open wounds, where my blisters had once been. My feet needed rest – they got a 24-hour reprieve. We resumed our epic adventure a day later near Johnstonebridge, having shed more than 100 miles from the route. We were no longer running for a world record, but a record of sheer grit and determination to climb the three peaks and clock up, what transpired to be, more than 300 miles on foot.
What we achieved should have been impossible. Every day I would wake up with the dread of knowing that when I slipped on my trainers, each step I took would be accompanied by agonising pain (at least an 8 or 9 out of 10 on my self-created pain scale). Yet, within an hour of setting off, the pain would miraculously subside and settle at around 2-3 out of 10 (thank you endorphins). As we crossed the self-appointed finish line by the castle in Caernarfon on the eighth day, we were ecstatic – possibly the most intense sensation of accomplishment I have experienced in my lifetime. That ultra-endurance event taught me many things, but possibly five of the most important lessons are readily applicable to the current situation we now find ourselves in.
Draw on the collective strength of those around you
If it had been up to me, I would have quit when we pulled up two thirds of the way through day two. Yet, the dogged belief of those who were supporting us gave me the confidence and determination to keep going, even when all seemed lost. They helped me see a way forward, when I couldn't. For someone who had been brought up to believe that resilience was about going it alone and not seeking anyone else’s support, I learnt the most valuable lesson of my life. We are far stronger and far more resilient when we draw on our collective strength and ideas. All of us will have good days and bad days, but the more we are able to share each other’s burdens and prop each other up, the lighter those burdens become. Many of us are exhausted and in emotional pain from the past 12 months. It would be unwise to pull away from those who have the potential to give us strength – now is the time to reach out to those who care for you and who can support you.
Stay in the moment
When running multiple marathons in a day over serval relentless days, I was often tempted to keep thinking ahead to the finish line. However, the sheer scale of the task ahead of us, would have likely crushed me. Instead, I was happy to break the day down into manageable 10km sections and take each one as it came, without worrying about what was still to come. When we expend our energy on anticipating that the worst (or most challenging) is still to come, we can lose momentum and undermine our resilience. I have made that mistake more times than I care to remember. Far better to stay in the moment. While the current lockdown will end – and the finish line is almost in sight – no one knows how long it will take us to reach it. In addition, we have very little idea of what we may need to overcome in order to get there. I feel at my best when I take each day as it comes without thinking ahead too far.
Know that things will get better
Running for up to 12 hours a day on open wounds is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Yet, whilst I dreaded the excruciating pain I would experience at the start of each day, things would always get better. During this latest lockdown, I have had one or two bumpy days, possibly the lowest I have felt in a long, long time, yet I didn’t panic. Even though, at the time, those feelings felt all encompassing, I knew that those feelings would pass. Emotions are powerful but they are also temporary. It’s important to recognise their transience and allow them to disperse naturally. To help with that, it is also important to acknowledge them and talk about them, rather than simply push them away and allow them to grow into something unmanageable.
Soak up how far you have come
We all have a desperate desire for certainty and to know that everything will be ok. Unfortunately, while there is plenty to be optimistic about, we are still quite a long way away from returning to some semblance of normality. Whilst it is only natural to want to look longingly towards the future, in the midst of so much uncertainty, it may not offer us the strength we need right now. When we set off in earnest from Fort William, while optimistic, I had no idea how things would pan out. By the time we’d reached Wales, with less than 60 miles to go, our confidence had grown, but the road ahead remained uncertain and perilous in places and we were pretty tired. Rather than focus on what lay ahead, I would take the time to soak up how far we had come and how much we had accomplished – it is from there that I drew my strength to move forward.
These past 12 months have been tough for many, but we should take strength from how far we have come.
Be kind to yourself
The final thought that I wanted to share with you is around the power of kindness to heal our wounds. From an early age, like many others reading this, I carried around a significant burden on my shoulders – I believed that for me to me accepted wholeheartedly by others, I must never fail. Failure is of course subjective, as well as relative. For me, failure in this instance amounted to failing to complete the entire 450 miles from Scotland to Wales, as I had promised our sponsors. When we pulled up woefully short on day two, due to my inability to tolerate any more pain, I felt ashamed. I thought others would condemn me. Yet, all that anyone else felt towards us was sheer awe in what we had overcome to make it as far as we had. Invariably, our greatest critic has always been and will likely always be us - we hold the key to setting ourselves free.
When we set off on day four from Johnstonebridge, our original plan in tatters, had I not embraced kindness, I would have found myself weighed down by an invisible force so great, far greater than the pain in my feet or the soreness in my muscles, that I likely would have quit. I would have been weighed down by shame, which would have readily eroded my grit and resilience from the inside out. These past 12 months will have tested us in ways which we may never have imagined. We likely didn’t achieve what we set out to achieve, but that has to be ok. When the rules of the game change, we need to adapt with them, and do so with kindness.