Why I stopped running during the pandemic, and how I started again

Break the pandemic wall by taking steps to reconnect with the lives that sustained us before.

Published Sat, Mar 13, 2021 · 05:50 AM

WHEN the pandemic hit I was 35 and in the surprise athletic prime of my life. First, I broke three hours in the marathon, then I was getting even faster.

I captured every mile, every day, in a little spreadsheet. Sometimes I ran 100 miles a week, before work, after work, like a game of Tetris with my calendar. The effort even catalysed my career. I could not believe it.

But when the stay-at-home orders came, I stopped. It was not just that we did not know what was safe. My whole barometer had been thrown off. Usually when things were hard I would run harder. But it was different when the suffering was overwhelming, and global, and beyond my control. I shut down.

Even once going outside was considered safe, it was hard for me to get up again. I usually have two speeds: fast and slow. My life had become a treadmill of chasing goals - this was a signal to change. So I did what I had always associated with rest: I sat on my couch, with my phone.

Through the screen I found a connection to the remnants of my old life. It became a mute button for the despair. Some days I loathed myself for loathing my time on the couch when others did not have the option. Some days I loathed myself for liking it. But I kept scrolling.

But as the months wore on I realised this was not rest anymore. It was becoming my lifestyle. And it was not making me feel better - I felt deeply, unsettlingly worse.

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It was not just me. A year into the pandemic, we are in a broad mental and physical public health crisis, and amid the unceasing news cycle of terrible, urgent issues, many of us feel ashamed to talk about it. So we are navigating these experiences on our own. And it is not going well.

Quarantine has been terrible for our health - headaches, backaches, chronic aches in places you did not know you had. Symptoms of depression among Americans tripled last year. We call it the "pandemic wall". What can we do to feel better in the middle of a crisis that seems like it would not end?

I had to find something.

So finally I scrolled to something different: the science of motivation. I had long followed the work of Brad Stulberg, a performance coach who helps top athletes with the psychological side of endurance. Nearly a year into my running break I realised his approach was exactly what I needed. I devoured the advice he dished out online. Then I gave him a call. He explained a central tenet of what is known as behavioural activation: mood follows action.

There are two kinds of fatigue, said Mr Stulberg. One is when your mind and body are truly tired. The other is when that system tricks you into feeling tired because you are in a rut. When you are tired, you need rest. But if you are in a rut, you need to nudge yourself into action.

"You don't need to feel good to get going," he said. "You need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good."

That is why so many of us feel like we hit a pandemic wall - the fatigue we faced last spring, the natural reaction to shock and terror, has been replaced by inertia, Mr Stulberg told me. Waiting to feel better would not work anymore. We have to act.

I was a little disappointed that his advice was not as novel as my problem felt. I had started to believe that to feel better, I had to hack, or spend, or distract. What if I got the nicer can of pinto beans this time - would they help? Or maybe I need a new pot to cook them in. What about some special rubber bands to get me into shape again. Rollerblades?

Of course, there is a whole industry built around messages like these. Companies are profiting from telling us we can buy our way out of this mess. The self-care industry alone ballooned to US$450 billion in 2020, the year we were most vulnerable, from US$10 billion in 2014. Pandemic ennui appears to be reorienting the economy overall, as we channel our angst into massage guns and candles and Fitbits. But the price of fitness is sneakers. Wellness may be hard, but much of it is free.

So last month I finally started running again. At first all I did was sprint for 30 seconds. I ran on the same path in Central Park, where a year ago I would log 20-mile workouts that now feel like dreams. I cannot hit those speeds right now for even a minute. But I keep trying. And if I am tired, I back off. But not for long.

I was out jogging recently, and as I turned down 10th Avenue towards home I started to sprint again. Suddenly I felt like Elliott on the back of the bicycle with ET flying across the moon. People on the sidewalk stared at me over their masks - who was this dishevelled husk of a person charging down the street like she was winning a war? I did not care. I kept going, exhilarated.

The whole experience has been just as I feared: uncomfortable, intimidating, humbling. The hardest part is accepting that I am at a level that would make previous versions of myself wince. It is also like a blood transfusion. I can finally feel my hamstrings. After months of watching myself wither away, it feels like reconnecting with someone I used to know: myself.

We do not all have to go running to break the pandemic wall, but we can take steps to reconnect with the lives that sustained us before - whatever that was. Our health, our families, our friends.

I had been calling my time on the couch self-care. But self-care is not doing nothing; that is self-neglect, cloaked in excuses. No Netflix binge or wellness hack is making us feel better, not after a year. We are only getting more unhealthy, more miserable, more inert. We need to do something else.

For me, I discovered that maybe one way to deal with pandemic burnout is not going easier anymore - it is trying something hard. NYTIMES

  • The writer is a senior editor and writer in Opinion. She produced the Emmy-nominated Opinion Video series Equal Play, which brought widespread reform to women's sports. Her best marathon time is 2:53.

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