Til the Next Aid Station

This is Day 175 of the quarantine.

It seems as if my shell has just started to crack. Otherwise, I’ve been clumsily finding a way in it.

A qua-run-routine.

Running has been a balm of steadiness for me for the last 19 years. A method to the madness, they say, emphasis on madness. Perhaps if I didn’t have running, I would have cracked sooner.

There seems to be no neutral opinions on running. You either love or hate running. Because I choose to surround myself with runners, most people I know love running. Most of those people love running to the point where they hate it that they love it. Yes, it’s a complex relationship.

An ultramarathon is traditionally described as any distance exceeding the 26.2 mile marathon event. The shortest race you’ll normally hear about is the 50 kilometer (a little over 31 miles). The longest race you’ll likely hear about is..there’s really no limit, nowadays. The 100 mile distance remains popular, but I’ve also heard about 200 mile events.

In an ultra race, one strategy that has helped me get by is the thought of continuing to the next aid station. And once I get there, to the next aid station after that. And so on, and so forth, til the finish line. Depending on course logistics, the distance between aid stations varies. No one is going to set up a canopy and some food on a mountain trail if there’s not at least a sliver of road to access it.

Arriving at an aid station, everyone volunteering there feels like my new best friends. I enjoy an energy boost when I encounter people at an aid station, especially when I know the volunteers personally. The running community, especially within the trail and ultra runners, is pretty close. Maybe it’s the relief after being so starved for interaction after a prolonged period of time alone – a reminder of other signs of life.

Self-sufficiency and introversion become valued traits in events like these. It’s no surprise, then, that I would adapt these same skills from running to an indefinite time isolated, indoors. As you can imagine, I’m no stranger to time alone. I prefer a lot of time alone, actually.

Yet, it recently dawned on me: this shelter is an ultra without a finish line. There is no sensible definition to what an aid station is in this unusual timeframe. Is an aid station having the opportunity to get your hair cut inside again?Maybe an aid station is enjoying a meal at your favorite neighborhood restaurant? Or is it being able to celebrate a birthday or a wedding with more than ten people, but less than 50 people, indoors?

Even I can agree this is perhaps too much time isolated, alone.

It’s a feeling of floating through space and time, not necessarily in a good way. Fortunately, ultra runners tend to be adept at managing toxic positivity. The cheers that are normally spewed at run-of-the-mill road races – “don’t give up,” “winners never quit,” “no pain, no gain” – don’t fly the same way at these longer races. There are usually few spectators, for one, but the few who are there usually know how miserable you are feeling.

Ultra runners tend to be raw and resilient, and beyond brutally honest. You learn to thrive in your own pain and discomfort. By thriving, I mean shuffling your feet. At least with choosing to run something that undoubtedly feels terrible, you’re still making it a choice. Depending on the organizer, there’s also usually a barbecue. And if there’s no barbecue, there’s certainly at least beer.

I’ve heard a lot of people wishing for things to return to normal. My thought instead is, how about we return to something better than where we were? If we are on the horizon of cultivating something new, we can certainly create something better.

Til the next aid station.

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