The dawn will come: Running a marathon as a metaphor for late pandemic life

 More than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic began, folk from all walks of life are feeling exhausted.

In a recent feature for CBC’s “Saskatoon Morning” radio program, producer Heather Morrison likened our discomfort to the mental rigours of marathon running.


When the world first recognized the pandemic in 2020, health officials quickly reminded us that “This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” The major difference, Morrison says, is that endurance races are done by choice. We can’t opt-out of Covid-19. However, we can learn from those who have trained their minds and bodies through the periods of deprivation and loss that come with

running marathons.


Morrison grounds her reflection in the reality that she is currently training (for the first time) to do the upcoming Saskatchewan marathon, a full 42.2 kilometre race.  Marathons, she observed in her story, are less about training one’s body and more about one’s mind. The kind of mental training athletes undergo is equally needed (by all of us) to cope with late pandemic days. 

When we deal with social isolation, she suggests, we need to focus on moving forward, despite not being able to see a “finish line.” When you run, you need to focus on “what you cannot see.”  


In knowing that there is a finishing line ahead, we find the motivation to keep moving forward.


Morrison interviewed Terrant Cross Child, a Blackfoot member of the Blood Tribe from Southern Alberta, who regularly runs marathons. When you start, he observes, you can’t see the finish line, but must focus on reaching it. Aimless effort won’t work.

 Cross Child says that runners have

to endure both the bad and the good, along with the knowledge that “the prize [of finishing] lies ahead.” 


Just as runners’ aid stations offer first aid, water and energy gel to help athletes on their races, Cross Child says that we can cope with isolation by remembering conversations and times shared with loved ones, such as spouses, children and friends.


He and other marathoners, Morrison says, are “models of perseverance.” Their capacity, as Cross Child says, to “keep their eyes on the prize” ultimately overpowers the agonizing wish to quit. 


Ultra-marathons, the equivalent of four marathons, can last as long as 22 hours (160 km) and require athletes to run “through the pitch black of night.” Morrison interviewed Stacy Dittmer (of Brandon, MB) who has run many of these and found them doable only “by segmenting the challenge into manageable pieces.”


Dittmer thinks only about the next 40 steps, not the overwhelming hundred kilometres left to go. It’s “one foot in front of another” and “one aid station to the next.”  


Quitting, she says, is not an option. And negative thoughts need to be excluded to keep a healthy mindset. 


Morrison says that endurance training is “not about being so fit you do not suffer, but about changing the way you feel that suffering. The suffering does not go away. But you feel better equipped to manage it.”


However, we can’t anticipate every turn in the road:  sometimes we cannot prepare our minds or something unexpected occurs, so that we can easily feel overwhelmed. We might feel we have little energy or suffer muscle cramps and so on. Sometimes, Dittmer says, we simply have to “hang on.” The lows always pass. “The further you go on, they go away . . . . If you can just stick with it, you’re going to feel good again.”


Morrison’s story concludes that Dittmer believes gratitude is essential to cultivating a healthy mindset. During an ultramarathon, she runs on a “dark trail” all night long, so that the sight of first light becomes the object of deep gratitude. Her race is not finished, but “she’s grateful for having made it through the night.”


That image completes the analogy: with gratitude, Morrison says, we get through the pandemic, “from one sunrise until the next; until we hit the finish line.” 


Late stage, world altering pandemics, like gruelling ultra-marathons, can and do grind us down (consider historical accounts of the Spanish Flu).  Pandemics (and marathons) do so by forcing us to confront our own mortality, our own rationale and faith for living.

This may be why these lines from Rabindranath Tagore always cause me to reflect on the marginal spaces we occupy–some of us more intensely now than ever before:

“Death is not the extinguishing of light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.” 

And now it’s your turn: do you find the analogy between marathon running and pandemic life helpful? Please tell me on my “comments” page what thoughtful supports you are finding. I’d  be delighted to hear from you.