What Marathon Runners Taught Me About Surviving The Pandemic

I only run if my life is in danger. 

Bears, tornados, shoppers on Black Friday: I’ll kick my legs into high gear. But for sport or even fun? I don’t think so. My wife has gently pointed out that I might have a better chance of surviving a calamity if I practiced running every so often, at least so that I might not be the slowest guy out there. 

So the idea of me learning something deep from runners…

Well, as I said in my last post on how Bill Murray has taught me important things about surviving this pandemic, insight comes from the most unusual sources sometimes. 

It’s the phenomenon of Jelly Legs that speaks to me here in the middle of lockdown #3, and it provides another glimmer of how we might get through this difficult time. 

Adam Hurst is assisted by Jim Grove (L) and David Meyer down Boylston Street during the 118th running of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts April 21, 2014. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

I’d seen these images on the news before, but I didn’t know that runners refer to this experience as “Jelly Legs.” (be careful how you search this, it has another meaning) Amazing athletes accomplishing the super-human feat of running 26.21 miles suddenly find their legs unable to function in a coordinated way or even support them. While dehydration and fatigue play a role, I understand that the experience of Jelly Legs happens most often when the finish line is in sight. When runners see how close they are, something happens that makes finishing almost impossible. You’d be amazed at how many photos there are of people crawling across finish lines.

Lately, I’ve felt like I have metaphorical Jelly Legs. With widespread vaccination, it seems like the finish line of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight. Sure, there’s a mile to go, and it feels all uphill. We’ve been living under the shadow of danger and uncertainty for so long it feels like a marathon that might be nearing its completion. So why does it feel so hard to keep going? In my corner of the world, many of the folks who look to me for support find this lockdown harder than ever. Why does it feel like these emotional legs that have carried us so faithfully along the first twenty-plus miles are struggling to finish the race? (If running metaphors aren’t connecting with you, think about a similar phenomenon, informally diagnosed as Senior-itis, when kids in their last year of high school or college struggle to get anything done in the last months before graduating)

I don’t know. I was trying to solve the mystery of Jelly Legs and why we fall apart when the end is near when something more profound struck me looking at the photos and videos of race finishes. 

Take a look at the other runners in the images. Competitors, in a race they’ve spent years training for, stop to help other runners. They come alongside and offer their own exhausted bodies to prop up someone else. In some cases, groups of people carry a fellow runner across the finish line. 

Associated Press

It got me thinking about my own recent case of emotional Jelly Legs. When I see those images of runners helping one another across the line, I find myself moved at a very deep level. I realize that I’m not in this marathon alone, and neither are you. We’re facing this pandemic together, which makes my legs feel a little less wobbly. 

There’s nothing quite like Jelly Legs to make you feel the tremendous fragility of being a human. One minute you’re a glorious creature pushing the limits of what a body can do. The next, you’re stumbling around wondering if you can actually crawl across that finish line that now seems so far away. While I can’t pretend I’ve had the physical experience of Jelly Legs or even felt anything like a glorious creature in the physical sense, I do know what it’s like to be a shooting star come crashing back to earth in the psychological sense. 

But then someone comes alongside you and offers to help, and everything changes. Suddenly it’s not about our individual accomplishments. It’s about this thing we’re in together. It not just your race or your story or even your life; it’s what all of us on this same path are facing. 

Now I realize that we’ve heard the phrase “we’re all in this together” so often in the last few months that it’s starting to feel cliche. Some days it even feels completely the opposite of what is true. Our fears in these dreadful times have polarized us to extreme positions. Choices about masks, vaccines, and compliance with restrictions have become tribal identifiers, marking each other as belonging to one team or the other. In our desire for certainty, we’ve slid into the natural human tendency to carve the world into “us” and “them.” We’ve come to see the other runners as threats. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from marathon runners, it’s that while races can be competitive, they don’t have to be adversarial. 

In this pandemic, we are in this together, despite our different opinions about how to react and our competing ideas about how to keep people safe. We have conflict, but we need not be enemies. You might think someone else’s way of handling life in this crisis is wrong, but you can still treat them as a fellow racer, a fellow human trying to make their way to the finish line. It’s moments of weakness, of Jelly Legs, that invites us to respond to each other either with love, seeing all racers as worthy of care and aid, rather than as adversaries. Sometimes those other racers are friends, sometimes they are strangers, and sometimes they may be entire nations. I understand the difficult feelings many of us have about the choices other people make shaping the way the pandemic affects us. I appreciate the frustrations many of have with governments whose policy decisions don’t match our own beliefs about what constitutes diligent action in the best interests of the public. Sometimes it can feel like other people are making this so much harder. Quite possibly they are. The challenge is to not let this cause us to lose perspective and forget that COVID-19 is our enemy, other people are not. We may not like how others behave during the race, but we don’t always get to pick who we run with.

These next few months are not simply about getting to the finish line. This time is about embracing our weaknesses and the weaknesses of others as we struggle with the emotional “Jelly Legs.” This time is about the choice to see others limping or crawling and respond to them with the kindness our humanity makes us capable of. No matter what, we’re in this race together. The choice is whether to view others as enemies or as fellow competitors that might just need a shoulder to lean on as we move together toward the finish line.

And since I don’t run, I might need some of you to carry me for about…25 miles. You might need to help me in shifts.


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