Last Sunday, I would have been racing the New Bedford Half Marathon as part of my Boston Marathon training. My aim was to go out at my marathon goal pace and then pick it up for the second half, basically to assess my readiness for Boston. My training has been close to on track, in spite of getting a nasty head and chest cold early in the year and then a 12-hour bout of food poisoning a few weeks back. They decided to cancel the half marathon on March 10th, and that was just the beginning. When I got the news that the Boston Marathon was postponed until September 14th, the wind went out of my sails. All the training and discipline seemed to disappear. An easy 6-mile run on the rail trail felt horrible; I had no legs, my toes hurt, my stomach ached…The news had just knocked me flat.
Over the winter, it took focus and fortitude to maintain training in the face of a demanding new job and commuting to Boston from New Hampshire, but the tangential structure the training schedule gave me ended up being a gift. It’s one of the things I love about the discipline of running. Having a running project occupies a quadrant of my brain and serves as a counterbalance to stress, disappointment, and longing, and since my work as an artist involves running and mapping, when I run, my art-brain is turned on. I’d pushed myself extra hard to maintain marathon training, and I’d also become dependent on having that side structure in my head–that space, always present and ready for me to step into. When the structure I’d used for the last 3 months disappeared, I was instantly tired and depressed. In the same week, MassArt, where I work as Dean of Graduate Studies, went completely online. I’ve been sequestered at home, logging many, many hours in front of the computer, doing the best I can, with my amazing work team, to keep students safe and their education moving forward.
Knowing that the only way to get over my sudden wall of exhaustion was to plant some seeds–to create some new kind of structure, I splurged on the NH State Parks license plate. Coronavirus aside, I’ve committed to staying in NH for a while, and I love running the state parks. With my new plates, I get in everywhere for free. Given the need for social distancing, why not make a new commitment to our natural woods and parks? I’ll insert a public service message here: social distancing is essential to “flatten the curve” and not overwhelm our health care systems. I have several state parks within 20 minutes of my house where I can safely run on trails without endangering myself or others, and without risking remote areas where the possibility of my needing a rescue increases.
With my new plates, I headed over to Pawtuckaway State Park, and in place of the New Bedford Half I spent 3 hours rambling on the trails. There were families and couples scattered about, and young climbers laden with crash pads heading in to boulder. Everyone was spread out and enjoying the fresh air. It’s a scary time, to put it mildly, but seeing kids hiking and exploring the woods is always a hopeful sight.
For me, every running goal is accompanied by an artistic goal. In the case of the marathon, I committed to drawing a duck for every mile run (each drawing has as many ducks as the length of the run, as well as the GPS shape the run generated). Thinking about animal idioms is always fun, and I’ve been claiming #likewateroffaducksback as a mantra to keep my compassionate leadership mind intact when tricky things come at me, which is pretty much constantly in my job. Also, now that we’re all forced to slow down, it makes sense to think intentionally about the animal world and the habitats we share. The Like Water Off a Duck’s Back project is a meditative drawing practice for me. What was going to be 17 weeks of ducks for 17 weeks of training will now be 38 weeks of ducks. It’s a ridiculous project, but it feels profound for the way it’s occupying my mind and body.
Is it possible that this catastrophe could somehow bring us to a more discerning relationship with information (true journalism and science), to richer collaboration, to radical kindness, to visionary leadership, and to a deeper respect for the natural world? There are examples throughout human history that indicate that we actually do know how to do those things well when we stop reacting out of fear and get present to ourselves and one another.