We are running an ultramarathon without kilometre markers or a finish line.
We valiantly throw one foot in front of the other, blindly determined to keep moving. But we know almost nothing of the course ahead, nor the destination. At some point—who knows when?—someone will finally announce the distance, drawing a line on the ground which we will eventually, mercifully, cross.
At the moment, it’s almost impossible to think that far ahead. So we just take a step, then another. As runners, we know from experience how to handle the toughest part of a race. Don’t think about the finish line. Just run to the next corner, then the one after that. We’re used to one mile at a time. Now it’s one hour or one day at a time.
The events by which we normally mark our years, our weeks, and our lives have vanished. Annual conferences, birthday parties, religious celebrations—all wiped from the calendar. In the absence of these mileposts, everything blends together. The normal cycles of the day—packing lunches, getting the kids to the school bus, catching the train to work—are all gone. The weekends and weekdays are almost indiscernible from each other.
Remind me: what month is this?
Right, it is April. And for longer than any living human can remember, it has been the time of the most exalted amateur sporting event on Earth. The last time there wasn’t a Boston Marathon in April, the US Civil War was a recent memory. The first World Series was still a few years in the future. William McKinley was president and Queen Victoria reigned over the Commonwealth. There might today be a handful of turtles who breathed the air of 1897, but few others.
We don’t all get to run Boston, obviously. And only a privileged few get to be there every year. But for thousands of us, the third Monday in April is still a cherished annual ritual, even if it’s only a vicarious event, witnessed on the TV at the office or revisited on the PVR from the treadmill or the couch. But there will be no gun fired in Hopkinton today, no scream tunnel at Wellesley College. There is no joy on Boylston Street. Only a steep and endless Heartbreak Hill.
There are far greater tragedies of the coronavirus crisis, of course. Let’s not forget that running a marathon is a luxury in the best of times. But goals and milestones matter. They orient us toward a better path, focus our attention, channel our energy, and offset the inanities of quotidian ritual. Without hopes and dreams, without plans and destinations, without start lines and finish lines, as we are all discovering now, life can lose its shape, edging toward drudgery.
Alas, there is only one thing we can do: keep moving forward, on our runs and in our peculiar new daily routine. But try, once in a while, to think of that faraway finish line. We don’t know where it is, but we can take faith in this: it’s getting closer with every day that passes, every step we take. No post-race celebration will ever be filled with as much jubilation or relief. No family reunion area will ever mean as much. This time, we will certainly have earned our medals.