Mark Sutcliffe: My Running Life Unfinished

Unfinished

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What happens when you get to the finish line and there’s nothing there?

We’ve all felt it, physically and mentally, over the past five months. Our virtual races have been gratifying, a slap in the face to the coronavirus gods. You can’t take away my half-marathon! I will still earn that medal and get that t-shirt, dammit, even if they arrive in the mail. But the final steps have been taken down an eerily quiet neighbourhood street instead of a scream tunnel of finish-line spectators leading to a tribe of volunteers armed with an endless supply of water, bananas and enthusiasm. Instead of high-fiving other finishers and heading out for an indulgent celebratory meal, you push the button on your watch, grab a quick selfie and walk back into the house to make grilled cheeses for your kids.

And what about that other, cosmic, more desperately awaited finish line, the one our whole planet has been struggling towards? Thirty-seven kilometres into my first marathon, a spectator lied to me: “It’s just around the corner.” I heard the same phrase again a few more times over the next 5k. But at least in that case, it was eventually true. In the midst of this global pandemic, it feels like there are only corners and no destinations. And when you make so many turns, you inevitably wonder: are we actually gaining any ground, or just returning to where we started?

Until recently, the only second wave I cared about was in a start-line corral in Boston or Chicago. Now, as we roll the dice on schools and other institutions reopening, we don’t know if we’re going back to normal or going back to square one. In May, many runners thought they’d be racing again – in person – by September. Now you have to wonder whether 2022 is a better bet than 2021.

We don’t do uncertainty very well. It’s like trying to run a fast time on a course with no mile markers and no watch. How do we calibrate our pace? How do we tick off the kilometres? How do we dream of the glory of the finish line if we don’t know where it is?

To our everlasting credit, we have adapted. We have pivoted. We have even aimed higher. We’re taking on challenges, in life and in running, we never would have contemplated before. We’re home-schooling, doing grocery runs for neighbours and family members, and wearing dress shirts with running shorts on a parade of Zoom meetings. And we’re participating in races all over the world without ever leaving home. I’ve run more since the beginning of May than at any other time in my life, spurred on by the preposterous but somehow inspiring fantasy that I’m actually completing a double crossing of a state I have never visited. James Taylor went to Carolina in his mind; I’ve been running across Tennessee.

On one level, it’s very satisfying. We relish these tests, the opportunities to prove our toughness. Who doesn’t want to rise to the occasion? But at some point, there must be a chance to complete the task, to get the medal, to tell the story in the past tense.

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