Running (and other things) in a Time of Pestilence

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Mark Brightwell is a licensed International Mountain Leader and guide for Run the Alps. He is currently riding out the pandemic in the United Kingdom’s Hampshire countryside with his family. You can read about the role trail running played in his recovery after being injured in a rocket attack in Iraq, in this story

So how are we doing? How is the Run the Alps community managing in this time of constraint? Is everyone healthy? What are you missing? What will you appreciate and be more fully joyous about, when the time comes? And what is all of this teaching you?

As with any crisis, the first step in addressing it is acceptance. When we have accepted something, we stop railing and start strategizing.

The gravity of our current situation started to hit me in early March. I was staying near Montpellier, France, and when I bid farewell to my AirBnB hosts, offering my hand, they said, “Non. We don’t do that now.”

I was behind the curve.

Back in the UK it was business as usual, at least for a little longer. But by mid-March, major events were being cancelled. Indeed, the Photography Show, a key point of promotion and sale for my business, Photo Journey, was being pulled. Now I was really paying attention.

Next on the agenda was a trip to the far North of Scotland where I would finally complete a long mountain journey, spending a week or more traveling through the wild, beautiful landscapes of the far Northwest. This solo time is balm for my soul and I had long imagined places and scenes in this last leg of the journey.

However, the more I thought about it, the more it became apparent that now was simply not the time to be going into the wilderness and engaging in something so individualistic. Now was quite the opposite: a time to be present and available for family and community.

Sharpening this vein of thought was the fact that my mother has a compromised respiratory system and my brother is immunocompromised. If anything happened to them while I was away chasing dreams, I would not forgive myself. At that point, a critical realization dawned: this is not about me. It’s not about completing my Scottish odyssey and my long-standing plan to write an ace book about it any more than it is about my plans to spend a glorious April in the Alps training for the Patrouille des Glaciers, which also was on my to-do list. Those projects ceased to matter.

What mattered was serving and protecting my family, and as a secondary consideration, my community.

The yellow fields of oilseed rape in Hampshire, England. (Photo: Mark Brightwell.)

I announced to friends I was about to ski tour with, that I was canning it for the season, explaining that with my understanding of what was coming, I couldn’t justify the risk of becoming a hospital admission, thanks to nothing but the pursuit of my own leisure activity. I was told that I was overreacting. One of them told me, “A broken leg won’t need a ventilator.”

It’s getting on a month since I reached those key acceptances and made decisions. There have been ups and downs, for sure. But generally, there is much for which I am positive and grateful.

Are we all in this together? Yes and very much, no.

The spectrum of experience at this time is frighteningly broad. The wealthy will mostly be fine. The vulnerability of the poor is more starkly felt than ever. And the disparities of wealth and wellbeing stand to increase yet further as a result of this virus.

It’s important to acknowledge that we will all experience this differently.

When people ask me how I am doing, I try to be honest: “Mostly good.”

That is to allude implicitly to lower moments without dwelling on them or giving them undue weight.

So, what’s good right now?

Well, in terms of that thing we all love – exercise! – it’s good. There are things I miss, certain feelings that cannot be replicated, like climbing and mountain running. But I don’t pay them much attention – in fact, hardly any at all. I focus my attention on what I can do and on occasion, I use my imagination (that dying faculty) to take me to the places I would chose to be, in the ideal world in which we don’t live.

Running. Let’s talk about that. In the UK, we have no limit on how far we can run and little constraint on where. So, I access a canal towpath and can leave suburbia and reach the gently rolling Hampshire countryside. I go early in the morning, when there are very few others and for the most part, people get it: they step off the path. I don’t slipstream anyone. I hold my breath as I pass. I focus on nose-breathing, a better line of defense than gulping air through the mouth. This is all about limiting risk wherever we can.

There is a particular hill that I first ran out to 16 years ago on a beautiful evening just prior to deploying with the British Army’s Gurkhas to Brunei. It rises just enough above the surrounding country to yield a view – perhaps a 20m gain – enough to make it an obvious place to stop and meditate. I’ve returned to this spot many times over the years. Last week it was -5 degrees, C. There was a heavy frost and bright sunshine. I ran hill reps and felt good. I reflected on the many times I’d been there and the many things on which I’d cogitated. “Would I die as a soldier in a foreign land?” “Would the girl still be there when I got back?” All seemed important and often daunting at the time, yet all became just another footnote in history. This will be no different. By the time I reached home my hands were painfully numb, in spite of the gloves.

On other days I intersperse my runs with stepping exercises. Wherever there is a suitable step – a park bench, stile or a step – I do at least 100 on each leg, imagining that I am in the process of climbing a mountain. The more imaginative the better, both in terms of what I use and where I let my mind take me.

This week the scene has changed. We are blessed with warmth. I’ve added skipping to my repertoire and take advantage of the car-less street. Beads of sweat bounce up past my eyes as my feet strike the tarmac. By the time I’m done there’s a dark patch on the ground. I like being able to exercise in the street. I even speak to neighbors.

The author, happily taking advantage of a car-less street. (Photo: Ian Brightwell.)

Yoga is also a great pleasure and is surely one of the most available means of exercising at this time – relatively indiscriminate of what your lock-down status or economic situation may be. Admittedly, I am particularly fortunate to have a deck just large enough to allow me to practice outdoors. Interestingly, my down days rarely, if ever, correspond to those that have begun with yoga. Does anyone else notice this?

The main trick with yoga is to not give too much of a shit. Yes, there are lots of different names, lots of different styles and lots of very interesting philosophy, but essentially, none of that stuff matters, provided you find something that works for you. What is and is not yoga no doubt gets some people very excited but to be frank, I’m not one of them. Indeed, part of my regular yoga practice looks suspiciously identical to what I’d have called “stretching” when I was schoolboy on the sports field, and before yoga had become a multi-billion dollar industry. Particularly if you’re starting from scratch — and when better than now! — use online resources to find what you like and don’t be discouraged if at first it hurts. Be gentle with yourself and remember: It’s called practice for a reason. It takes time and you will progress and it will be worth it.

Cycling is the final element of my exercise trilogy in four parts. It yields a different kind of headspace. It connects me to a time when I road cycled a lot and once raced over the Alps from Geneva, Switzerland to Nice, France. For years now my road bike has sat idle. I even contemplated selling it. I am glad I didn’t. Somehow the body remembers and quickly redeploys every trick it knows for eking the greatest performance and efficiency from this incredible piece of two-wheeled engineering. Even when I am running my smoothest, it’s nothing to compare with the smooth rolling of 120psi tires humming over tarmac.

So we can continue to exercise, provided we are inventive and disciplined. Some of us are luckier than others with the constraints of the situation around us, but all of us are going through our own process of adaptation. We’ll all have stories to share about how we improvised and what we came to enjoy. Maybe a few months from now I will be fitter than ever and more psyched too. Maybe you will be, too. Maybe I’ll have come to appreciate what’s in my own backyard as never before and won’t feel the need to travel as far or as often.

Now is an anxious time for sure, but it is also a good time: a time for living simply and developing our appreciation of what nature gives us; a time for exploring our own backyards in detail; a time to give nature a break from our travel-induced trails of carbon and a time to re-evaluate who and what most matters.

This Covid situation isn’t going to solve climate change, but it does show us what is achievable when we accept a tangible global threat. Has anyone else noticed a certain calm? Are the birds singing more loudly because they are less inhibited by human activity, or are we hearing them differently because we are less inhibited by human activity?

(Photo: Ian Brightwell.)

I leave you to ponder that and more besides. Enjoy your exercise in whatever inventive form it currently takes. And before you know what’s happened we’ll meet again on the mountain trails, tell stories and who knows, maybe we’ll even look back on this time with a curious fondness. Stranger things have happened.

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