The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people around the world to cope with unprecedented and unknown circumstances. Amidst the global coronavirus outbreak, Alexi Pappas—a Greek American, 2016 Olympian, actor, writer and Greek national record holder in the 10,000 meters—is currently training across the Atlantic for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
On the day that mass gatherings were banned and public spaces were shuttered, my coach and I arrived at our regular track facility in the port city of Patras, Greece, to find the doors locked. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we understood that this was for our community’s safety, but there was still a moment of frustration—nearly everything in my normal routine was thrown into disarray.
In his unsteady English, my coach was swift to respond: “There are many ways to make an athlete hurt,” he said. What he meant is that we didn’t need a track to run. All we really needed were our shoes and a trail.
We drove an hour outside the city to a sweeping ancient national forest in Kalogria, where towering cone and fuchsia-colored myrtle trees meet the sea. Umbrella pines and vibrant wildflowers trace miles and miles of soft trails, which sometimes seem dramatic, completely shaded by the trees, and other times celestial, opening up into bright grasslands.
As I began my run and marveled at the beauty around me, that familiar Zen-like feeling set in, the one that so many runners, novice or otherwise, know and love. With each breath and each step, the Grecian woods reminded me of the trails I grew up running on in the Bay Area—woody and moist and wet, like autumn, when your feet sink into mud speckled with pine needles and teeming with life. The strong scent of the forest, more than anything, invoked the feeling home.
It felt like a respite from the upheaval of the world around me.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us, maybe for the first time in our lives, to confront the reality that nobody, not even those in charge, can control what is going to happen tomorrow.
I am away from my husband and family in California for much longer than I anticipated to be. In February, I booked a one-way ticket to Greece to train for a few weeks before attempting to run the Olympic qualifying time in the marathon (2:29 for women) under the Greek flag for Tokyo 2020. Now, everything has changed. It is not safe, encouraged, responsible or permitted to travel. My loved ones cannot visit me across the Atlantic, and I cannot go see them, at least not for a while. The qualifying races I planned on competing in have been canceled, and as of Tuesday, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed to 2021. Like thousands of Olympic hopefuls, I await updates from the IOC daily.
As quarantines and shelter-in-place become our new normal, it’s no wonder that more and more people are turning to running as their exercise of choice: Not only is it compatible with social distancing, it also feels like a “reset” button for the mind. Running is about a relationship with the world around us, but also about a relationship with ourselves.
Those little magical moments of familiarity that I feel on my trail runs are important to me. As coach says, “We are in a very strange situation, in a very beautiful place.” Through running, I am not just consuming this feeling of home with my eyes, but also with my whole body, with all of my senses. Running through those near-mythical woods in Greece feels like I am taking a mental bath.
In the middle of my run through the forest, my coach picked up our pace—and the pain set in. The truth is, running hurts, even for Olympians. This discomfort is what divides a leisurely jog from a training run: Whether you’re preparing for a race or simply running to build your fitness level, sooner or later you need to push yourself to a place where you aren’t Zen-ing out, where you’re just trying to survive. The key is to manage your mind so that the physical distress (the burning legs, knotted stomach, cramped arms) doesn’t turn into mental distress. To treat pain like a sensation, not a threat. In that moment in the woods, my mental state shifted from calm and comfortable to focus mode, where my full attention was on trying my best to be exactly where I was: right there, with myself. One foot in front of the other, over and over again.
Everyone has their own flavors of pain and their own methods to manage it. What I like to do is imagine that I’m greeting the pain like an expected guest at a dinner party: rather than dread the inevitable, I anticipate and fully expect its arrival. In this way, the pain feels like it’s in my control. It is not a surprise.
Managing what’s in my control is critical, so that I have willpower left to handle what’s not in my control—it’s a fundamental tenet of my training strategy. Willpower is a measure of a person’s ability to make effective decisions, and it is a depletable resource. It’s best to not waste willpower on things we cannot influence. I can’t control the weather on race day, and I can’t control what my competitors will do when the starting gun fires, but I can control my training, fuel and rest leading up to the moment I toe the line.
In our world now, we can’t plan for a week from today—we don’t even know what tomorrow afternoon will look like. But I know I can at least lay my clothes out the night before, make breakfast in the morning and decide what time I am going to step out the door for my run. Committing to my daily run, no matter what, empowers me. It sounds small, but putting myself in the driver’s seat of my day, even in this small way, makes a profound impact on my ability to mentally withstand the stressful and ever-shifting world around me. It helps me stay on my own team.
Now more than ever, it seems that people are discovering that same feeling. Running is a healthy exercise in control during a time when control is hard to come by. Running is self-preservation; it’s putting willpower into practice. We have to moderate our effort, negotiate with pain and, with every single step, make a decision to keep taking the next one.
Right now, feeling like we have control over our lives, even in just small measures, is so important to ensuring that our society perseveres through this time with grace. The alternative is succumbing to mass panic and selfish behavior. This is where it becomes easy to give in to despair, to just disengage and stop trying at all. But that’s the easy way out. It’s safe to not try. It’s easier to wrap yourself in cynicism than it is to expose yourself to the possibility of trying and failing. Panic is easy. Composure takes willpower.
As more people lace up their sneakers, they’ll soon discover that despite all appearances, running is not an individual sport. When I ran the Chicago Marathon, the strength I drew from the crowd and the athletes around me was just as powerful as the strength in my body. Making eye contact with someone cheering on the sidelines during a race can give you a new surge of energy. Overcoming this pandemic can be the same: One person’s choice to be generous, calm, and confident can lift others up and cause a positive ripple throughout an entire community.
When we step outside to run during quarantine, we can visualize ourselves joining a community of runners, everyone taking their own routes but all sharing the same goal: to move our bodies outside and get through this challenging time together. That runner’s nod or wave when you pass someone going in the opposite direction is a simple way to make a human connection. It can mean just as much as a high five or hug. It makes us feel like we’re all teammates together, bonded by a shared goal. Which, in a way, we are. We’re all just out here running, trying to get through the pandemic as safely and sanely and swiftly as possible.