Left. Right. Repeat. (YeahWrite Super Challenge #19 Nonfiction Contest – Final Round Entry)

The pandemic didn’t come with a manual. We didn’t get user instructions, handy troubleshooting tips, or a central support line for dealing with the havoc COVID-19 has wrought. Nor were any of us given an opportunity to ‘opt out’ of participating. Instead, each of us has been forced to manage this horrifying new reality in our own way. For me, that way involves putting one foot in front of the other.

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April 17, 2020

Cable news plays in the background as I work. Tears well up in my eyes as I listen. It is impossible to escape the constant news cycle about COVID-19, its escalating worldwide case numbers, and its inevitable death toll. There is so much we don’t know.

I have been eating my feelings. This stress eating means the pounds I worked so hard to lose last year have begun to reappear. My gym is closed indefinitely; even if it was open, I doubt I would have the courage to use it. I am afraid of this virus, of its potential for destruction. Still, I know I need to change something.

“Years ago, you enjoyed running,” I think. “Maybe you could do that again.” A flicker of hope dawns in me. 

I search online for running shoes but hesitate with my finger on the mouse, cursor hovering over “add to cart.” I want to do this, but am I ready?

“You’re wasting your money,” a little voice inside whispers.

I ignore it and click “buy now.”

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May – July 2020

My shoes have arrived. I eye them nervously, but I am motivated.

“You can do hard things.” This becomes my mantra.

I find a beginner training plan online and get to work. The first workout has me running for 30 seconds and walking for 90 seconds, repeated nine times. My heart pounds hard by the time I’m done and I fear I’ve made a horrible mistake. Still, I continue following the plan. By the third workout, those 30 seconds of running seem easier. I progress to week two, then week three.

Still plagued by that unpleasant voice in my head, the one telling me “you can’t do it,” I fight back. I post my goals and runs on social media, almost daily. I do it not solely for the kudos, but for accountability. Sharing my progress and struggles makes these things more real. This, in turn, makes me less likely to give in to that persistent little voice.

By the end of week nine, I can run for 30 minutes without stopping to walk. I still become overwhelmed at times with life, with the pandemic, with the situation we’re all in. But I cry less frequently than before.

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January 3, 2021

The pre-dawn air is still and cold. Tiny clouds dissipate around me with each exhalation. I coordinate my breathing, its cadence harmonizing with the rhythmic sound of my feet hitting the snow-covered pavement. On the adjacent road, occasional headlights cut through the gloom before disappearing, casting the path back into darkness.

My pace, slow even on flat terrain, takes a hit as I crest a hill. I will myself to keep going, tell myself that quitting is not an option. Some mornings, my runs feel almost easy, as if I could continue indefinitely. Today though, my brain is waging a battle, working to convince my body that this is simply too hard, that I need to stop and walk. Sometimes I give in to my brain, but I will not do so today. I focus on going the next tenth of a mile, then the next tenth of a mile after that.

I reach my turnaround point and begin heading home, following the same path. My mind mercifully stops measuring the distance and flits instead from topic to topic as my feet, heart, and lungs do the work. I consider what my upcoming workday will hold in store. I think about family and friends I’ve not seen in person for nearly one year. I think of loved ones who are no longer with us, and of those fighting health challenges large and small. I am thankful for my health, for a body that allows me to move it in this way.

So occupied is my mind that it is almost a surprise when my feet turn onto my street and I realize I’ve reached home. I touch my watch to end its tracking. I will upload the run later, capturing the statistics that alone don’t tell much of a story. However, when seen in context with months of training, these statistics show unmistakable progress. I snap a selfie, capturing my sweat-covered face in the streetlight’s glow. I add the pic to an album of sweaty selfies that now number in the hundreds. These, too, tell a story.

It is still dark and will be for another hour. I see some lights now in my neighbors’ windows. I feel a not-insignificant amount of satisfaction knowing I’ve just run five miles on this cold, dark, winter morning while those around me slumbered – something I never imagined suffering through, let alone enjoying.

I realize it has been weeks, perhaps longer, since I’ve cried.

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March 7, 2021

In a meaningful way, running has set me free. I get to escape the four walls that have held me captive for nearly a year. I get to breathe fresh air and experience nature in all her glory. I’m almost able to forget about the pandemic for a while, at least until I encounter others on the trail – giving them a wide berth and making nervous eye contact as I don my mask.

COVID-19 didn’t come with a manual. Each of us has had to find our own way through the pandemic’s twists and turns and its inevitable emotional ups and downs. For me, that path is one best navigated by lacing up my running shoes and placing one foot in front of the other. Left. Right. Repeat.

Author’s Note: This was my entry into the second and final round of YeahWrite’s Nonfiction Super Challenge #19. For this one, I had 48 hours to write a nonfiction essay using the following sentence: [_____] [didn’t/doesn’t/don’t] come with a manual. This is where my brain went. Thanks for reading!

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