The COVID Marathon

Speeding ambulance
Fire/Rescue StreetSense

A year ago, we were still in the initial learning curve of our changing world. Such things as lockdowns, social distancing, and learning to understand people through masks were new—and necessary. Given the example of the Spanish flu pandemic, we knew that COVID-19 wouldn’t be a quick thing. Indeed, here we are, still seeking the finish line. As the COVID story continues to play out, I’ve begun to wonder if those who run marathons could teach us a thing or two.

Legend has it that in 490 BC, a Greek messenger named Philippides was dispatched from the battlefield to rush to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. He ran without stopping for 25 miles; burst in on the assembly; shouted, “We have won!”; and keeled over, dead.

Full disclosure: Personally, I loathe running. I’ll walk 1,000 miles, but please don’t ask me to run 50 feet. That said, planning for situations demanding endurance is of great interest. COVID is as much a marathon as any road race out there. I don’t want anyone keeling over, especially in these COVID times. If there’s any hope of regaining a semblance of “normal,” it might help to pay attention to the lessons marathoners can offer. Largely, it’s a question of pacing. No one can live forever in crisis mode, so adopting a usable mindset and innovating solutions might help us both as teams and individuals to create a reasonable pathway through this mess.

One perspective: It sure feels like we’ve been plunged into a domestic deployment. Unlike soldiers shipping off to far-flung places, our deployment is right here at home. This means that in addition to the many stresses of the intense work itself, we don’t have the relative luxury of leaving all our other responsibilities behind. We also have to go home and take care of our children and elderlies, manage the technology of distance learning (and how to assist our learners), provide meals and clean clothes, and take out the garbage. If it was already overwhelming before because of your two jobs plus school, COVID has upped the ante enormously. It has placed you in marathon mode.

So, what do runners know that we can learn? Remember, no deployment lasts forever. COVID mode will end someday. Meanwhile, consider some things marathoners might suggest you do during your COVID deployment:

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Have a plan. Beginners are encouraged to start easy, maybe running two to three days a week at a conversational pace, then gradually ramping it up. We didn’t have that luxury, and besides, our usual mode looks more like a sprint: get in, get out, and get on to the next call. Be aware of your pace, and assess its sustainability. Know your limits, and let a clearly enunciated personal plan guide you.

Your plan should include accountability. Use the buddy system and share plans with your partner, a friend, the rest of your team—anyone who will help you stay true to the plan. Include resolutions for when you begin to drift from it. If your good-heartedness compels you to take that open shift, stop first and assess whether it fits your plan. Do what’s right for you.

Your plan should also include rest days. Runners know this; they don’t run every day. Take a hard look at what you do on your “day off.” The word “recreation” stems from “re-creation”—that is, recreating yourself. There’s little argument that everyone is overwhelmed right now, but where are your mental and physical breaks? Build these in. Name your sources of recreation and schedule such activities mindfully, even if it’s simply sitting on your back deck for 15 minutes watching the sky, taking a walk with a loved one, or spending focused fun time with your kids (or your dog!).

Fuel your body with care. Successful runners recognize that a finely tuned body is key and, like a high-performance engine, relies on decent fuel. Similarly, make the effort to provide your body with healthy, portion-sensitive foods that will sustain you. Avoid heavily processed foods, substances known to suppress immune systems or to impact healthy sleep, or anything that could cause your body to crash (think sugar highs and caffeine boosts). If maintaining a healthy diet was easy, we’d do it all the time, of course, but it especially matters now.

Be smart about injuries. Some runners sustain stress fractures from overdoing it. People in our world can sustain stress injuries. Surely you will try to function to the best of your ability even when you’re at the end of your rope, but your body will nonetheless be absorbing the hit. We’re enduring extra-intense exposures to stress right now, so self-care is important. The impact of stress does not inevitably transition to stress injury when you effectively address the impact of your COVID race in real time. This means paying attention and employing effective strategies to manage whatever hurts.

Be prepared to hit the wall. At a certain point (around mile 18 or 20), marathoners typically deplete their stored glycogen energy stores, and the body turns to the less-combustible stored fat for energy. Running gets suddenly harder in a phenomenon known as “hitting the wall.” The fatigue is dramatic. Sound familiar? Our COVID marathon is demanding many to run through these walls, too. But it can be done, bearing in mind that the race won’t last forever. Your self-care plan should be built to sustain you. Get smart. Innovate ways to endure.

Sometimes, like the Greek messenger, people can and do actually die. The daily litany of COVID deaths is heartbreaking. People also leave because they just can’t take the stress anymore, which is maybe another way of regarding these losses. Know that you are valued and needed. Being smart about ways to stay the course through this current marathon applies, too, to your overall career. It’s a different sort of marathon. Despite all that conspires to take us down, we persist. Why? Because we know we’re onto something worthy. In a landscape that is often littered with those who departed, look to the glimmers of possibility from veterans of our service who have endured their marathons. They can guide you and help you carry on.

Author’s note: Thanks to stress injury expert Laura McGladrey, an emergency and psychiatric nurse practitioner, for her insights about ways to manage during this “domestic deployment” that many are enmeshed in these days.

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KATE DERNOCOEUR, retired firefighter/EMT, serves as a medical examiner investigator as well as a SARTECH-II with Kent County’s SAR K9 unit in western Michigan. She retired from the Ada (MI) Fire Department in 2019 and was a paramedic for the Denver (CO) Paramedic Division (1979-1986). Her emergency services career began in 1974 with the Vail (CO) Mountain Rescue Group. A journalist and MFA (creative writing), she has written for EMS publications, including JEMS, since 1979, and was a frequent speaker at EMS conferences from 1984-2004. Her book Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control was released in its 4th edition in 2020. She also coauthored Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch with Dr. Jeff Clawson, MD (first edition, 1988), among other books. Her blog, “Generally Write,” is at www.katedernocoeur.com.

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