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Running The Boston Marathon This Year Meant Training Through Twin Pandemics. It Was Worth Every Step

The author, Dianna Bell, running up a hill in Arlington during the last four miles of the virtual Boston Marathon, Sept. 13, 2020. (Courtesy Patrick Stanton)
The author, Dianna Bell, running up a hill in Arlington during the last four miles of the virtual Boston Marathon, Sept. 13, 2020. (Courtesy Patrick Stanton)

A little over two months before the pandemic started making headlines and reached our collective consciousness, I started my 20-week training plan for the Boston Marathon. This was to be my third Boston, fifth marathon, so training had become pretty routine.

I knew from experience my enthusiasm would be tested around the nine-week mark. And I would struggle to do my hill workouts. (Has running up a hill repeatedly ever been met with joy?) I knew the long runs at goal pace would test me, pushing me faster than I thought possible for the distance. But somehow, each mile would pull me closer to the big day. I’d get to Hopkinton, walk to the line with the thousands of others in my wave, and once the gun went off, we’d all make our way — through Ashland, past the infamous tunnel of cheers at Wellesley College, up Heartbreak Hill, past the Chestnut Hill reservoir, through Brookline and finally, across the bright yellow finish line on Boylston Street.

But we all know that’s not how this year panned out.

Instead, on March 13, during week 15 of my training and a little over five weeks away from the marathon, the Boston Athletic Association officials who put on the race each year made the tough choice to postpone to September and would ultimately offer a virtual race in its place.

Running while the nation struggled felt at times frivolous. But it was also one of the only things that made sense to me.

When the decision came down, I had a flood of emotions. Relief: I knew this was the right call, and a large part of me was a bit happy to be able to stop running. But that emotion was short-lived. In its place was dread: I was staring down the last weeks of the training cycle and was I really up for doing it all over again?

The answer — yes. I wasn’t about to let 15 weeks of training go down the drain. So after a month of maintenance running with a few workouts thrown in, I was starting up the 20-week training cycle all over again as the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation and the realities of police violence against Black people made headlines: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain and the hundreds of others who have been killed since January. Add to these tragedies the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, while not killed at the hands of police, was killed for simply running while Black and the trans people who are killed for simply existing.

Running while the nation struggled felt at times frivolous. But it was also one of the only things that made sense to me.

The author, Dianna Bell, running the final stretch of the 2019 Boston Marathon on Boylston Street. (Courtesy Martie Bell)
The author, Dianna Bell, running the final stretch of the 2019 Boston Marathon on Boylston Street. (Courtesy Martie Bell)

As I started my training, the miles I ran became less about the end goal — the marathon — and more of a coping mechanism. Running became my one constant. Each morning, I would lace up my shoes and hit the pavement. Yes, I had to find routes that were less-populated — avoiding Fresh Pond in Cambridge and the Minuteman Bike Path and opting for the empty sidewalks of less densely populated neighborhoods.

When I was out running, I focused on my steps. On my breath. Of my footfall. I would push myself up hills during the sweltering summer heat. And struggle to maintain my form during the days when the humidity hit levels I hadn’t felt since the days of running in my home state of North Carolina. I was thankful for the sweaty distraction. Happy to be focused on simply moving forward. Pretending, for an hour or two, that we weren’t living through a pandemic and mentally resetting for the anti-racist work all white people need to be focused on. (My amazing colleagues at the ARTery, Arielle Gray and Christian Burno, poured time and spent emotional labor into helping people get started on this journey with a list of podcasts and a collection of books.)

I’m finding small moments during dark times to celebrate and taking stock of the areas where I have room to grow. And on Sunday, I marked that passage of time by running a marathon.

It was also my way of coping with the anxiety and depression that I’ve always staved off through exercise, but that has been taking more time (and therapy) to keep at bay each day.

Running was my solace. So as the weeks passed and I kept training, the end goal of running 26.2 miles had shifted. Yes, that is an impressively far distance, and running it without the pomp is quite the task. (I type this just an hour after having finished my “virtual” marathon on Sunday, Sept. 13, and trust me, there’s nothing virtual about the pain, especially of those last six miles.)

Instead, I began to view the distance as a way to prove to myself that while the months of quarantine have been passing, I have still been moving toward something.

The author, Dianna Bell (right), sitting on a Somerville sidewalk with her husband Patrick Stanton after the completion of the virtual marathon Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (Courtesy Patrick Stanton)
The author, Dianna Bell (right), sitting on a Somerville sidewalk with her husband Patrick Stanton after the completion of the virtual marathon Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (Courtesy Patrick Stanton)

A lot has changed for me — and the rest of the world! — during the last nine and a half months. My partner and I went on our honeymoon. I changed jobs. I’m getting to know new colleagues as we all go through this collective moment of uncertainty and reckoning. I’m finding small moments during dark times to celebrate and taking stock of the areas where I have room to grow.

And on Sunday, I marked that passage of time by running a marathon.

While there weren’t thousands of people cheering me on, and my parents couldn’t fly up to be here as they originally planned in April, I had put in 40 weeks of work. I didn’t approach the distance as a race, as I normally would. I chose to treat the day as a long run, like one of the many I had run in the weeks leading up to it.

My route traced the neighborhoods and roads I had come to know during the pandemic. Areas I might not have otherwise explored. I knew there would be challenges along the way, but also I knew I would make it through.

I’m less certain when it comes to the realities of the twin pandemics we’re facing. I know there will eventually be a coronavirus vaccine. But when it comes to the more entrenched racism that exists in every facet of our society, well, that will take much much more work. There will be no finish line. We will have to keep training — keep striving — each and every day.

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Dianna Bell Twitter Editor, The ARTery
Dianna Bell is the editor for WBUR's arts and culture vertical, The ARTery.

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