What if we thought of COVID-19 as an endurance event?

Daniel LaRusso learned lessons about discipline on his way to becoming the Karate Kid.

At all levels, the cycling world continues to be heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Events that I planned for have been falling like dominoes. Just today, I was refunded my registration fees for Cascade Bicycle’s 186-mile RSVP event (“Ride from Seattle to Vancouver & Party”) that was to occur in late August. I grew up in Vancouver and was looking forward to returning as a cyclist, but my triumphant return is going to have to wait. The cancellation was announced by Cascade some time ago and I certainly understand the rationale, especially as COVID-19 is still lurking in our midst.

Still, some events haven’t been cancelled. America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride around Lake Tahoe, CA, was postponed from June 3 to September 13, only a few weeks after when RSVP was to occur. I’ve trained for AMBBR with Team-in-Training to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and it’s been a fixture on my cycling calendar over the last three years. While the ride is now to take place months from now, the more pressing concern is that our group training is supposedly to resume in a few weeks. This makes me uncomfortable given that we’re still advised to maintain social distance. Other cycling events scheduled for later in the year are also taking registrations. I’m reluctant to sign up for those until crowds are no longer a public health risk. As of today, the risk is still evident.

One of the lessons I’ve learned through cycling is that to achieve a certain outcome, staying committed to your process is important, especially when you start to feel some adversity. Quite often, the process itself doesn’t look anything like your envisioned outcome, and that introduces doubt. Trusting a process takes faith, and if you don’t have that, you’re not going to have the discipline to maximize chances of success.

Obviously, there are good processes and bad processes. We should want to do the good ones. This is why we seek out coaches and trainers — experts, if you will — who can demonstrate knowledge, experience, and most importantly, results to help us reach our goals.

For example, despite my many attempts to address it, I was overweight for much of my adult life. I took up running in 2013 to try and get in shape, but went too hard too soon and stressed out my knees. I had to stop. After this unsuccessful attempt, I started a new process in 2014: I began a daily logging of my meals into a food diary app which calculated my caloric and nutritional intake. This food logging (in combination with cycling) helped me control my caloric intake and melt off about 60 to 70 pounds of weight to get to a healthy level. I’ve been able to maintain this weight for several years since.

Training for a century bike ride is another exercise in trusting a process. There are strategies and techniques to training over time to prepare for riding 100 miles on your bike. Many training programs are eight weeks long and ramp up mileage until about two weeks ahead of the event, but you never actually do a 100-mile ride during your training. The week prior to the event, you scale back and let your body recover from all of the training so you’re fresh for ride day. This last week is often a challenge. There’s temptation to do another long ride instead of recover so you can squeeze in a little more training, but most training programs and coaches assert that you won’t derive much value from that week’s training as you will from allowing your body to recover prior to the ride. So, to set yourself up for success, you stick with the program and go with what the experts tell you despite what your emotions might be saying. There is as much about building mental endurance as there is about building physical endurance.

And then, there’s the actual cycling the century where several mental aspects come into play: having the discipline to manage your effort at the outset so you have enough in the tank later, committing to a fueling strategy that will sustain you throughout the distance, and, probably most importantly, being able to mentally endure through fatigue, pain, climbs, wind and other obstacles. If you’ve trained correctly and dialed in your fueling, you have experience to draw upon to counter the voice in your head telling you this is too hard, too painful, it’s too far. You double-down in trusting your training and trusting that the suffering is temporary.

While cyclists celebrate suffering, we’re also human “enough” to talk ourselves out of things quite easily. Our bodies want things to feel comfortable. It’s understandable. We are hardwired to avoid discomfort, pain and suffering because our instincts want to keep us safe. When things feel abnormal, our defenses kick in to try to get us back to that normal as soon as possible. But, in cycling, this tendency slows our progress. Training is about growth which comes from adapting to abnormal conditions in spite of the desire to give in to the need for “normalcy.”

I write all this because there are some parallels with endurance cycling in our current COVID circumstances. Certainly, as a country, we were under-trained for the pandemic. The US was caught unprepared and stubbornly slow to react to the virus. We resisted listening to the experts, and even though we saw the pandemic emerging for months, we did not take steps soon enough. We just wanted everything to feel normal, and it was easy to talk ourselves out of heeding the warnings.

It would turn out that wishing would not make it so. On COVID-19 “race day”, we didn’t have enough medical supplies, equipment or testing to contain the spread of the virus. Social distancing was our process to stem the transmission of the virus and buy our healthcare system some time until we could bring the supplies and testing up to speed, but by then, the US has quickly slipped behind compared to many other countries. Indeed, as of this writing, the US has the most documented cases and deaths among countries in the world, and the number of cases is still growing (on the plus side, we have also the highest volume of recovered patients). Literally, over a thousand people are dying each day related to COVID-19, and we’re on track to have lost over 100,000 lives in just a matter of months.

In the midst of the pandemic, for most of us, social distancing has disrupted our normal. The economic impact has been catastrophic. People have lost their jobs and businesses have collapsed at levels not seen since the Great Depression. With the economic impact, people are increasingly eager to return to how life was before the virus spread (these are the “it’s too hard we have to quit” voices”). Yet, experts are telling us that we may still need to practice social distancing for another year or so. Notwithstanding what the experts are saying, there is more angst and resistance to social distancing. Even as we approach 100,000 deaths, the political and economic pressure to reopen appears immense. The re-opening that’s starting to happen in some states doesn’t always seem to be consistent with what public health experts are saying about the risks of crowds.

Are we quitting the race too soon or can we sustain through to the end?

Despite what we want to believe, it appears that none of the experts suggest that we can revert to pre-COVID normalcy at the flip of a switch. There seems to be consensus that we’re going to have a second phase of the pandemic if we open too quickly, and that we are going to go through cyclical rates of infection until we are able produce a vaccine. This is going to be a long haul that is a test of our societal endurance. Until we can get a handle on the virus, the process dictates that we continue social distancing and increased sanitary/hygienic practices (e.g. hand-washing and wearing masks). Being in crowds and groups would risk undermining this process. We also need to pivot to find ways to mitigate the economic impact and help people who are suffering or who can no long make ends meet.

In their own way, Team-in-Training has been very proactive about pivoting in our current circumstances. They suspended all in-person training early and moved to online/virtual training and workouts that they opened to all. It’s been very interactive and I’ve appreciated this means to stay engaged with the program. Other coaching platforms have suggested that we re-align our training to take into account social distancing and the absence of events on our calendar. This kind of pivot helps us address the uncertainties in our training as a result of the crisis and keeps us productive. Nonetheless, for AMBBR, we’re starting to push up against when we’ll need to start training for the event, and I’m keeping a wary eye on sticking with the experts’ social distancing guidelines.

While many events have been canceled or postponed, others are apparently continuing a “wait-and-see” approach, and hopefully not one that pretends everything is normal. It’s not normal, nor will it be as we once knew normal to be. It’s unreasonable to ask them to cancel their events prematurely, but at the same time, we’re still in the midst of this crisis. So, instead of lamenting what we’re no longer able to do, perhaps it’ll help to reframe our current times by looking at it as an endurance event that will allow us to draw on our skills to sustain through tough times. Certainly, the pandemic is difficult and it’s painful, but quitting too soon — or thinking we will be able to — won’t get us to our finish line. Instead, if we can stay disciplined and committed to our process, we’ll be in the best position to achieve our public health goals, and we — individually and as a society — will be stronger for it.

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