Finish line in sight: how lessons of the marathon can help us to the end of lockdown

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Lockdowns are a marathon not a sprint, as Melburnians well know. After more than 235 days stuck inside and at least another month to come, the city’s endurance is being tested.

The finish line is in sight, with early November the most likely point that Victoria hits its goal of 80 per cent fully vaccinated. But for many of us there’s an overwhelming feeling of “so near, yet so far”.

For those who like to run, it’s the part where your lungs are burning and your mind is begging you to stop. So how do we keep going?

Cedric Dubler giving Ash Moloney the encouragement he needed in the last event of the decathlon at the Tokyo Olympics.Credit:Getty Images

Champion long-distance runner Robert de Castella likens this point of the lockdown to the final stages of a marathon, when athletes need to draw on their reserves of mental resilience to persist.

“There’s similarities in terms of getting through it,” he said. “Everyone’s hitting the wall, it’s the equivalent to that 30 kilometre or 35 kilometre mark (of 42.195 kilometres). You really having to dig deep and just keep on putting one foot in front of the other.”

De Castella said there were lessons from running a marathon that could apply to those finding it difficult to maintain their stamina in lockdown.

One of those was drawing on the support of people around us to find the encouragement that what we’re doing is important. In marathons, it helps to ride the energy of the crowd on the sideline or other runners nearby.

Robert De Castella crossing the finish line at the City to Surf.Credit:Staff photographer

During the final days of lockdown, where we are restricted in who we can see, that could mean continuing to make those phone calls to family or friends to avoid getting too focused on our own discomfort.

De Castella uses a simple analogy of a bucket of water when teaching runners about pacing themselves to maintain their effort.

The water in the bucket is our energy level, he said, and the goal is to pour the bucket out evenly so that it is empty when crossing the finish line. In lockdown, maintaining energy reserves might mean going outside for a walk and avoiding COVID news for the day.

Robert de Castella on his way to winning the marathon at the world championships.Credit:AP

Another tip de Castella shares with novice runners at the Indigenous Marathon Foundation is to think about why they are taking part in the event.

For those in lockdown, it could be reminding ourselves of a family member we don’t want to get sick or of the health care workers who may have to deal with overloaded hospitals.

“You’ve got to have that big picture focus and not get too much caught up in the minutiae of the struggle of every footstep and every breath,” he said.

“You’ve just got to hang in there and just keep on enduring. Knowing that when you do cross that finish line, it’s going to be an incredible sense of accomplishment and celebration.”

Sport psychologist Harley de Vos said it was helpful to make small goals, rather than think about everything that needs to happen to end lockdown.

In a marathon, that might mean breaking down a run into achievable chunks such as getting to the next hill or the next sign. For lockdown, it’s approaching things day by day and not thinking too far ahead.

Worrying too much about vaccination targets or whether public health measures are working creates stress about things beyond our control, de Vos said.

“It’s really trying to come back to the here and now, come back to that process, what do I need to do now,” he said.

Jacqui Louder, psychologist for the Melbourne Storm and Collingwood Football Club, advised against focusing too much on countdowns.

“Going ‘I’ve got 10 kilometres left … I’ve got nine kilometres left’ or whatever it is, you’re not focusing on your own strengths. In running, instead of focusing on your legs hurting, focus on arms where you’re strong,” she said.

When working on visualisation exercises with athletes, Louder said she would often get them to wear their uniform to get them connected with something important in their clothing.

“What people working from home can do is get dressed in your work clothes, don’t just get up and put on the same tracksuit,” she said. “Clothing creates connection and purpose.”

While nearly all of us are battling, Louder said we might discover when lockdown ends that we had a deeper pool of strength than we originally thought.

“It’s much harder to be resilient when you’re tired, it’s normal to feel like you’re not coping, even though you probably are,” she said.

“We might just need to change our idea of what coping looks like.”

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