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Post-Pandemic into the Boston Marathon

The following double-blog post is written by co-founders Maria Wong and Edwin Guzman. Starting with Maria and then following up with Edwin, they both discuss their experiences through the COVID-19 pandemic and their renewed motivation for racing since then. Both will be representing QDR at the 125th Boston Marathon this Fall on Monday, October 11, 2021.

More than a year ago, I was flying high — I had gotten a new job, I signed a new lease, and I was in the best shape of my life. And then it all came to a screeching halt.

To be honest, I didn’t believe that the US would get impacted by COVID-19, based on previous airborne diseases that have transpired in China. I was so ready to run the Boston Marathon in 2020, but when the NYC Half got cancelled a few days before it was supposed to be hosted, I knew that everything would change. I had my last hard training run that weekend and then I caught COVID-19. 

Those two weeks were the dimmest days of my life. I could barely move, eat or talk. Everyday felt foggy but I could always hear the sirens late in the day and early the next morning. It was a scary time. When I ventured out a few days after I felt no symptoms, my body didn’t feel like my own. Anxiety seeped out of me. My breathing was short and erratic. I couldn’t focus on my run because I had to dodge PPE littered on the road and flattened roadkill every few steps. My internal self was battling with my physical self and I couldn’t get either of them to cooperate. When I got home, I didn’t want to go out again. But Kevin would convince me and stay by my side each time. Still, it would take about eight weeks for me to feel like a semblance of my old running self again.

After recovering, I fell back into my old pattern of taking the summer off and trying to enjoy the miles. What I didn’t see coming was the turmoil of the nation’s unresolved racial discrimination and injustices highlighted at height of summer. Everything bad just seemed to keep compounding. It affected me deeply and I couldn’t run without bursting into tears or feeling a tightness in my chest. But I soldiered on, with Kevin by my side. 

Even though many things were still uncertain, I felt that I needed something to keep myself “sane” and in control. So I started marathon training again. At first, I felt a jolt of excitement, but the anxiety of the summer came back. I would try to override it, but it was always lurking in the background — at every workout, every training run. I tried really hard last fall and this past winter to grasp onto that motivation that had powered me through many training cycles, but it was just out of reach. I was disappointed in myself and questioned my purpose every day. Why am I running? How could I focus on running my best times when people were dying and being killed? Do my workouts even matter? I donated so much money and time into causes and protests that I believed in last year but it didn’t seem like enough. 

The one bright spot of last year was using running as a way to help people and organizations that mattered to me. In between training, Queens Distance Runners raised funds to support teammates that didn’t receive stimulus checks; our leadership called teammates to see how they were doing and if they needed financial help; QDR hosted virtual races to raise funds for local community organizations and groups; and we put together socially-distant training runs and races approved by the Parks Department. It was hard navigating the new circumstances and restrictions but I felt better knowing that people who needed help were getting it directly through us, immediately. Though I wasn’t proud of my own training, I am proud of helping my Fam, the community and local organizations that needed it.

At the beginning of this year, I felt another wave of sadness when the news of the Atlanta shootings and the attacks on Asian elders proliferated all news channels. It felt like my teenage years were coming back to haunt me — that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, American enough. These feelings directly translated to my training and I perceived myself to be falling behind, yet again. I felt helpless and hopeless. Somehow, I found the courage to put together a protest in Flushing and was overwhelmed by how many people showed up in support. It made me realize that there were good people around me that reminded me often that I am good enough and that I can do it. I think this realization really helped my mental state and my running finally clicked in the last two weeks of my training cycle. I was finally hitting the prescribed splits and I felt like me again.  

On April 18, I ran my twelfth marathon at the Coach Medina Marathon in Rockland State Park. It is my second fastest marathon in my ten years of running. Even though I felt great in the past two weeks, truthfully, my head and heart were not fully in the game. I blame myself — I had little to no motivation throughout the whole training cycle and I allowed a lot of external factors to affect me. During the entire race, I kept thinking, why am I doing this? Kevin ran 18 miles with me and I was surrounded by teammates and training partners, but where was my purpose? I felt disappointed in myself when it was over. I was smiling on the outside but frowning on the inside. I was truly happy for my teammates and training partners but it would take me another two weeks of reflection to acknowledge my own feelings about my performance. 

And then two days later, I hesitantly signed up for Boston 2021. 

You’re probably thinking, is she crazy? Why would she sign up for another marathon after experiencing such a bad training cycle? You’re not wrong in thinking that. 

In the days after, I reflected a lot on the past year. I examined everything — from the snacks I decided to eat to each rep of each workout. I took a lot of long walks and did a lot of yoga and meditation. It really helped me to slow down, step back and just look at the facts. Yes, emotionally, it was my hardest training cycle. My splits weren’t that bad but I didn’t believe in myself and allowed the negativity of my own thoughts to swallow me. I knew that not every run was going to be good, but it was difficult to see that when everything else was already out of my control. 

These past six weeks, I’ve paid more attention to how my body feels versus what pace I’m going. It’s because of these runs that I decided that I would gauge my efforts more seriously and focus less on my splits and times for my next training cycle. After this past year, I need a change and, so far, I feel like I have rediscovered some of my confidence. It helped that restrictions are being lifted and people are getting vaccinated. Things have been on the upswing and I feel a shift in the air, which has shifted my outlook. I feel myself looking forward to running again; I feel a renewed purpose and excitement to run again. And as things continue to ease, I am excited to be able to run in a major event with fellow competitors from around the nation again. It feels like a lifetime ago, but I finally feel motivated and hopeful again. 

Maria Wong

Last February in 2020, I felt a deep sense of dread from all the COVID-19 news. The number of people infected with COVID-19 started to increase steadily, the City was confused, and rumors were flying around about whether this or that location would be closed due to an infected case in the building. And even through all of that, trying to adjust to a pandemic world and now the aftermath after a vaccine, I can’t shake off a lot of the negativity, just yet. Thankfully, future race events have changed that for me.

Once the 2020 NYC Half got cancelled and I received news about working remotely for (at that time) a month, I knew everything would change. Of course, no one knew how long it would last and that we’d be in lockdown for over a year, but once cases and deaths due to COVID-19 kept rising after the initial “let’s shelter in place for two weeks”, it made a lot of sense to stay inside for the foreseeable future. It also, as much as it hurt, made sense to see all big races get cancelled or postponed for the fall or for the rest of the year.

Luckily, I didn’t get infected. I think. If I did, I had minor symptoms that made it slightly harder to run for two days, but I ended up taking a week off just in case. It was tough hearing about friends and family suffering through the early months of summer in 2020. Even as others got sick and some passed away from COVID, many kept complaining about cancelled races or contemplating when they’d be back. Others not reading the room, or not being aware of the state of the world, really messed with my motivation to get back to racing. As much as I enjoyed working hard for a PR or running with friends, it was just that much more important that we stayed safe so we could return to some sense of normalcy.

Prior to the pandemic in early 2020, I signed up for the 2020 TCS NYC Marathon. It was my goal race of the year not just because it was the NYC Marathon but because I signed up with Make the Road NY (MRNY) to fundraise for their Legal Services department. MRNY provides a wide range of legal services to families, but the work they provide for undocumented and DACA recipients in NYC means a lot to me. I’ve been through the DACA struggle personally; it still haunts me in certains ways every day, and it’s easy to feel hopeless. Unfortunately, that initiative fell through because the 2020 TCS NYC Marathon got canceled, but I hope many donated to the organization and the cause (and you still can).

In addition to race cancellations, COVID-19 wasn’t the only event that affected everyone in 2020; we all encountered racial and social injustices personally, or saw how it affected others and systemic injustices in the systems we live in. In many ways, I put running first because it was an escape from everything I had to deal with for the majority of my life. Although doing so can help, you can’t run away from problems all the time. It wasn’t just the insecurity of growing up as an immigrant and feeling like I didn’t belong here, but also having the nagging thought every day that I actually did not belong here.

In some ways, living through a pandemic has shown me what kind of person I am and what kind of person I want to be. The leader inside me didn’t come out in ways I wanted to because I focused elsewhere. Although I helped QDR organize funds for teammates who needed support during the height of the pandemic or helped organize virtual races to fundraise for local organizations, it felt like I wasn’t doing enough.

After getting vaccinated against COVID, I felt a big sigh of relief. What really pushed my confidence towards returning to “normal” was being able to set vaccination dates for my parents and siblings; hours spent refreshing trying to find a vaccination date, time and site lifted my hopes up when the registration confirmations came through. Even though I’m fully vaccinated, I still feel uncomfortable in many situations with large crowds. But seeing the city and teammates being comfortable eases my nerves. 

Now, we are starting to have races with larger crowds and with minimal social distancing. As many more get vaccinated and the number of cases decreases, we’ve been a part of races with a good size of runners; and we, as QDR, have hosted many races safely and without issues. Although I bike-paced many waves of the Queens Marathon in the Fall of 2020 and the Spring of 2021, it didn’t hit me to sign up for a race until I helped pace Kevin at the Faster Together Half Marathon in April of this year. The feeling of lining up at a race start line and being in a race (even though I dropped out after finishing pacing duties) felt great and motivated me to sign up for the 2021 Boston Marathon.

So here I am now, getting drenched in sweat after running for five minutes outside and re-thinking my decision to train for a marathon through the blistering hot summer. As awful as it is to feel the sun burning my skin and dehydrating me towards the end of a run, I am as motivated as ever to run another big marathon this Fall. Seeing more and more vaccinated friends running and training together is bringing a sense of normalcy for the running community and it’s beautiful to see. We are not out of this pandemic yet, however, and when we get through this we will still deal with the aftermath. For now, stay safe, keep following the guidelines and I’ll see you out on the roads.

Edwin Guzman