There’s a 400-meter track up the river from my home in Chicago. This year I’ve taken to it early in the morning, running a few miles, and getting home before my family wakes up. Winter mornings in Chicago are nice when they want to be: crisp with a low blue sparkle, the sun just a smear behind the two-flats and jaggity crabapple trees across the North Branch Channel.
Now, I’m a marathoner. I go long. Preferably on trails. It takes me a while to get into my flow. Adapting my stride to the topography gets me into that deep focus. The idea of running in circles over and over again on a rubberized surface is … not appealing. But as Relativity enacted work-from-home measures in March due to COVID-19 and Chicago rode the waves of pandemic —and all the anxiety and doubt and fear that created—I found myself inexplicably drawn to the track. Lane 4, if you need details. Twelve laps. Twelve circuits on a four-foot path: straight, then curve, then straight, then curve, then again.
For years running has been a mechanism for me to confront unknowns. A chance to think, but more often a chance not to think. To be in touch with my animal self. So perhaps it’s not entirely unexpected to find myself drawn to the track in these unmapped times. It offers rules. Boundaries. Structure. Freed from the need to navigate, to think ahead, I can push past my cares, focus on my form and pace and breathing, merge into that river air and trees, and come out with a better understanding of myself and what I need to do.
This spring as many people adjusted to the abrupt shift to remote work, we posted advice from my colleague Jeff Gilles on how he learned to work from home. I’ve taken lessons from his reflections all year on how he transcended his habits to be confident and effective as a remote worker. Now that remote has become a “new normal” for the foreseeable future, more than ever, running is that device that makes me more effective at life. A more sensitive leader, a better worker, a more engaged husband and dad. Running has got me through break-ups, lay-offs, births, deaths, a defective heart, and the current pandemic.
Now, another thing I am is a painter. Doesn’t pay great; hence “brand director.” Regardless of role, one thing I’ve learned is that constraints present two options: allow yourself to be bound by them, or, within that binding, find new ways to work that allow oneself to thrive. Easy it is not. But just like that track on the river, finding the spiritual liberty within physical boundaries can lift one up, keep one focused.
Because not dealing directly with stress or doubt makes me unfocused. And being unfocused stresses me out. The Year 2020 has certainly stressed us all. As it draws to a close, I’m thankful for the efforts of my family, my friends, colleagues, and neighbors to navigate a way forward. And I’m grateful to have the good health to be able to step out and run. Having a way to address the unknowns before me, or within me, helps me stay mindful, set small goals, lift my head up, and go.
I hope as we close out this horrible year you have a chance to be with your loved ones and cherish them. I hope you can also be by yourself, find the contours of your constraints, and surpass them. Happy New Year.