Not a sprint: endurance experts on how to make it through lockdown

Sam Wollaston
·11 min read

It just goes on and on, doesn’t it? Despite the millions of vaccinations, and Boris Johnson’s “roadmap” for easing the lockdown, this pandemic is feeling increasingly like an endurance test – a marathon, followed by another marathon, followed by another. Or trudging for miles and miles across the desert for day after day. Or sailing alone around the world, battling storms and loneliness. How do you keep going? There are people who know a thing or two about that – keeping going, endurance, deserts and storms. Perhaps they might even have some advice.

The marathon runner: Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard is in Copenhagen when I speak to her. Actually she’s not – she’s in London, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith – but she’s kind of pretending to be in Copenhagen. There’s a changing gallery of pictures of the Danish capital up on a screen.

Her latest monster marathon challenge was to run one every day for 31 days, (sort of) in a different city every day, but really on a treadmill, because of lockdown. She called it A Run for Hope, to encourage people all over the world to unite to Make Humanity Great Again. Oh, and as if a marathon a day wasn’t enough, she did a standup show after each one.

I didn’t realise I’d be Zooming Eddie while she was running – or that I would be part of her live podcast/broadcast. If I had, I would have worn a new T-shirt. But she finds it useful to talk while she runs – it helps to focus the brain away from what the legs and the lungs are going through. She talked to people – famous people, normal people, the odd journalist – throughout. “If you have to form an answer in your head, it just pulls me up and out, and I can keep going at this speed, 7.5 kilometres an hour, hacking away at the time for 6½ hours.”

She’s about two hours into today’s run, looking comfortable, in red joggers, trackie top and Make Humanity Great Again baseball cap, chatting away in that languid, liquid way of hers, sliding almost imperceptibly between subjects. That – talking – is something we all need to keep doing to help us through the pandemic. “On FaceTime, WhatsApp, whatever, with your friends, like you used to. Have a beer with them, sit down and have a meal with them while they’re having a meal – you can do that,” she says.

One big difference between her month of marathons and everyone’s slog through the pandemic is that her ordeal is more clearly finite. But even so, we should be thinking about the end. “You’ve got to be planning things now. We know from all the other horrible pandemics through history that they do stop. I’d say plan for that.” And exercise, of course, for physical and mental health. “Get out, especially if it’s a sunny, crisp winter’s day.”

Izzard believes stamina might be both acquired and in-built. The terminator gene, she calls it. “Coming out as TV/trans in 1985 was a tough mental fight – it was very toxic, the idea of being trans then. So if you can do that and come through and create a small space of calmness around yourself, then everything else doesn’t seem that hard. The first 10 marathons are hellish and then it gets a little bit better – not fantastically better, a little bit better. You know what you’re doing.”

What do we do to build up our stamina? Dial M for motivation. “If you’re not motivated, you won’t do anything; if you are, you’ll do lots,” she says. “This is probably the easiest one if you want to do something healthy: put a date in your diary when you say you’re going to go and do something. Tell everyone you’re going to do it and then do it.”

And do it for charity, raise some money. “Then you feel motivated that you’re helping other people. That’s the simplest way of doing something positive, and the stamina will come because you’re motivated. I’ve told everyone I’m going to do this; I can’t let them down.”

The solo round-the-world sailor: Pip Hare

When I speak by phone to Pip Hare, she’s in the Atlantic, somewhere off the coast of Brazil. She’s taking part in the Vendée Globe, the toughest race in sailing, alone around the world.

“I’ve just been up the mast again,” she says, cheerfully. She doesn’t like climbing the mast, not because she’s scared of heights but because she’s aware of the danger. “Thirty metres up in the air on a moving boat in the middle of the Atlantic is an incredibly vulnerable situation,” she says, and she laughs.

How does she keep going? “You need to accept that there are highs and lows, there are times when you can forge forward and times when you’re fire-fighting. You need to understand which time you’re in, take control of the environment so that you feel you are moving forward.”

Objectives are important. “There has to be a deep reason why you want to do something, because you’re putting yourself mentally and physically through really tough times. You’re asking yourself to pick yourself up and carry on every time you get knocked down. To have the strength to do that, I think you need to know why.”

So for her there is a sporting objective: she’s a sailor, she aspires to be the best she can in her sport. “But on a deeper level, as a human being, it makes me curious how far I can push myself. There is always going to be something to learn, something I can do better in every walk of my life. That’s what drives me on, understanding not who you are but who you want to be.”

Pip Hare during the Vendée Globe, off the Kerguelen Islands in the French Southern and Antarctic Territories.
Pip Hare during the Vendée Globe, off the Kerguelen Islands in the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. Photograph: Pip Hare/medallia#VG2020/AFP/Getty Images

Hare can see some parallels between her situation and being in lockdown. She’s in a small environment; she can’t see her friends and family. “It’s hard because we are so used to having a life that runs itself, all of these external stimuli that encourage the behaviours that get us through the day-to-day. When they get taken away we need to replace them with something that comes from us.”

Any tips? “Some really simple stuff. Go outside every single day – it really makes a difference. Natural light is the most incredible mood-changer. Exercise, obviously, as well. Just do something positive for yourself every day – it doesn’t matter what but something that makes you feel proud of yourself. And it’s a really good time to just reflect on where you want to be when this is all over. And keep in contact with people, not just for you but for them.”

At the start of her solo circumnavigation, she got loads of texts from well-meaning people asking how she was. “Over and over again: ‘How are you?’ That’s not helpful. It’s actually quite exhausting when all anybody wants to know is how are you – no effort for them and high effort for me.” She told them she wanted to hear their news, what they were watching, listening to, something funny that happened. “That’s what we’re all missing, that everyday interaction. Occasionally just drop someone a random text – there doesn’t have to be a reason, just tell them something about your life. It makes me feel so much more engaged and closer to my friends.”

Hare’s adventure will finish a couple of weeks after we speak; she has mixed feelings. It will be the completion of an extraordinary achievement – she will have proved herself, to herself as well as others. But none of her family or friends will be able to come and meet her in Les Sables-d’Olonne, in western France. “I’ve sailed round the world on my own and I can’t hug anyone – that’s really going to hurt.”

It’s going to be a case of adapting. “‘I’ve thought quite hard about what I’m going to do. I already have some mini-objectives for 2021. And I can tell you when lockdown is lifted and we are finally allowed to gather in groups, there’s going to be one hell of a party in Poole.”

Right now, though, she has got to go on deck to change a sail.

The explorer: Levison Wood

When Levison Wood walked the length of the river Nile seven years ago, from source to sea, it sometimes felt as if the journey would never end. He remembers one low point in particular. “I had reached the Sahara desert in Sudan; it wasn’t even halfway and I’d already been walking for six months at that stage. I looked ahead and all I could see was endless sand.”

Earlier in the trip, Matthew Power, an American journalist who had come out to walk with and write about Wood, had suddenly died of heatstroke. “All these things were weighing on my mind. To be confronted with just monotony was a really tough thing to deal with.”

Wood is speaking today not from the Nile, but from his home near the banks of the Thames at Hampton Court. He has found lockdown tough, stuck at home. He broke his ankle; his dog died. “That’s really hard to deal with. But when something like that happens it’s a case of: well, right, this is shit but what’s good? Or what could be better?”

He began to explore – the local park. “It’s been an opportunity to connect with my local area. I’d probably only been in Bushy Park three or four times, and suddenly I was finding these hidden gardens and things, glorious little discoveries.” And he’s been using the time to write a book, The Art of Exploration, reflecting on his travels, what he has learned from them and how it can be applied in daily life.

Like Izzard and Hare, Wood talks of the importance of helping others. A Paras veteran, he volunteered for an ex-services charity called RE:ACT, helping the NHS, working in a mortuary in Hounslow. “I was stacking bodies in March and April last year. That brought it home, that this disease was clearly going to kill a lot of people. But I felt I needed to go and do my bit.”

Being in the army helped him build not just resilience but patience. “Half of what you do in the army is sitting around waiting for something to happen, it’s not all bangs and action. I was in Afghanistan in 2008, and while there was plenty of action it was still about 80% sitting on your arse doing nothing. It does engender a sense of resilience and patience and keeping some kind of hope that things will improve. The same keeping hope alive can be applied to the current situation.”

On his big walks (as well as the Nile, he has walked the length of the Himalayas, Central America and the Arabian peninsula) there has needed to be a natural process of resignation. “There is no point trying to change the situation – you have to try to change the way you deal with it, find a new sense of purpose from a different routine. If you’re stuck at home that means having a routine that structures your day, whether that’s doing a bit of yoga in the morning, or mindfulness, just changing your habits a bit.”

It’s all too easy to fall into bad habits, “maybe having a few too many glasses of vino every night. It’s about reminding yourself that you’ve got to stay on top of things and be as positive as you can. The way I do that is by trying to remind myself of what we have to be grateful for – I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but it really does help.”

Walks, lockdowns, it doesn’t matter – it’s the same. On the Nile he constantly reminded himself that no matter how tough it was for him, he was just a visitor. “Looking around, there was extreme poverty, there was conflict, people living in dire circumstances, often struggling to get clean water. When I remind myself that actually I’ve got nothing to complain about, shift my mindset a little bit to think of it that way, then things aren’t as bad as they seem.”

Suddenly even miles and miles of endless sand – actual sand or the metaphorical desert of lockdown – doesn’t look so bad.