Boston 2020 was going to be her second Boston Marathon. Runner, teacher, and author Vanessa de Hoog reflects on the journey it took to get there and the impact rescheduling the race has had on her own personal growth. This is the third of a three-part series. The author would like to dedicate this story to anyone who is, or has, struggled to find meaning or purpose on their journey.
2020 was supposed to be ‘my year.’ I headed into September proudly wearing a whole host of labels giving me (retroactively naive) optimism for what the future held.
Coach. Having established a kids track club in Ottawa that summer, with my friend Mel, I was excited to continue promoting and building our team over the Fall and Spring racing seasons.
Teacher. I was heading into another teaching year at my dream school with a staff unparalleled in their talent at their jobs.
Friend. A lineup of weddings in the upcoming months had me privileged to soon play the role of bridesmaid to some of my closest friends.
Runner. Seemingly still basking in the glow of qualifying for Boston with a new personal best in the marathon (3:21:19), I could hardly wait for registration and get a second crack at the famous course come April. Then, when October arrived—so did my acceptance as a successful registrant for next year’s race. I was looking so very forward, after the mess that was Boston 2018, to have a second chance and attempt for a course PB.
Fiancé. My love of six years and I were set to be wed in May and finally put an end to years of our long distance relationship as he graduated.
As it turns out, the universe had a different plan…
That Fall, I began struggling with very difficult and complicated emotions arising about my future. Even with professional help, I struggled deeply through the process that eventually led to a scenario I never would have fathomed. The new year began with my decision to say a heartbreaking goodbye to a man I love and my own label as his fiancé.
I did my best to cloak my emotions in the weeks that followed this ending. I defaulted to my number one coping strategy—running. I can barely remember a time when running has not served a therapeutic purpose in my life. As a child, anxiety accompanied my every step at home. My abusive father and his arbitrary rage made any otherwise benign situation into a potential minefield. I quickly discovered that I could liberate myself from the constant sense of danger I felt within my body because I was taking my body back into my own hands. Therefore, you can imagine the gratitude I had for Boston on the horizon. The intense training provided by my coach, Trevor, allowed me to take control of a physiological aspect of my life as a way to calm the psychological chaos within.
Sadly, as my mileage increased, my psychological stamina began to fall. I was finding it difficult to push myself through workouts. Runs felt as though they were taking twice the amount of effort they normally should. This is where us runners benefit from our friends in the community. I gratefully welcomed my friend Simon to some of my more difficult runs and he pulled me through ‘long-runs’ and workouts that I know would have otherwise remained incomplete. Nevertheless, my training was not progressing in the way I knew it needed to be. January taught me the cruel implication a broken heart can have on your cardio.
By mid-February, the psychological chaos was too much for me to handle. Now, too weak to carry its weight, my emotional cloak fell to the floor during my teacher preparation time in the staff room. In tears, hyperventilating—some of my closer colleagues discretely escorted me to the office. Excused for the rest of the day and encouraged to explore the option of stress leave, I drove home feeling both humiliated and defeated.
That afternoon a soundtrack composed of the voices that had hurt me over the years, which had long been on mute, began to replay during my drive back.
You’re not good enough. She’s ‘just’ a teacher.
That’s what you’re going to wear? That’s it? That’s your best piano playing?
It’s more of a two person game. How do you not understand this question?
You’re worthless. You’re never going to be good enough.
And, two of the newest phrases recently added to the track list:
You don’t exist. You can’t exist.
Once home, I drew my bedroom curtains to shut out the light. I lay in bed, fully overtaken by the mental struggles I’d been battling since September. The darkness of the room and the darkness of my thoughts swallowed me whole. In February, my life as I knew it fell completely apart. Little did I know that the world had already started to follow suit.
The Covid-19 global pandemic has caused so many of us to quickly adjust to a new way of living without access to many of the labels to which we have grown so accustomed to proudly wear. Overnight I felt stripped of so many important pieces of my identity, leaving me feeling raw, exposed, invaluable, and lost in understanding my purpose.
Coach. With regulations surrounding social distancing and quarantine taking place in our global communities, I knew that any hope of working with my group of athletes and fellow coaches would not be possible.
Teacher. As recommended by my physician and therapist, I took a leave of absence from work leaving behind a school and group of students I so deeply care for.
Runner. As all the world major marathons began to be postponed and/or cancelled, my heart sank. I knew the inevitable. I read the Boston Athletics Association email announcing the postponement of the race, my vision blurred with tears.
Racing the marathon distance has taught me that my body may feel a sense of defeat, resistance, and anticipation that it won’t be able to tolerate the feelings it’s experiencing. Yet, no matter what course I run those 26.2 miles, I’ve learned to tune into my breathing and body to relax these tensions as much as possible. I had been dreaming of working with my body to overcome these sensations, and come out stronger physically and mentally after the Boston marathon. Now, more than ever, I wanted the feeling of strength the marathon had always provided me.
With Boston postponed until September, I have been forced to temporarily redefine my relationship with running. I’m not hesitant to admit that this hasn’t been entirely a bad thing. Without the race on the close horizon, I have been able to take the energy that was going into my training and put said energy back into my mental health. With life slowed down, I have been able to work with professionals to heal some long-existing wounds that I had previously neglected in taking the time to properly heal.
To summarize? During this time of isolation, I’m learning what it means to wear one label. To be, simply, Vanessa. The Greeks define the name Vanessa as ‘butterfly.’ And so, dear reader, should our paths ever cross, you will see before you a young woman who has completed her own version of a metamorphosis. From now on, thanks to those who have helped her through each stage, she can finally fly with her own wings.