Science has yet to determine whether running or walking in the rain keeps you drier, but it doesn’t matter which method you choose when you’re covering 21.1 kilometers through a gale. Skye Maitland, an ER nurse at a busy Vancouver hospital, knew this all too well when she found herself running the Isle of Skye Half Marathon – nearly 7,000km on her island namesake in Scotland – in the worst weather conditions the event had seen in its 38-year history.
“It’s kind of like this beautiful trap,” she thought later, “because you signed up for it, and once you cross the starting line, you probably will.”
Six months earlier, she had decided to trade the chaos of frontline healthcare for this event; determined not to succumb to her colleagues’ burnout records. Amid the waves of COVID, she made the crucial decision to request leave, knowing that if granted, the already stressed hospital would lose her temporarily — but if denied, they would lose her forever.
Her wish came true, though now she couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief as freezing, relentless horizontal rain – whipped over the hills by 55km/h winds – stung her face. Fifteen kilometers later, she realized that she no longer felt her hands. But her legs hadn’t failed her, and since she’d chained a few friends into this mess, she knew she had to end it.
In front, her teammate, Nicole Warren, was having a good time. She, too, had spent the pandemic working on the front lines in Canada, most recently as the nurse manager of a clinic linked to a groundbreaking safe fentanyl supply program in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Between grueling shifts, the death of her grandmother, and a difficult breakup, running became the only thing keeping her sanity intact.
“Even when I got shingles from stress, I didn’t stop running,” she said. “The benefit to my mind was far greater.”
Behind her was a soaked but determined Annah MacKay, who had nearly exhausted herself after nearly a decade working in frontline addiction services at a clinic called Insite and with the local Vancouver health authority. The previous evening she had read Scottish folk tales to her running mates, in her best impression of a Highland rhythm that had become almost pathological since her arrival.
But halfway through, when she found herself breathlessly whispering ‘waste time’ out of breath, or screaming and singing Kate Bush’s love dogs defiantly in the wind, she had regained her Canadian accent.
Further along was Claire Meggs, an urgent care nurse who had surprised and delighted to give up music altogether during the race – something she had never done before. Later, she recalled, “I could chat with people around me and interact with some of the volunteers; hear the wind and the rain and sometimes the sheep. Together they formed The Stress Leaves, a team name coined by MacKay.
As daunting as a half marathon may seem, someone with no running experience can cross the finish line. I know this because Skye invited me to follow just nine weeks before the race, even though I had absolutely no training. Eager to battle my own COVID burnout, I had jumped off my home office (aka my couch) into a crash workout regimen, following these brave women through the storm.
I had never dreamed of running even a 5k race, but there was something irresistible about Scotland with its promise of medieval vistas, melodious, sexy accents and lambs wander around endlessly. As I walked through the alien flurry in a delirious state, I realized that those same sheep, scattered across the hills soaked in their finest moisture-wicking clothes, were surely wondering why humans do such ridiculous things. and insist on making them in spandex.
For The Stress Leaves, the answer is really just a matter of perspective. “In a way, the weather was really good,” Meggs says, balancing that floating thought with gravity like only a nurse can. “It pushes you forward because, well, the only way out is to move on.”
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