A wave of despair washed over me as I crossed the grocery store parking lot. It was March 28 and I was supposed to be in Tennessee preparing for the biggest race of my life. One month ago, I was on the verge of achieving my childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete. Now I was walking into a new job at the grocery store. The thought nearly drove me to tears.
I climbed the stairs and entered a tiny cluttered office. New-hire paperwork was scattered across the table, lit by a harsh fluorescent bulb. After a short conversation, I was officially an employee. It wasn’t how I thought I’d be spending my spring, but life had changed nearly overnight, and I was lucky to have a job at all.
I had spent the past several years vying for a spot in the legendary Barkley Marathons. The race is the subject of multiple documentaries, has a highly secretive application process, and toeing the line at the yellow gate is the goal of countless elite athletes. In 2019 I made it on to the waitlist, and this year, I moved into the 40-person field after being selected from over 1,000 hopefuls.
I had an epic 2020 planned. After the Barkley Marathons, I wanted to break two of the most prestigious records in the ultra-endurance world: the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail speed records. No one has ever attempted such a challenge, and it sits right on the edge of being physically possible. I spent the year connecting with sponsors, and talks had progressed to long-term contracts. My dream of being a professional athlete was within reach.
For as long as I’ve been physically active, I’ve been searching for ways to push the limits. I was a three-sport athlete in high school, competed in marathons and triathlons, and was continually looking for new competitive outlets. At 20, I discovered ultrarunning and endurance records while hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
In 2016, dissatisfied with my career and looking for an extreme physical test, I used all my savings to take a leave of absence from work and become the youngest person to complete the Calendar Year Triple Crown by hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in the same year.
In 2018 I took another leave of absence. I cashed out my retirement and went on a seven-month, 7,000-mile thru-hike, becoming the second person to complete the Great Western Loop. With these feats putting me in the upper tier of ultra-endurance, carving out a career as an athlete seemed less like a fantasy and more like a realistic goal.
I first learned of the Barkley Marathons ― and its 1% finish rate ― in 2014. I was captivated by the idea of a race that requires equal parts mental endurance, physical strength and extreme stubbornness. The route has no course markers, gains over 60,000 feet of elevation, and the briars, mountains, and abandoned prison complex along the route can only be navigated by map and compass. Only 15 people have finished the race in its 35-year history.
I bolstered my resume throughout 2019 by setting speed records on long-distance trails throughout the country, holding the record on the 350-mile Pinhoti Trail, the 273-mile Long Trail, and the 800-mile Arizona Trail. I published a book, took on contracts, and built up enough savings to dedicate myself to training. I was officially accepted into the field in December.
With three months to prepare, I shifted my life to prepare for the race. I moved to altitude and ran repeats on brutally steep trails, late into the night, in temperatures that plummeted to the single digits. I stretched the remainder of my savings and trained myself to operate without adequate sleep and logged weeks with more than 25,000 feet of elevation gain.
In January, I publicly announced my upcoming attempts at breaking both the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail records, which would total nearly 5,000 miles of all-out effort. Financial commitments from companies and organizations started falling into place. I spoke to the marketing directors at shoe and apparel brands, a prominent beer company, and key players in the outdoor industry. Closing the deal on funding my entire year seemed imminent, and I was one signature away from my dream life.
Then it all started to crumble.
On March 10, I received a call from a potential sponsor explaining impending issues in the supply chain due to COVID-19 ― something that was barely on my periphery at the time. The next two weeks saw a cascade of events: Travel bans were instated; businesses and schools were closed; and every drop of potential funding vanished. Not only were my goals in jeopardy, now I had no prospects for financial sponsorship to support them.
Races across the United States were canceled. The Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail both released statements advising people not to start their long-distance adventures. By the last week of March, every piece of my epic plans for 2020 ― including the Barkley Marathons and my upcoming record attempts ― had vanished.
Within weeks, I had gone from the verge of being a fully sponsored professional athlete to unemployed. I no longer had a reason to train or even leave the house. When I looked around, I saw my future imploding alongside millions of people around the country.
“Within weeks, I had gone from the verge of being a fully sponsored professional athlete to unemployed. I no longer had a reason to train or even leave the house.”
It was the early days of quarantine when I stopped at the grocery store to buy my girlfriend a birthday card. There was a paper sign hanging on the door advertising “Immediate Temporary Employment.” I walked past but paused just inside the door. Life had changed so quickly that I was desperate for both a salary and a reason to leave the house. I shuffled up to customer service and applied for a position.
It happened fast after that. My job interview was the next day, and my first shift a day after that. Working in a grocery store was far removed from my professional athlete visions, but I would be on the front lines of an essential business. I needed the income and purpose, and the store desperately needed employees.
During orientation, I sat in a room with eight other people crowded around a table. I avoided eye contact. The orientation was brief and intended to simply prepare us to aid the overburdened store and its customers.
A training video showed how to safely lift boxes, greet customers, and the extra precautions to take because of COVID-19. It froze halfway through, leaving us in uncomfortable silence. Nobody said anything. We didn’t know each other, we were all here as the result of a worldwide pandemic, and the spinning wheel on the computer measured each uneasy moment.
The realization that my dreams were on hold truly sank in when I was handed the store’s purple polo shirt with the name tag that clipped to the collar. I had been so close to the culmination of years of work and training. I should have been in my last days of training and finalizing travel preparations. I grabbed the shirt and flashed a fake smile, contorting my face to fight back tears.
After the training, I threw my purple shirt on the passenger seat of my car and sat bewildered, staring at the darkened windows of the hardware store across the street. My thoughts spiraled and eventually landed on the disappointment I felt after months of wasted training.
It wasn’t as simple as pushing my goals to next year. It had taken years to be ready for this moment. Training alone was a six-month build. I had sacrificed income for years and spent my savings to build my athletic resume. Even just thinking about restarting the process for next year was daunting.
The 2020 Barkley Marathons would have begun on March 29. Instead of standing at the start line with 39 of the best endurance athletes in the world, I sat in my car outside of the grocery store. The emotions were overwhelming.
I deleted my social media accounts, which had featured my aspirational training photos, sponsorship acknowledgments, and training updates. I walked into the store and began stocking a pallet of soup cans. All day I thought about running the race that was supposed to secure my future. Now, customers wearing masks and social distancing was at the forefront of my new life. I wondered if I would contract the virus, if it would impact my asthma, if working this job could be the end of my dreams.
I couldn’t bring myself to go to work the next day. I woke up early with a pit in my stomach and snuck out of the house while my girlfriend was still asleep.
I called in sick and drove to the mountains. I watched the sunrise with my phone turned off, trying to find any slivers of positivity that were hard to spot and harder to grasp. I fought to maintain control over my thoughts by accepting that the pandemic might simply postpone my goals, not cancel them, and that I was one of the lucky ones.
It can be difficult to reconcile your privilege when you’re faced with the wreckage of everything you’ve worked toward, but as I sat staring ahead at the light changing over the mountains, it brought to mind everything I had to be grateful for. I wasn’t sick. My family was safe. I was living in a healthy home in a state with the second-lowest number of COVID-19 cases. I had a job that allowed me to be an integral part of the community, and while the reason I took it wasn’t what I’d planned or hoped for, I had purpose.
I spent the day in the mountains, and as they had done so many times, the isolation helped me accept the things that were out of my control. As night fell, I returned to my car and began the drive home toward my new life ― and whatever it may bring.
Jeff Garmire is an endurance athlete, grocery store employee, and writer based in Montana. He is the author of the book “Free Outside” and runs the website freeoutside.com.
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