COVID-19 is a solemn reminder that a seemingly solitary sport was never really solitary at all.
The novel coronavirus threw us all into a spiral—there's no denying that. Whether or not your neighbor has been wearing a mask, following social distancing protocol, sheltering in place, or not, they've been stuck in the swirling void too. Everything has been affected—even the things that we didn't think would change. Some people work remotely all the time; ideally, their jobs didn't need to change. But they did. Co-workers have their kids home from school or camp, the options to go out after a day of working or running out to grab lunch in the middle of the day have waned, businesses have tightened their belts. Sports are canceled; personal exercise routines have changed. Trails that used to be deserted are now busy, but the runner is more alone than ever.
I haven't had a running buddy in a long time. Since graduating college and starting a full time job five years ago, my opportunities to run with friends have dwindled. I left my team behind when I finished school; I left my friends to run on their own when I went to work. I took up running during my lunch break at a mostly sedentary job. As a book editor by day, most of us stay at our desks plugging away at various types of writing: fiction, nonfiction, good, bad. My co-workers, while still able to be in the office day in and day out, were wildly accepting of me disappearing midday only to return a beet-red, sweaty mess. When work went remote, not much changed. I disappear midday and return equally sopping wet with sweat, only this time there's no one around to raise their eyebrows before returning to their own work.
Running is largely solitary. We mostly see runners pounding the pavement on their own, earbuds in, heads down, now and then glancing at their watches. Sometimes we'll see a pair together, a rarer sight, a whole team in a steady moving crowd coming down the sidewalk. COVID wouldn't necessarily change that.
But somehow it did.
Races have been canceled and are continuing to be into the second half of the year. It's only a matter of time before they're canceled for the start of next year. I've always enjoyed the community aspect of races. Standing in a large crowd with other people whining about how they "don't want to do this" even as they're smiling while prepping their watches. Putting these races down on my schedule, no matter how small or how rare, was an easy way to remind me of the huge community that comes with running.
Runners are all connected by the idea that we're all doing something that isn't immediately pleasant. It took hard work to get to a point where it becomes pleasant. Even after reaching that point, we've all experienced the groan of joints and muscles as we get going early in the morning or after a long day. But we get out there anyway and a part of us enjoys the complaints our bodies send up to our brains. Because we're overcoming something. And so is the person running beside you, and so is the person coming down the sidewalk, and so is the person breezing past you, and so is the person wheezing behind you.
But COVID-19 has me seeking out the trails and the odd hours where there's little to no one else outside. Instead of exchanging a smile with the runner going by, we duck off course to put as much space as possible between us for the brief moment we are in each other's air space.
Studies have taken place with lengthy explanations and diagrams dedicated to the output of respiratory droplets from runners alone. Black and white diagrams with technicolor blotches showing the trajectory of droplets did the rounds on social media. I personally saw them more than once on Facebook. The idea of 15 feet instead of the oft-said 6 feet for social distancing (specifically during running) floated by. It shocks me still how few people even attempt 6 feet of space as I trudge by with my tired breathing, sweaty hair swinging—hell, I might give me 6 feet even if there wasn't a pandemic. And despite the scientific rhetoric and the highbrow lingo of these studies, articles, and thinkpieces, the message is clear:
Say goodbye to your running buddy.
And if you haven't had one in a long time, say goodbye at the idea of the running buddy. Say goodbye to the glimpse of camraderie from your fellow runner. Say goodbye brushing elbows and shoptalk at starting lines. Say goodbye to all of these things for who knows how long.
I completed a track workout the other day for the first time in way too long. And the heat, the loneliness, and track made me nostaligic. It made me nostalgic for my teammates. It made me nostalgic for my coach. It made me miss having someone standby while I labored through the workout. My coach used to call us "bud" when offering advice or encouragement while we struggled through a tough race or a tough workout. My coach hung out at the starting line during the workouts, not to time us, maybe to keep us honest, but also to tell us stories. To talk to us about the sport itself. And, honestly, I loved it then, but I miss it now. It's not that I didn't miss it in the years between graduation and now—I was the kid graduating in a month, standing in my coach's office and telling him he couldn't retire.
"What do you care?" he asked laughing. "You're graduating." But I miss the idea of it: that somewhere out there is a group of young runners who don't have to be 6 or 15 feet apart while they listen to their coach say things like "get after it, bud" or start halfway through a story they've heard before but also want to hear again. I miss the idea that I can call up my best friends (who not coincidentally were my teammates in college) to go for a struggle-run in the middle of the hot summer. Or the idea that the concept of the race in front of us—the challenge of the mileage vs. the speed, the fact that we want to not want to do it—makes us all running buddies of sorts.
I finish my run day after day at my front door now. I don't know when things will go back to normal or if they ever will. I don't know when I'll get to torture my co-workers with my smell. I don't know when I'll get to look over at the runner next to me and whine about having to do something we both know we happily volunteered to do. But I guess we're all in this uncertainty together. We've just become different types of buddies.
How have you been handling the changes to your workouts since the start of the pandemic? Share with us in the comments!
The Run-Around is a weekly feature, focusing on fitness. Caitlin Bean is based in Annapolis, MD.