Running for community as much as for exercise

By: New York Times |

Published: April 8, 2020 10:43:14 am

There are ways to escape home confinement during the pandemic. Running has come to feel vital and now seems to be as much about reconnaissance as exercise.

By Jeré Longman

On Saturday morning, a jogger wearing a mask passed our house. I was planning to run for an hour that day in solidarity with a colleague who was raising money for coronavirus aid by hosting a virtual race online.

But first, my wife, Debby, and I drove 45 minutes to see our daughter. We seemed like spies making a dead drop, leaving mail-order steaks on her porch and giving her a virtual hug, while she left frozen fruit and Lysol wipes in return.

In the car, Debby cried.

“That’s the worst part,” she said. “You can’t even hug your own daughter.”

There are ways to escape home confinement during the pandemic. Running has come to feel vital and now seems to be as much about reconnaissance as exercise.

My runs begin in my basement. To kick-start this soon-to-be 66-year-old body, I have made space for a mat, a stretching strap, ankle weights, resistance bands and an oversize exercise ball that scares the cat the way the rolling boulder scared Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

I do the usual planking and bridging and plying of knees that crackle like a yule log. Then it’s upstairs for makeshift squats while holding a 20-pound bag of birdseed. Finally, I’m out the door, walking first to warm up, climbing the hill past the restaurant that made a run of it serving takeout but is now temporarily closed.

No one is happier to see me go than Debby. I’m driving her crazy. The other day, I complained that there was too much air in the water of the bathroom faucet.

“I’m a possum,” she keeps telling me, “pretending to sleep so you won’t bother me.”

Haverford College, nearby, has closed its nature trail. Paths are blocked by signs and yellow “Do Not Enter” tape, as if Covid-19 is a crime as much as a pandemic. So I run instead along the main roads in this Philadelphia suburb, past stone churches and homes and my shuttered gym, once a movie theater, its walls painted with caricatures of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” and the Three Stooges being squeezed by Hercules.

Individual footsteps echo in the quiet. Friends stand apart while talking, as if about to play invisible table tennis. Two men argue in a language I cannot understand but maintain social-distancing guidelines, walking single file along the sidewalk, more than six feet between them as they continue their disagreement.

Early spring here feels like summer at the Jersey Shore. Families walk unhurriedly, dogs on leashes, children riding bikes, perhaps stopping at the ice cream store that remains open but seems to limit the number of customers inside.

Cherry trees blossom and chalk drawings decorate the sidewalks. A radio station plays Christmas songs to cheer us up. People give slight nods and waves that signal we are all in this together. But we know from 9/11 that the nods and waves are probably temporary and will fade once impersonal normalcy returns.

Wariness accompanies geniality. I turn a corner and jog slightly uphill near the post office. A man and his young son are hitting tennis balls in the road. I get no closer than 30 feet before the father says, “Other side,” and the boy hurries with his racket across the street.

On my route, I pick up snippets of conversation as if listening to a radio on search:

“Children don’t understand that growth comes from hardship.”

“I undress in the laundry room so my clothes don’t spread germs everywhere.”

I am running more than I want. I miss the gym. Stupidly, I hobbled the 26.2 miles of the New York City Marathon on a bad knee in November and have been in physical therapy since. Before the pandemic intervened, I changed my workout routine, running less, going to the gym more, lifting weights to strengthen the muscles around my knee and to tone my upper body.

One night, I came home and told Debby, “I got arrested.”

Alarmed, she said, “What happened?”

I flexed my biceps and said, “Carrying guns without a permit.”

“BB guns,” she said.

In the evening on Saturday, I finally got my five miles in for coronavirus aid. Green lights came on in a sober township ritual, honoring several high school students who have cancer. A firehouse siren pierced the silence. But it soon grew quiet again in the gloaming, and I could hear another runner breathing across a four-lane road.

On Sunday, I spoke to Meghan Hicks, an ultrarunner from Silverton, Colo. We met a year ago in Morocco when I was covering the Marathon des Sables, a six-day race through the Sahara that she won in 2013. On Saturday, she and her husband, who operate the website, hosted one of many virtual races that have popped up, allowing runners to register online, pick a distance and a starting line, whether it’s a street or a treadmill, upload their finishing times and receive a medal in the mail.

About 1,700 people from 48 countries and all 50 states signed up to exercise for an hour in Hicks’s virtual race. All of the entry fees, totaling $52,000 so far, will be donated to the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, she said.

The race was part of a larger project, Operation Inspiration, meant to make running a communal event in this time of isolation. On Saturday, shut-ins in Italy and Japan ran up and down stairwells. A man in South Africa did a 10K in his garden. A woman in Jordan ran among the rebar and satellite dishes atop her apartment building.

“A human being has to move,” Hicks said. “We have to get out into the world. You can’t put a human with a lifetime in motion not in motion. We all have the means to keep moving our bodies. It’s just figuring out what works best in your own situation.”

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