“I’ve heard you can judge six feet by the length of a llama; but I haven’t met many llamas in real life, so I’m not sure how much that will actually help!”
– my daughter Joni passing along social distancing advice from Malawi.
It’s been only a few weeks, but doesn’t it feel like we’ve been dealing with the looming viral apocalypse for a lot longer? Haven’t stores always been out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer? Haven’t schools always been closed? Haven’t restaurants always been limited to takeout only? Haven’t religious services always been live-streamed from empty sanctuaries? And haven’t our fellow citizens always taken to the streets, the parks, and the trails in impressive numbers to walk, cycle, and jog — so many people out-of-doors that one feels we must be a nation brimming with health?
I don’t remember where I read this, but one journalist observed that humankind has never learned anything as fast as we’ve learned about social distancing. And, of course, we haven’t fully learned it; or at least, not everyone seems to be practicing it. Here in Newton, our neighborhood listserv is abuzz with reports of large groups of teenagers playing pickup basketball in the park, or touch football at the high school. And it’s not just local teenagers who ignore expert advice. While our city government HAS taken steps to avoid meeting in large groups, our national government continues to assemble as though a perk of being in the U.S. Congress was automatic immunity from contagion.
But after acknowledging the stubbornness and (to my mind) irresponsibility of those who should know better, there’s no doubt that many have rapidly adopted a “new normal” for routine activities, and now it’s hard to even imagine what life was like a few weeks ago when the NBA and NHL season were in full swing, when we were cheering on the runners in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, and when MY main concern was memorizing the names of the seventy or so students who had signed up for Spring Track and Field at my school.
A week ago Sunday, as Joni and I headed off to Battle Road to meet a few folks for a group run, I was especially struck by how ordinary the extraordinary had become, and how what might have seemed strange only days before had become commonplace.
I’ve run at Battle Road hundreds of times and in all seasons. I’ve run there in January when the trail was frozen solid and the wooden bridges were treacherous with frost, and I’ve run there in the dizzying heat of summer. I’ve run there when I shouldn’t have, when the Park was technically closed because of a government shutdown. I’ve run there when I had to dodge hundreds of men re-enacting the march of British soldiers from Lexington to Concord and back. I’ve taken my chances with thunderstorms in the distance, sometimes outrunning them, and sometimes sheltering under the eaves of buildings when I mis-judged my pace or theirs and I was overtaken. I didn’t think there was much that would make a Sunday morning run feel unfamiliar.
But there we were, Joni and I and a few friends from CSU, standing a few feet farther apart than usual, all of us probably wondering “Is this normal?” It was March 15th, and most of my friends had been planning to run the New Bedford Half-Marathon that day. That race, as well as every other race on the spring calendar including the Boston Marathon had been cancelled or postponed. Instead, we were back at Battle Road, along with the many families seeking an escape from indoor imprisonment and non-stop media coverage of the spread of the virus.
It was a treat to run with Joni. It was also a respite from the worries that she and we had as she faced travel restrictions that might prevent her from returning to her family, who were still in Malawi. I tried not to think about when we’d have a chance to run together again, and under what circumstances.
Unlike the majority of walkers and cyclists on the trails, serious competitive runners — including many of the runners in my club — are now faced with a philosophical question. What does training look like and feel like when extreme social distancing means that for the foreseeable future there are no more races to run?
I don’t know of a single runner who has stopped training. The long runs, the tempos, the track workouts — they are all still on the schedule. Although in many ways runners are hunkering down like everyone else, when it comes to training, the effort to push the fitness envelope fitness has not diminished a bit.
I have no doubt maintaining a rigorous training schedule, or even a regular running habit, helps us to maintain our physical and mental well-being. I don’t want to spend too much time listing reasons why physical activity, generally, or running, specifically, is good for our health. I believe it is, but I know it doesn’t make us invulnerable to disease, including novel diseases spreading through the community in ways we have yet to reckon with fully. But the practice of running does give us a kind of agency in our own health, and that’s extremely powerful just now when so much seems out of our control. It seems to me that the challenge, now, is to balance the familiar routine of training with the unfamiliar steps that show we are taking our responsibility to the entire community seriously.
So far, no one has suggested that we stop running in public places. But I have changed the way that I interact with people when I do that. For one thing, I’ve begun avoiding all my usual running routes because those are the routes where everyone else runs. Instead, I’ve been spending time on Google Maps to identify runnable areas where I’m much less likely to encounter groups of runners or pedestrians, and I’ve returned to running routes I haven’t run in decades to avoid crowds. Being a loner helps, I suppose. I always experience a quiet pleasure when I drive out of the city, park in some remote lots, and set off at a trot down a quiet road where no one else things to run.
On Friday, for example, I at first thought of returning to Battle Road, figuring that there wouldn’t be much activity there on a Friday afternoon. Instead, ever parking lot was full of cars, so I kept driving, eventually parking at a school lot near the Concord/Bedford town line. I chose an out-and-back route that followed Route 62 for a short while before heading down a long road that I knew was unlikely to have much traffic because it didn’t really go anywhere. Although I didn’t get to set foot on the trails, I had a nice five mile run without seeing another runner.
And when I do encounter others, usually couples or parents with kids, I veer off into the road to give them a wide berth as I pass them. The first few times I did this, it seemed exaggerated and almost silly. I wasn’t sure whether I was communicating that they were a threat to me or I to them, or that I just didn’t like them. But after a few times, like so many other new behaviors these days, it became second-nature and I stopped worrying about it. It was just one more habit to adopt in the new social order.
Even among my teammates, we struggle to find the right balance. On the Wednesday after last week’s run at Battle Road, I drove to Harvard to join my club for a track workout. I parked on the River, jogged to the track, and then joined the warm-up with my club mates. Instinctively, one of my friends began jogging next to me, and I responded by moving out a lane so that there was about six feet between us, apologizing as I did so. When others joined in, I found it easier and more comfortable to drop back, maintaining a healthy distance to the back of the pack. Strange, I thought, that Nike’s Breaking Two project showed us the importance of drafting in a tight running formation, and now we’re having to learn the importance of an entirely new formation with the opposite dynamics.
It seems very few of us have extensive experience with llamas, but we’re learning.