Running through quarantine

Monday, April 6, 2020 - 3:02pm

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Design by Taylor Schott

I don’t remember when I fell in love with running. I cannot remember my first run or my first pair of running sneakers. Early on, I recall equating running to a mundanity, something I did to stay in shape and keep active as an incredibly uncoordinated individual who failed when it came to team sports. As a child, I hadn’t discovered the runner’s high or that sweaty addiction. But between cross country camps and routing solo long distance Sunday mornings, running turned into a part of my daily life — a part of who I am. I went from being a person who ran, to a runner. I never had the grace or the long legs or the innate talent as an athlete, but I had the drive. As I recognized the onset of anxiety in my early teenage years, I found that running quelled my anxiety the way nothing else seemed to. 

Though I don’t remember the impetus to begin, I do remember my mother dropping me off to middle school cross country practice in 2008, me with unlaced mud-caked sneakers holding a water bottle, wet with condensation. I remember my first five mile race, 11 years old, looping the roads of my hometown, the longest I felt I’d run in my life. I remember the near unending, heat soaked runs I took in St. Louis two summers ago, the 100 degree sun tanning my sunscreened shoulders as my legs willed another five, six, seven miles. I remember the first time I ran 15 miles, with my brother trailing me in a beach cruiser bike, down a New Jersey beach adjacent sidewalk in August. I remember rounding the final corner of the Detroit Marathon, a finish line of red and blue balloons swaying against a freezing, navy October Michigan sky. 

I remember falling deeper down the rabbithole of near dependency on such meditative movement, when I moved to Michigan as a college freshman and strained to hang on to some part of home within my new routine. Somewhere in the midst of paper bibs pinned to pink athletic shirts, roads and miles and paths and ankle injuries and Gatorade bottles and pairs of sneakers, I fell in love. I became addicted to the golden flush behind my cheeks as I finished a blissful jog, runner’s high radiating through me. I’m addicted to the sweat, the thrill, the motion. I’ll never stop. 

***

Running has always been a solace, a safe space where I can sort out my thoughts, an invisible place that helps me find answers to complex questions and scenarios that seem murky or impossible to untangle. Running has steadied my breath when I feel like I can’t inhale; it puts unsettling emotions at ease and consistently reminds me to remain grounded in times of tribulation. It’s been a form of moving therapy since I can remember, a method of calming panic when I’m anxious. There’s something about the repetition, resolve and regularity that has rendered running a constant in my life — an activity to fall back on in times of uncertainty. 

It is through running, specifically after completing the 2018 Detroit Marathon, that I’ve learned to have an unabashed appreciation for my body, in the short, muscular legs I’ve always detested. They’ve carried me, according to the Nike+ running application I sometimes use to track my outdoor running distance, 935 miles in the last year. Anytime I feel stressed about schoolwork or my future or a relationship, I lace up my sneakers and I take to the road.

With wind in my face and concrete under my feet, I have the ability to choose — to turn left or right, to stop and look out at a body of water, to focus on everything or nothing, to slow down and to speed up. If I slink out of my childhood home before 8 a.m., as my parents and brothers sleep, the roads are quiet, devoid of car engines, and the air smells of salt water. If I wait until after 4 p.m. to chase golden hour, the neighborhood smells of dinnertime and the inaugural use of barbecue grills. As I traverse familiar streets and head toward the beach, I pass handfuls of other runners and podcast walkers, people with this mutual affinity for the road, and we smile at one another, lifting a sweat-slicked hand in acknowledgement. We connect in the way you can with strangers handling a circumstance the same way. 

***

It’s no surprise then, with the onset of pandemic COVID-19 and physical isolation, I found myself looking forward to and welcoming consistent outdoors runs. When the University of Michigan closed the Central Campus Recreation Building and the Intramural Sports Building after canceling in-person classes and transitioning online for precautionary measures, I was forced from my winter treadmill routine to the streets of Ann Arbor. With the spring weather just starting to show, I had no complaints. On rainy or colder days, with nothing else to do, I waited for the best moment — when the sun peeked out or the sky temporarily dried up — to leave the house with no determined path or plan except to run until I couldn’t anymore. 

Many students, trapped in the house with roommates or family, feel the same tug to running outdoors.

Lana Wolf, a junior at Cornell University and a New Jersey native, has picked up running as a part of her daily routine since COVID-19 dispeled her from her college campus. Never a regular runner in the past, Wolf is now running near every day and said, “There’s something special about running right now and being in nature exercising … seeing families playing in their yard and other people out exercising — I just feel like I’m part of a community.” 

I feel similarly in the undefinable comfort of distant connection, especially in a time where I go hours and even days only meeting the eyes of my immediate family members. Even when the infrastructure of our country shakes and crumbles, our overarching sense of community remains firm — we’re all navigating a disconcerting time in our nation’s history, we all need ways to cope. Being quarantined with my 15-year-old cousin, a runner herself, has had a tremendous influence on our relationship. At least three times a week, we run side by side, talking each other through our current circumstances. 

The ungovernable and unmanageable emotional toll that COVID-19 has taken on so many of us leaves us craving some way to have a semblance of routine or sovereignty over our lives. 

Olivia Kem, a senior at Santa Clara University and Phoenix, AZ native, was a semi-regular runner before quarantine and has found herself much more drawn to the activity with the dawn of social distancing. She has upped both the mileage and frequency of her running since the pandemic altered daily life. 

“I realized that a huge reason I enjoy running is because it gives me something that I can control and improve on. I can push myself to go a little farther or a little faster everyday and this is something no one can take away from me,” she said, “This is especially important now when it feels like everything in my life is controlled by COVID-19. I did not realize until now how much I value this control. Running has also given me the motivation to get out of bed early in the morning to beat the Phoenix heat, which has also helped me stay sane by providing me with a sense of purpose each morning.” 

Since I moved back home to quarantine nearly three weeks ago, I’ve noticed a large increase in the amount of runners in my neighborhood. Running has gone from a pastime some people in my town enjoyed, to a hobby dozens of people have picked up. Workout studios and gyms have temporarily closed, leaving people without a way to release stress through exercise. Largely in part due to my own infatuation with running, and my giddy desire that everyone find the same solace I feel when running, I am ecstatic to see people eagerly jumping on the runner train, and their newfound — or reinvigorated — love for running. 

Julia Ross, a University of Michigan graduate living in New York City, feels grounded by running during such an anxiety-inducing time. Ross was a high school cross country runner and has been running more since COVID-19 arose, even signing up for the 2020 Detroit Marathon in October.

Ross, who now works from home, desperately needs the time to get out and think.

“My apartment is super small. The living room used to be a happy space and now it’s an office. Leaving that cramped space to be in an open space does something mentally and emotionally,” she said. 

***

Since being home, I’ve used my beloved running to sort out how I’m going to handle the situation we’ve all found ourselves juggling — being quarantined and riddled with weighty circumstances by way of COVID-19. I have endeavored to live in immense caution instead of fear, to comprehend how to proceed from where we are, to quell the anxiety that lives in my chest.

I’ve visited the wooded cross country trails of my high school nightmares, finding a newfound love within them, the boardwalks I hope will be full of summertime traffic by June, the national park with the breezy, sandy sidewalk. I’ve been alone in my journeys, sometimes listening to music and running tempo paces, sometimes running meditatively silent and slow to the sound of my breathing. 

Running was there for me when I moved to St. Louis for an internship and was terrified of a new place where I didn’t have any friends. It was there for me as an overeager 18 year old during my first days of college on the University’s campus. It has been there for me with every heartbreak, with the disappointment of rejection and with the burn of loss. 

I thank my legs for what they’ve taken me through and what they will. I thank my mother for dropping me off at the park when I was 9 years old, fuming at her for signing me up for a running club. I thank the road, the sky, the air and the runner’s high for the growth and the exhale. I will never forget the incredibly poignant words of one of my running mentors over the years, which ring true especially now: “If you have a pair of sneakers and a heart, you can be a runner. All you have to do is find the time.”