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I’ve always hated running.
Though the idea of it, being outside and disconnected from my phone, seems nice, it’s being immersed in nothing but my own thoughts that worries me. When I lift weights, my thoughts turn blank. When I run, they’re inescapable. Running is exercise hell for the overthinking type.
But this month was different, for me and many, many others. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, running has become the exercise of our physical-distancing reality. At-home workouts can feel confining. Communal spaces are off-limits. Running is the guilt-free alternative. (Plus, I’m outside—and that, alone, feels nice with all this new time I’m spending indoors.)
Now more than ever, running has also become about a connection to other people, which is unusual for a pastime that doesn’t technically require you to play well with others. “Running feels nice because I see still things are actually happening,” Tristin Beliveau, a 23-year-old from Texas who also started running amid the quarantine, said over the phone. “People are still driving, they’re still going to work. I’m running and it makes me feel like I’m still part of society.”
In a time of self-isolation and quarantine, we place a new value on our rare opportunities to actually interact. We turn to Zoom and FaceTime now for happy hours, parties, and orgies. In person, small talk has evolved to become a concerned discussion about each other’s health, even as total strangers. With running, simply seeing other runners, people walking their dogs, those with grocery bags, now offers a comforting reminder that though everything is mostly terrible, things might eventually return to normal.
“For many people, there is a new awareness here about how much they need and value other people in their lives,” Dr. Paul McCarthy, a U.K.-based “sports psychologist,” said in an email. “In social identity terms, we all identify as belonging to the same group now—self-isolators.”
Some time in the last month, I stopped hating running, too. It used to feel like a chore. Now, it feels lighter, easier, and I don’t mind as much the constant interruption by cars or pedestrians in my path. (Plus, I just feel more agile and coordinated after only a few weeks? I guess that’s what avoiding cardio can do to a guy.)
About a half mile into a recent run in New York City, I encountered a handful of other, lone runners. On several occasions, we’d make brief eye contact, nod, and continue on. Nodding between runners is a polite gesture, but on a day like this—the day before New York state officially went on “pause”—it was an unexpected friendliness you ordinarily wouldn’t expect from strangers, let alone, New Yorkers.
Maybe we were all just really fucking grateful to be outside. Or, with everything terrible going on, running has become our shared distraction. Before, running forced me to sit with my thoughts. Now, I see my thoughts—thoughts about the safety of my family or friends amid the pandemic, how this might impact my workplace or general existential dread—on the faces of everyone around me.
While there’s a lot be worried about, I remind myself that at least we’re all running in the same direction.