3 … 2 … 1 … start.
With that prompt from my running app, I was off. The chilly, gray days of March had finally given way to a proper spring. As my feet pounded the park trail pavement that April afternoon, the budding trees formed a canopy that framed my pathway, and birds chirped their encouragement as I breezed by in my tank top and shorts. With each breath, I inhaled deeply, almost in gratitude that I was able to experience this moment when almost every movement had become restricted.
As a longtime distance runner, I always used running to connect with the world around me. Whether I was in secluded parks or urban cityscapes, I relished in the freedom and mental boost that running provided my body and soul. Although the sport by nature is a solo endeavor, before COVID-19 hit I enjoyed training with others and competing in road races. One of my New Year’s resolutions had even been to run a half-marathon and participate in an overnight relay race with about 10 other women from my local chapter of Black Girls RUN!, which seeks to encourage and motivate Black women to practice a healthy lifestyle. Although I had run a half-marathon 11 years ago, I was then in my late 20s, single and child-free. My younger legs and lungs allowed me to party the night before, run 13.1 miles the next morning and write a news story about it that afternoon without missing a beat.
Now I was a divorced 42-year-old with two young children — still in pretty good shape, but with less time, less energy and 20 more pounds on my frame. I had to work a lot harder to maintain a running routine and get similar results. But my boys were a big part of my motivation to keep going, as I knew they needed a mother who maintained her physical and mental health. Before the pandemic changed everything, I fit exercise into my limited free time by walking during lunch breaks at work and with the kids to the park. I saved my long runs for times when they were with their dad, a sitter or when my mother could watch them during her regular “grandma time.”
By mid-March this year, my spring races had been canceled as the country went on lockdown to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Cancellations of summer and fall races would soon follow. Although my breakout half-marathon season would have to wait, I still ached to get outside and move. Running was one of the few ways I could safely leave my house during the pandemic, and I needed to disconnect from the constant barrage of news headlines that screamed through my television or dinged my iPhone screen.
When I completed a 2.23-mile virtual run in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, I shuddered thinking of how his choice to run that day cost him his life, while my jog that day affirmed my right to run without fear.
The lockdown led me to the world of virtual racing. In a virtual race, athletes complete their required mileage on the roads, trails or treadmills of their choice. Some include a formal registration and have results entered online, while others are more loosely organized challenges often shared on social media. Since I still wanted to live up to the spirit of my 2020 resolution, and running provided a workout I could do without Zoom, YouTube or a DVD, I decided to give virtual racing a try.
Because I was able to do my marketing and communications job from home, I discovered I could compete just by stepping outside my door. A local running group hosted the first virtual 5K I tried, and I completed it by running three one-mile loops around my neighborhood and adding a few steps to hit that final 0.1 mile. I felt fortunate to live in an area with ample parks and open spaces so I could run while social distancing, although I made sure to go later in the day to avoid crowds. I even created a few virtual challenges of my own, such as a post office run where I’d jog with my letters —including my Ohio primary absentee ballot — to the mailbox 1.2 miles away from my house.
For that April race, I ventured to a trail nestled behind a suburban park just minutes from my house for my second virtual 5K. I found I actually enjoyed the absence of crowds I’d encounter at a typical road race.
The silence of each virtual run forced me to reckon with thoughts and the fears I attempted to avoid by keeping busy with the kids, working or scrolling through social media. I worried about contracting COVID-19, knowing it had taken the lives of so many Black women and men, including a childhood neighbor and a high school classmate. I hoped that my attempt to strengthen my immune system through running could help down the road if I happened to contract it. When I completed a 2.23-mile virtual run a month later in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two white men while jogging in Georgia, I shuddered thinking of how his choice to run that day had cost him his life, while my jog that day affirmed my right to run without fear.
I then felt gratitude for each breath I took knowing that many were struggling to breathe. My boys and my mother, who had come to visit before our state’s lockdown and decided to stay for two months, were safe and healthy in my home, and it became a privilege to enjoy the freedom of simply being outside during a global pandemic.
Perhaps running was my subconscious way of asserting the importance of wellness in a time when so many were suffering. With each race I complete during this global pause, I’m even more appreciative that I can maintain my health through running in that moment.