One of my colleagues works and lives in Beijing. In January, he travelled to Hubei Province (home to the city of Wuhan) with his family, and to this day they have not returned to Beijing. Their condo in Beijing has been sitting empty for half a year.
Today in a phone meeting, he said “Good news! They are back down to zero cases per day in Beijing, so we might be able to go back home in two weeks.”
I thought I had misheard — “You mean zero deaths per day?”
“No,” he said, “zero cases.”
The Gathering Storm
In the sweet “before time”, back when we are all starting to be on edge but the impact of COVID19 on the U.S. was not yet clear, I had a conversation with friends about whether we should cancel our weekly run. I had just returned from a trip to New York City. There was something about air travel in those naïve days of early March — the looks in the eyes of travelers and staff, the barely perceptible uptick in people wearing masks (up from zero), hotel concierges expressing joking concern about us coming from Washington state — that made what was happening clear to my wife and I a bit earlier than those around us. I knew before I got home that I would not be going to any club runs for a while. But this was before anywhere in the U.S. was locked down — an intervention which at the time would have sounded crazy.
Ultimately, those who met for the run that night decided to meet at a park instead of the normal running store meet up. Two days later, all runs for our running club were cancelled until further notice.
If It Benefits Others, It’s a Loophole — If It Benefits You, It’s a Right
The Washington Stay Home Stay Healthy [March 23rd] order was clear:
All people in Washington State shall immediately cease leaving their home or place of residence except: (1) to conduct or participate in essential activities, and/or (2) for employment in essential business services.
… but there were all these vague exceptions:
Essential activities permitted under this Proclamation are limited to the following:
<among other things>
… Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used.
Pretty simple, right? I’m a runner, I run for exercise, therefore my activity is essential and I can do it as long as I socially distance. At the time, I asked a friend, “sure… but what if everyone does that?” They said, “be realistic! not everyone is a runner!” Stranger still, our trails and parks started shutting down, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t use them!
If an individual is part of the essential workforce and needs to commute for work or if an individual needs to accomplish essential tasks (ex: grocery store) by using King County’s regional trails, they are allowed to do so.
So let me get this straight…
The trails are closed, unless you’re using them for an essential activity. Exercise is essential, so I can run wherever I want. But walking is exercise, so it’s fair to say that 100% of the use of a trail involves some kind of movement and exercise, and therefore any use of the trail is permitted. It’s a loophole large enough to run the entire field of the Boston Marathon through.
From my social feeds, runners didn’t seem to want to hear it. I heard “my running is essential, and I’m following the rules.” It was rare to hear “what steps can I take as a runner to help protect the community?” or “it may be an overreaction, but here’s what I’m willing to sacrifice to help…”
Lockdown orders across the United States were not often popular… but most people grudgingly accepted them. However, assuming that the spirit of such an order doesn’t have some impact how and when we can run assumes that we runners value our running more than a walker values their exercise… more than a family out for a stroll needs to breathe fresh air and enjoy the sun. It doesn’t make sense to me.
The Lane Between Two Yellow Lines
Don’t get me wrong: Exercise is essential, and under all the lockdown restrictions I’ve seen in the U.S. we are explicitly allowed to continue exercising. We also all should be following social distancing guidelines, and as a runner, I’ve gone out of my way to create space between myself and others — I see it as my responsibility to do so whether or not I’m sick. For example:
- I run in less dense areas.
- I run in the street or often in the middle of the road to give walkers a very wide berth (I am fortunate to live in an area where I can do this safely — I’ve only been honked at a couple times!).
- My pacing is more staccato than normal, as I speed up or slow down to avoid other pedestrians.
- I have awkwardly turned down opportunities to run with others.
- More recently, I’d started bringing a face covering with me on runs and trying to slip it on whenever I’m within 20 feet of someone.
Is this overkill? I sure hope it is! Over 13 MILLION people infected globally, on pace for a million deaths at least — doesn’t it make sense to overreact a little?
Many of those around me don’t seem to notice the ambulatory acrobatics I perform to socially distance while running, and they don’t typically return the favor. Walkers rarely typically choose a particular side of the path, bikers pass me as aggressively as always. I know runners in more urban settings who have it worse — contending with groups unaware that walking three or four abreast makes life very difficult for everyone around them now.
We All Become What We Pretend To Be
Once the recommendations for wearing masks came out, I saw a vigorous debate in the running community over the merits and flaws of wearing them while running.
“No – You don’t need to wear one if you can maintain 6 feet social distance!”
“They can’t enforce this — it’s an empty threat!”
“Doesn’t wearing a mask decrease your oxygen intake? Is it safe for runners?”
The debate was rather one sided — almost everyone who responded to the announcement led with some form of “here’s how I am going to minimize the impact of this policy on my running.” I saw very little introspection. Very few asked:
- What if I expect to be able to maintain social distance during my run, but cannot?
- What if 6 feet isn’t a magic distance outside of which all transmission of the virus drops to 0%?
- What if by not wearing a mask, I’m causing anxiety for anyone who sees me outside?
- What if by not wearing a mask, I’m reinforcing the curse of American individuality and the perception that it’s OK for everyone to shit all over the commons as long as it’s supporting their preferred lifestyle?
- If I cannot wear a mask while I run due to personal preference, physical limitations, or any other reason, is there a possibility that maybe the best thing I can do for my community right now is to put a pause on running?
Freedom Isn’t Free
Unfortunately the U.S. never had a real shut down during the pandemic — everything was half measures. There was a near complete lack of accountability, and even in locales where harsh measures were enacted, enforcement was basically non-existent. And I empathize with the public response — it doesn’t feel fair to be compelled to sacrifice something for a cause that may not benefit you directly.
Freedom does give us awesome latitude to speak, act, and think as we want, but it doesn’t mean we should act on all our desires. Andy Slavitt put this well:
I’ve been thinking a lot about that coworker in China — the one who has been away from his home for six months, and still won’t return to Beijing even though cases in the country have been in the low tens per day for months. It’s basically the best possible situation I can imagine given what’s happen, and he’s still going to wait 2 more weeks, you know, just to be safe. It’s such a different mentality than what we have in the U.S. — the patience, the prudence, the ability and flexibility to differentiate between what one needs and what one wants. Can you even imagine it?
I don’t mean to be down on my fellow runners here. Please, keep running, stay healthy, and stay sane. Running is a critical part of physical and mental well-being for so many of us. I basically get depressed when I don’t run. I know how important it is to so many of us.
At the same time — be prepared to adjust, even when it comes to your favorite athletic pastime, and perhaps even more than you have already adjusted. Be prepared to sacrifice even if it seems like an over reaction. Think about what you may need to let go of, for now, and how you can reimagine what running means to you.
Because the fun-run we all thought was a 5K looks like it’s going to be a grueling ultra marathon.