Breathe in slowly through my nose. Then out through my mouth. My brain slows down as my feet speed up.
This is my meditation, my moment of zen. You might call it a run.
For years, I’ve been a leisure jogger but never a serious racer. My casual relationship with running started a decade ago when I mourned my first major breakup and the only thing that would keep me from thought-spiraling was to move my feet so fast that my brain didn’t have room to focus on anything but breathing. I also liked the smile-nods I received from fellow exercisers. Since then, I’ve turned to running as a sporadic stress-reliever, but never considered myself a “runner,” per se.
Now, amid the global unease of the coronavirus outbreak, I don't know how else I would describe myself. Running feels like the only productive thing I can do these days.
Putting on sneakers and pounding the pavement has become the single activity keeping me clearheaded and centered at a time when I otherwise feel helpless and sad. When I hear bad news, I think, "Don't worry, I'm about to go on a run."
But while I have rediscovered the value of running, it’s less safe to do it.
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In Santa Monica, I used to run on the beach trails and hike routes. Two weeks ago, it was still fine to do that in California while keeping a 6-foot distance from bikers, walkers, roller skaters and, because the beach has an eccentric mix of people, a “joggler” – the term I've given to the man who maintained a quick clip while keeping three balls in the air.
A week ago, though, things had changed: One of my regular, relatively remote trails was filled with too many people for effective social distancing, including a woman who bypassed the public restroom and instead relieved herself in the middle of my running path while offering an aloof “Oh, sorry!”
Sorry isn't going to cut it when it comes to keeping oneself safe from coronavirus. But with so many (in many cases oblivious) people occupying public trails, running has been deemed hazardous.
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Los Angeles has blocked off entrances to the beach, officially shut down parks and announced many trails temporarily closed, out of concern for public safety. Elsewhere, there are similar closures: the High Line in New York City, the lakefront in Chicago, parks and playgrounds in D.C., national parks in Montana and Utah, and many beaches in Florida.
Still, I've seen Angelenos thirsty for runner's highs and glimpses of humanity breaking barriers to get to public spaces. I can't condone the behavior but can understand why it's happening: If people can't feel free to do one of the most anthropologically human acts there is, then we could stop feeling like sane people.
As more outdoor areas become off limits, I feel fortunate that I can still explore neighborhoods near my apartment. For people in many other parts of the world, the only way to run a marathon is to pace a balcony a few thousand times. That's what Italian runner Elisha Nochomovitz did. He explained to CNN why: "My only pleasure is running, no matter what the time."
For bipeds, running is innate. It was once required for obtaining food. Now, it still feels necessary for fostering a sense of a community (I still appreciate a thumbs up from fellow runners) and providing glimpses of the natural world that remains intact amid tragedy and uncertainty.
As long as it's allowed, I'll keep running. However, there are changes to my routine: My routes are extra-wiggly (to avoid other runners) and I have to remember to not use my finger to hit the crosswalk button (I like using my elbow or knee to avoid germs). I stay away from sidewalks (to give walkers their space while I share the bike path and road), run away from dogs (as opposed to toward them) and forgo spit balls and snot rockets (because the disease could potentially spread that way).
When I'm in the zone, wiping the sweat from my face and bouncing off the earth, I'm outpacing negative thoughts. I have a renewed energy for today and hope for tomorrow. I'm unstoppable.
That is, until a car ignores a stop sign and nearly hits me two blocks from my house. The most polite reaction I could manage: "Heyyy!" with outstretched arms.
Running isn't a perfect remedy, but I'll hold onto the temporary cure for as long as I can.