In one of the morbid ironies of our present moment, keeping up with the coronavirus news cycle sometimes feels like a health risk in itself. When exasperated emergency room doctors must resort to gonzo-style reporting to vent their despair—or the President suggests that keeping the national death toll between 100,000 and 200,000 would be a massive success—a quick glance at the day’s headlines is enough to cause your blood pressure to spike.
Fortunately, runners in the United States can still find temporary solace in their hobby. Even in states like California, where a “shelter-in-place” order has been in effect since March 19, residents are still officially allowed to exercise outside. But if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t take even our most basic freedoms for granted. Runners in other parts of the world have already had to learn this lesson the hard way.
“Here, running has been completely banned—you can’t go further than a few meters from your home or you might get fined,” says Stefano Cilla, a 32-year-old marketing professional who lives in Rome, where he co-founded the Eternal Eagles running crew in 2015.
At present, Italy has the unenviable distinction of leading all nations in coronavirus fatalities; the northern region of Lombardy has been held up as an unsettling example for how bad things can get when a healthcare system becomes overwhelmed. (Though New York City appears poised to become the next worst-case scenario.) In order to fight the contagion, Italy was the first European nation to implement the extreme lockdown measures that have since been replicated in France and Spain. Most Italians are only allowed to leave home for essential reasons like buying groceries. Even then, they are required to fill out an “auto-certification” form to justify why they are outside. (Cilla told me that he knew a couple who lived together who were fined 100 euros, each, for walking their dog without a form.) Running is not considered a valid reason to be out and about.
“We adapted,” Cilla says. “We have trainers who, twice a week, do live streaming on Facebook and Instagram. But I miss running. Especially here in Rome. It’s amazing to run here—you breathe the history.”
If the Italian model of residents being required to write themselves a de facto permission slip every time they go outside seems dystopian, prospective measures in Russia are perhaps even more ominous. This week, Moscow, the country’s capital and most populous city, announced a citywide quarantine that could soon be enforced with government-issued QR code permits for individuals who want to go outside. Though the practical efficacy of this approach is still up for debate, things are moving very quickly. As of this week, Muscovites are forbidden to go running.
“I saw it coming, so I moved up north, since I don’t want to sit around my apartment for the next two months,” says Ilya Kovalev, a 38-year-old counseling psychologist and running coach who founded the Moscow Running Club.
Kovalev, who says he supports the government’s measures, told me that he relocated to Yaroslavl, a city roughly four hours drive northeast of Moscow, though he acknowledged that the rest of the country could soon see similar restrictions on movement. (He has started a Change.org petition requesting that Moscow’s mayor allow residents to go running three days a week.) “Running is just one of the things that I expect we are not going to take for granted after this is all over and done with,” Kovalev says.
Since Moscow’s lockdown only happened very recently, Kovalev told me that there’s still a sense of unreality about the whole situation. He says that, for some of the athletes whom he coaches, the gravity of the situation hasn’t yet registered, as if this were a mere down week in training before the outdoor track season picks up.
It’s hard to blame them. One of the distinguishing features of the pandemic’s impact is the speed at which the previously unimaginable becomes the new normal.
Toni McCann, a Cape Town-based marketing professional and trail runner who is sponsored by Altra, told me that, when South Africa began having its first coronavirus cases about a month ago, the possibility of a full lockdown wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The country is now one week into a 21-day quarantine, which McCann says is tantamount to a nationwide house arrest order.
McCann told me that the lockdown, which officially went into effect at midnight on Thursday, March 26, was announced the previous Sunday, so residents had a few days to prepare. This apparently instigated a sort of niche panic-buying among South Africa’s fit and affluent, as stores began rapidly selling out of treadmills and stationary bikes. There were reports of gyms renting out their equipment to maintain a source of revenue.
For runners like McCann, the days leading up to the quarantine were a chance to savor the miles under the open sky.
“I crammed in as much outdoor running as I could on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after we found out about the lockdown,” McCann told me.
“Then, on Thursday, I pushed my last run as late as possible. I was out in Stellenbosch, which has some beautiful trails and spent as much time as I could on the mountain. I very consciously sat on the top and soaked it all in.”
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