Recently, I wrote an article with the headline “You Probably Don’t Need to Wear a Mask While You Run,” which argued that the best way for runners to protect themselves and others from potential coronavirus infection is to maintain maximum distance. Judging by the response on social media, this article touched a nerve. There were those who were annoyed by the inclusion of the word “probably” in the headline, as if it were absurd to even consider such an assault on personal freedom. Conversely, there were those who felt that the article was irresponsible for questioning the benefits of mask-wearing while exercising outside. One enterprising individual from the latter group reached out to me on LinkedIn, to inform me that I may have caused someone to choke to death on their own mucus. I’m not a sociologist, but I’d say the national mood is tense.
The mask debate aside, these trying times seem to be inspiring a more general sense of hostility towards runners. Last week, Slate ran an article about the rise of “anti-runner sentiments.” On Monday, the Wall Street Journal facetiously suggested that there was a “war on runners.” It’s not entirely irrational. At a moment when we’ve all been instructed to regard one another as potential vectors for a deadly virus, runners can seem to pose a unique threat. The speed. The sweat. The heavy breathing. It’s making some people very nervous.
In his weekly column for New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan vented his frustration with “millennial joggers”: “They come up behind so fast you can’t dodge the viral bullets they may be spraying out their noses,” he wrote in late March. “Stay the fuck away, okay.” In the May 4 issue of the New Yorker, the magazine’s NYC-based writers collaborated to create a portrait of a city under siege which included this on runners in Central Park: “Early on in the pandemic, they had moved with an almost infuriating disregard for the new reality, running, most of them maskless, in that eternal clockwork way of city runners.” Meanwhile, a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle summed things up with the following headline: “We will recall this as the era when joggers became angels of death.”
It’s been argued that the pandemic has amplified American society’s pre-existing conditions—e.g. our obscene healthcare system and dysfunctional leadership. In a much less consequential way, the war on runners represents an escalation of a mild contempt that was probably there all along. Sullivan admits as much in his column: “They come at you like a runaway train at the best of times . . . These days, as they huff and puff and occasionally spit, they’re not just irritating, they’re menaces to public health.” Running may be the world’s most accessible sport—you really can do it anywhere—but the flip side to that accessibility is that it also requires sharing the road with non-practitioners. “Running is most insidious because of its way of taking proselytizing out of the gym,” Mark Greif wrote in his 2004 essay “Against Exercise.” “It is a direct invasion of public space.” (A big part of Greif’s beef with exercise, as opposed to team sports, is that he portrays the hardcore exerciser as a kind of repressed evangelist for a fundamentally “unsharable” activity; one wonders how this argument holds up in the age of Strava.)
Needless to say, most runners probably don’t identify as proselytizers, and the general disconnect between how they see themselves versus how they are perceived by others feels especially pertinent right now. For weeks, the directive from local and federal authorities has been to stay home if you can and to avoid all non-essential activities. The trouble with that, of course, is that there is often little consensus on what forms of recreation qualify as essential. The mental health benefits of exercise may be widely recognized, but there’s a big difference between a brisk walk around the neighborhood and ripping a six-mile tempo session in your local park. To a non-runner, such harder efforts—and, maybe, any kind of running—might seem like a flamboyant disregard for the common good. (It probably doesn’t help that it’s harder to do a tempo with a mask on.) To others, the thrill of running fast for the hell of it can feel like an indispensable reprieve from the everyday madness. But, of course, it isn’t really indispensable.
The stakes are higher when it comes to disagreements about what constitutes risky—as opposed to essential—behavior. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill famously asserted that in a truly free society we should be able to do as we please “without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.” I’m sure there are many people who think that going for a 20-mile run is foolish, perverse and, in some sense, wrong, but the idea that it could also be harmful to others is unique to our current fraught moment.
For now, the risk of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 seems very low, especially from runners who demonstrate basic common sense about maintaining distance. (For what it’s worth, I’ve been heading out with a Buff that I can pull over my nose and mouth in the unlikely event that I can’t give others a wide berth. Since it’s far from clear how much good a thin layer of polyester can really do, this is more of a symbolic gesture of solidarity than anything else.) There’s also been little evidence that the coronavirus can spread through sweat. However, as we head into summer, the war on runners might morph into the war on shirtless bros on city sidewalks. I’m all for it.