For Brian Gillis and many other runners, a relatively low-risk athletic activity has evolved into a moral dilemma.
For Brian Gillis and many other runners, a relatively low-risk athletic activity has evolved into a moral dilemma. (Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer)
In Stride

How Runners Are Getting Creative During the Pandemic

With every race canceled, runners face logistical and ethical dilemmas. Some have turned to unusual solutions. 

For Brian Gillis and many other runners, a relatively low-risk athletic activity has evolved into a moral dilemma.

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As coronavirus infections continue to spread, every news cycle seems to announce a state of affairs that would have sounded preposterous in the halcyon days of, say, last week. The most recent situation report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that there were roughly 210,000 confirmed cases worldwide, and that the pandemic had spread to six continents. China, Italy, France, and Spain had already enacted national lockdowns when, on Monday, seven counties in California were issued a “shelter-in-place” ordinance mandating that citizens only leave their homes for “essential needs.” (On Thursday evening, Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, expanded the directive to the entire state.) Along with going out to procure food and to perform “healthcare operations,” the order includes engaging in outdoor activities like “walking, hiking, or running” as acceptable reasons for going outside.

Of course, it’s very possible that the coming weeks will force us to re-evaluate how “essential” going for a run really is. (On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article with the headline: Is It OK to Take a Walk?) In the meantime, in the wake of every major race being canceled or postponed, some runners have wondered how to put their hard-won fitness to good use. If nothing else, such mundane concerns are a way of maintaining a sliver of control. 

Brian Gillis, a marketing communications manager for GU Energy Labs who lives in Oakland, California, was initially going to run the Speed Project—a 340-mile relay race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas—with his local club, the That’s Fine Track Club. Last week, the race was postponed until the fall, so Gillis and other That’s Fine runners considered doing their own relay from Lake Tahoe to the Pacific Ocean. But it quickly dawned on them that this would also not be in line with current public health protocols, so they dropped the idea. Gillis then set his sights on reclaiming his FKT of the East Bay Skyline National Recreation Trail, a 33-mile ridgeline traverse in the coastal mountains of the Bay Area. Then, on Monday, Gillis’s county was hit with the shelter in place ordinance.   

“It feels a little surreal,” Gillis told me earlier this week. “I went out running at noon today and the streets were just empty. I was running in the middle of the road on a street that normally would have cars.”

Now that the context for his prospective FKT attempt has suddenly shifted, Gillis is undecided about what to do. Almost overnight, a relatively low-risk athletic activity has evolved into a moral dilemma. 

“On a personal level, I fully acknowledge that fitness and running is a privileged activity, so part of me is wondering whether a big effort like this is appropriate at a time when we have doctors working long shifts and putting themselves in harm’s way and so many other people are making sacrifices,” Gillis says. “The question becomes whether this is the right time to be thinking about your own personal fitness goals. But, then, part of me is, like: ‘What else am I going to do?’”

Jack Mulvaney, a high school special education teacher and amateur runner who competes for the North Brooklyn Runners, was gearing up for the NYC Half, which was scheduled for this past Sunday. After the New York Road Runners announced on March 10 that the event would not take place, Mulvaney initially planned to run a smaller-scale half marathon in Rockaway, Queens, that was slated for the same day. As his backup race drew nearer, and the news about the pandemic continued to escalate, Mulvaney started having second thoughts.

“I usually bike to school, but on Friday I was Ubering because it was raining out and it was just so eerie outside,” he says. “There was talk about canceling the Rockaway race, but the organizer kept emailing to say it would be on, but restricted to 300 people. It was just really, really eerie, so I texted my girlfriend, and I was, like ‘We shouldn’t do this.’” 

So they didn’t. Instead, Mulvaney solicited the help of a few teammates to pace him to a 5K personal best of 15:49 at a local track in the neighborhood of Red Hook where, fittingly, the vibe is always rather post-apocalyptic. It was the first time he had broken 16 minutes. “There was no external prize—just the satisfaction of being able to say that I finally broke 16,” Mulvaney says. “It was more the internal joy in knowing you can do something hard.”

Mulvaney was joined by his NBR teammate, Gabby Tofig, a project manager and data analyst, who had been running 80-mile weeks in preparation for the Boston Marathon. (On March 13, the Boston Athletic Association announced that, for the first time ever, the race would be postponed until September 14.) With the help of two of her teammates, Tofig managed a new personal best of 17:43 on the Red Hook track. “I think, for the foreseeable future, it’s just going to be a series of time trials,” she says.

Not everyone thinks that such efforts are a wise idea right now. Both Runner’s World and Women’s Running have published articles suggesting that runners scale back on intensity so as not to overtax the immune system. By definition, a paced time trial also precludes running entirely on one’s own, which is the most effective way of “social distancing” and slowing the spread of the virus. Mulvaney told me that there were only eight people in total at the Red Hook track, that everyone was maintaining some distance and that, afterwards, there were “no hugs or high fives.” (Today, the governor of New York banned all non-essential meetings of any size.)  

Taylor Burmeister, a software engineer who competes for Central Park Track Club, had similar concerns after last week’s cancellation of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Washington D.C. Marathon, which had been scheduled for March 28. Against his better judgement, on Thursday morning, Burmeister, whose marathon PR is 2:34:31, ran an abbreviated loop in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park 15 times. When he stopped his GPS watch at 26.2-miles, the clock read 2:31:19–a new personal best.

“It’s really not a good idea to do this for a lot of reasons, and compromising my immune system was definitely something that occurred to me,” Burmeister says, while conceding that he was still “super pumped” about the time.          

“But I have this tendency in general that, when I’m anxious about something, I’ll focus that anxiety on something kind of trivial. That was the case here; I was just channeling all of my anxiety about what’s going on into this time trial. It was kind of surreal finishing since there was no finish line. I picked a random fire hydrant at 26.2 miles and just stopped my watch. There was nobody there.”

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