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Essay: Running in a Time of Social Distance 

A solitary runner finds solace in the social contact he gets on his runs from the safety of his six-foot bubble.

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I’ve always been a solitary runner. Yes, I was delighted to run with my friends or my brothers in the time before social distancing, but because of scheduling and convenience, that didn’t happen much. Nearly every day, it was just me. More than that, I ran to be on my own. I ran to return to my center. Moving in nature led me back to my truest self; that is the alchemy of running.

In this time of social distancing, crowds fleeing the safety and comfort of their homes are outside running or walking. Some on their own, some with their families. My son and daughter can walk further now than at any time pre-coronavirus; they built up incredible endurance over just a few weeks of our regularly scheduled, twice-daily walks around the neighborhood. It took a little time to teach them to stay 6 feet away from other walkers, but they have become expert at veering sideways at the last moment to respect the bubble of non-infectiousness to which we are all now entitled.

I’ve tried to do the same while running; move to the side, run along the grassy verge, even step on to the road if it means keeping a 6 foot space. Despite the distance, everyone is friendly. In fact, safe in our bubble, we crave social contact more than ever. Nearly every runner slows down and looks into my eyes. I think they want reassurance and acknowledgment. They are asking to be seen. They smile, they wave, they nod. Though I keep my distance, maybe I’m not running to be on my own any longer.

canal running path Ottawa
photo: Brodie Ramin

Last week, I ran by a colleague from work to whom I have never spoken outside of the office. On my way back she was still walking and, although it was raining, I stopped running, took up a position 6 feet away and we walked together. We spoke about office politics and shared stories of our families. She is about to retire in a month, so I was glad to be able to connect with her outside of work before she disappears into her new life. Then I left her, running alongside Dows Lake, tracing the canal, back home.

Each time I return home, I never have to think about what’s on the schedule, or where my wife or kids will be. The schedule is the same each day, and my family is always home. A few days ago, although my bike shed was partially frozen shut, I managed to pry the top of the doors open and pull out my kids’ scooters. They didn’t use them much last year, but they were thrilled to be able to do something new and now we are scootering multiple times a day. Soon I will get their bikes out, then they can ride alongside me while I run.

But for now, I am running on my own, watching the snow and ice melt away to reveal the brown leaves and dead grass of last fall. I am running familiar paths in unfamiliar circumstances. I am running while speaking on the phone to my parents or my brother in Madrid who remains quarantined in his apartment with his wife and two young children.

I am so grateful each time I leave my home. Grateful to be outside, to extend my calves, to find my form and to burn off the calories of my wife’s delicious and much-augmented home baking. (Will the flour mills of the world be able to keep up?)

For the first few days my mind was filled with numbers as I ran—cases, deaths, infection rates, etc. I wondered when I would get that call from public health that I was a contact, that I couldn’t leave my house for 14 days putting my running days on hold. Until that call comes, I am grateful every day to be healthy enough to run.

empty running path by canal
photo: Brodie Ramin

I know that things will get worse, possibly much worse, before they get better. My niece had the virus, although she is already recovering. My parents are vulnerable, my wife’s parents are vulnerable, many of my patients are vulnerable. But running takes away anxieties and I return home feeling ready for battle, ready for this challenge.

We will appreciate many things so much more once coronavirus has passed. Coming together to play games, to run, to watch sports, to sit on a beach, to swim in a pool; all these things will feel magical. We are intensely social creatures and as soon as the barriers come down, we will rush to be together again.

But I will still be a solitary runner. I will use my thirty minutes at lunch, or forty minutes on a Sunday morning to run away from crowds, city streets, demands and needs. I will run out into nature with just my thoughts, my shoes, my legs pumping to reach the always moving finish line that is drawing me further and further into the unknowable future.

Brodie Ramin is a physician and writer based in Ottawa.