Culture

Neither Fast, Nor Far, But Still Running

A solo marathon around a city block in the nation’s capital keeps a quest alive.

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Global Running Day arrived to a world struggling through a pandemic and the United States confronting centuries of racism. At the same time, Wednesday offered another day for a run, another opportunity for people everywhere to improve yesterday’s version of themselves, starting with their shoelaces.

For Chris Walsh, it is another day to continue his quest to run a marathon around his block, part of his plan to run 20 marathons and 20 ultramarathons in 2020, a rate of just under one per week.

Walsh steps out of his apartment in the U.S. capital as curfew ends at 6 a.m. Five nights of protests in D.C. have channeled the collective outrage from multiple deaths of black Americans.

Photo: Dustin Renwick

“Running has a long way to go in terms of being something that feels accessible to all demographics,” Walsh says. “People want to see someone who looks like them. If you go to a running club, and everyone looks different from you, you might not want to go back. ‘Maybe I’m not supposed to be here,’ even if folks are friendly.

“I can’t fill that need in the running community, but hopefully I can fill the need of people who say, ‘Running’s not for me. I’m slow.’ I heard someone in a bar one time say “I can’t run, I’m not fast.” That really stuck in my head. Who told that person you have to be fast to run? I guess it’s one of the reasons I try to profess loudly that I’m a slowpoke.”

Yet Walsh knows fast. He qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2014, then found out his time wasn’t far enough below the standard that year to earn a race bib.

“It was the best day of my life. Then to be told that I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t fast enough — that really broke me.”

Some months away from running led to his first 50-mile entry and the beginning of a new phase in his relationship with the sport.

Photo: Dustin Renwick

He formed his 2020 challenge around frequency, with one non-racing weekend per month.

“I figured this was a goal where there was a real possibility of failure,” he tells me, a few laps in. But, he says, “I got into a groove; this is going to happen. Then coronavirus hits.”

His watch dings another mile.

The pandemic has led to cancellations and postponements of more than a quarter of his planned events. So he’s improvised by running solo races around D.C.

“I didn’t really have a choice if I was going to stick with the goal,” he says. “I think initially everyone thought, ‘Well yeah, we’ll get back to racing eventually,’ and now at least some folks are saying, ‘Eh, eventually is next year.’”

Running a marathon around a single block distills racing in the midst of the pandemic. The event exists as the antithesis of the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, won by another D.C.-area ultrarunner, Michael Wardian. Instead of the entire globe on a screen, it’s one person on one city block.

Chris Walsh DC

Photo: Dustin Renwick

Every marathon is hard,” Walsh says. “Some of them are easier. Some of them are faster. But every one of them is hard.”

Even so close to home, that remains true. A race with no spectators, no encouragement at water stops, and no mile markers “strips away a lot of the structures that we’ve put in place, which are there exclusively to make it more enjoyable, to make it easier.”

He rounds another corner.

“Which, you know, partially sucks.”

Walsh switches directions every 10 laps or so, around and around. Obstacles of a common city street provide another critical difference from an organized course. He weaves around parking signs and light poles and avoids people wherever possible.

“It’s not costing me very much to swing wide when I’m running up to somebody. There’s no such thing as running the tangents,” he says, with a laugh.

solo marathon in DC

Photo: Dustin Renwick

As he continues toward a young woman, she appears to motion him ahead with her hand as she stands on the sidewalk with a dog on a leash.

“Thank you,” Walsh calls out.

Instead, she yells through her mask, “Can you give me some buffer?”

“Gotcha,” he says as he fades into the street.

On the other side of the block, he’s flustered, still baffled by the exchange. 

“It has been interesting who cares about maintaining that distance or who doesn’t. Some people out for a walk by themselves wear a face mask, and they see you from a block away, and they cross the street.”

Walsh runs three days each week between races, rarely more than five miles. But training collides with basic physiology in the sudden onset of hot, humid weather. At mile 15, his right hamstring tightens, that familiar twist and clench.

Heat continues to build into the D.C.’s first 90-degree day of the year. The block has a short supply of shade in a city with two million trees, and by mile 18, Walsh consistently walks the uphill fourth of each square-ish lap.

Near mile 20, he stops to spray more sunscreen over his body, including the tattoo on his left quad that reads “church of the long run.”

Photo: Dustin Renwick

When he started distance training, his first two marathons coincided with a difficult breakup. He learned how much the sport shaped his mental health. Run clubs then developed into his social support networks.

Add those to the list of benefits runners have missed during the pandemic and a notable absence in a solo race.

“I am gassed right now,” he says at mile 22, hands on his knees.

He leans on the fence outside his apartment building as he unscrews the lid of a water bottle and pours more into his mouth. Someone on the sidewalk passes within an arm’s reach of him.

“That woman who just walked by,” he whispers, “she yelled ‘six feet’ as I ran around her.”

Chris Walsh solo marathon

Photo: Dustin Renwick

Birds and health care workers wearing scrubs had accounted for the few movements at the marathon start, but the block stirs as the sun steams everyone: people delivering packages, walking dogs, pushing strollers.

Neighbors stand on their front steps to smoke a cigarette or soak a new strip of curbside sod a foot wide and three strides long. A cloud on the southern horizon turns out to be the Capitol dome, hardly rising above the street surface.

This is the District of Columbia, a city far from the marble monuments and federal officialdom associated with the name “Washington, D.C.” — pandemic or otherwise. Anyone watching the protests from a screen this week has seen more of the District and, by extension, the city that sustains vibrant running communities.

Walsh sits down after a 5:42:51 finish, a 13-minute pace that also includes water and bathroom breaks. He wipes salt crust from behind his ears.

Like the current news headlines, the weather has changed in the span of a few minutes. Clouds close the blue gaps in the sky and sprinkles of rain mix with sweat on Walsh’s cramping legs as a military helicopter whirls above.

Dustin Renwick is a former collegiate decathlete, a current triathlete, and a freelance journalist based in D.C.