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Running in the Time of Coronavirus

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“Hey, sorry to sound like a jerk, but why don’t you run with your mask actually over your face?” 

Yesterday was a typical Tuesday running trails in beautiful, Boulder, Colorado, in the age of coronavirus.

The woman I was passing on the Boulder Valley Ranch loop north of Boulder wasn’t trying to be aggressive with her request, and she did have a point. Even though I had a Buff around my neck, I had let it slip from my face after passing a previous walker and was in my own world and didn’t think it to pull it up as I approached the woman and her dog.

I’ve lost exact count, but was around Day 55 of Colorado’s coronavirus-induced quarantine, and although state restrictions have loosened slightly to “Safer at Home” status, a typical day of running in Boulder—as with many other places around the U.S.—is vexed with more challenges than ever before.

It requires remembering to bring—and properly wear!—a face mask, bandana or Buff, dodging hordes of people on crowded, popular trails and, sometimes, dealing with the angst and self-righteousness of a frustrated, struggling and perhaps even confused population trail users.

It requires remembering to bring—and properly wear!—a face mask, bandana or Buff, dodging hordes of people on crowded, popular trails and, sometimes, dealing with the angst and self-righteousness of a frustrated, struggling and perhaps even confused population trail users. That includes experienced and novice trail runners, hikers, dog-walkers and the growing number of people who appear to be out on the trails for the first time ever.

Running Is Not The Problem

Running—and especially trail running—is truly in the crosshairs of the pandemic and, even if you haven’t experienced it, it’s been well-documented in media reports. I’ve endured plenty of sideways looks, finger-pointing and even name-calling, despite always running with a mask or a Buff, ahem, typically covering my face.

Although I don’t have any data, it seems there are more people walking and running off-trail, more belligerent, confrontational people, more aggressive dogs and more piles of dog poop left in the middle of trails than I have ever experienced before. (And, yes, many trail users in Boulder often courteously bag their dog’s poop … and then leave it behind for the belief that a fictional poop fairy will carry it back to the trailhead for them.)

And, yes, many trail users in Boulder often courteously bag their dog’s poop … and then leave it behind for the belief that a fictional poop fairy will carry it back to the trailhead for them.

A lot of people are concerned about contracting Covid-19 through the “droplets” people spread through the air, and I absolutely understand that apprehension. It’s clear there are many people who are out walking—perhaps for their own sanity and escape—who have become angry at runners, especially those who appear to be cavalier or oblivious about their interaction with other trail users.

But deep in the heart of all of this madness, even amid confusing and contradictory reports about how running might or might not spread droplets, we must remember that running is not the problem. Running is not a malicious act. Much to the contrary, running is a soothing balm in these rough times.

Yeah, the past two months doing Zoom meetings in sweatpants have been awkward and frustrating. My primary outlet is getting out for a daily run, even if I haven’t run very long or very fast or with anyone else most of the time. But now more than ever, running is my therapy, my savior, my raison d’etre. And the same goes for just about everyone else I know—running is a form of daily affirmation, a healthy way to unwind, escape and relax.

“If I didn’t have running, I’m not sure what I would do or where I would be,” said the Nike-sponsored trail runner Andy Wacker last week in a Zoom speaker series with Go Far Shop in Boulder. “We’re lucky to be able to have so many trails to be able to get away from it all. I’d be running the same trails everyday even if it wasn’t for coronavirus; the only difference is that I can’t go run races right now.”

Yes, we, as trail runners, are lucky to be able to get away from it all, even if getting away from it all means avoiding popular trails like the ones up Mount Sanitas and through Chautauqua Park in Boulder. At peak times, those routes can be as crowded as a New York City sidewalk.

It’s Not All Bad

On the positive side, there are plenty of good things happening out there. First, it seems that there are more people than ever hitting the trails for exercise. And the more the merrier! I’ve always embraced more people experiencing the joys of trail running, so that’s a huge win despite the incremental stresses.

Also, I’ve seen more notable track and road runners in Boulder discovering the trails and appreciating the inherent challenges and skills required to run up and down mountains.

I’ve seen more notable track and road runners in Boulder discovering the trails and appreciating the inherent challenges and skills required to run up and down mountains.

Take Will Leer, for example. The Under Armour-sponsored track runner is a world-class middle-distance competitor with a 3:51 mile PB to his credit. With his entire track season canceled, he’s been running more of Boulder’s technical trails recently, only to find most of Wacker’s Strava KOM marks to be far superior. Leer recently ran up and down Bear Peak, only to discover his time on a specific section of trail that he thought he was running fast was actually seven minutes slower than what Wacker has run!

“As someone who has lived on the track for my entire professional career, it wasn’t that I lacked respect for trail runners at all,” Leer says. “I just had a lack of understanding for some of the trails they would actually run.”

As for Wacker, he’s race fit as always but has no opportunity to race, although he has his eye on several FKT objectives. The same goes for my occasional running partner Rea Kolbl, who just set a new FKT for Boulder’s gnarly, 17.3-mile, five-peak Skyline Traverse. And with no track meets on the calendar and the Olympics postponed until 2021, those kind of marks are fascinating to Leer.

“It’s been a really fun, eye-opening experience for me to see what others in the greater running community are doing and also opening myself up to learning more about it,” Leer says. “It’s almost like picking up a new musical instrument. It’s been a super-fun challenge that I am imposing completely on myself and that’s one of the things that has getting me out the door.”

Time To Get Fit

As for me, I’ve run 52 of the past 55 days and, although I’m nowhere near race-fit or ready for long adventure runs in the mountains, I’ve come to rely on the good vibes my daily jaunts provide me. I’ve altered my running to avoid the crowds and stress, opting for running less-populated trails at non-peak hours. And when I do run with a friend, it’s typically a socially distanced situation at happy hour with post-run beers at the trailhead.

I have a great base for slow, short running, but it’s probably time to get serious—even if there won’t be races happening for the foreseeable future. This Covid thing appears as if it’s sticking around and no sense in being slack.

“I’ve run almost every single day and I think I’ve gained weight during the last two months,” the Boulder runner Charles Garabedian told me with a sarcastic laugh yesterday evening as we paused while running alone in opposite directions on the loop at Boulder Valley Ranch. “But I still get out every day because, ultimately, it’s one of the most important things in my life.”

Cheers to that!

See you on the trails.

5 key trail-running tips to stay safe and keep others calm around you on the trails.

  1. Practice social distancing. Run on trails with the same mindset you would have interacting with people at the supermarket. If you stop running, make sure you’re far enough off the trail so you can avoid other runners or hikers who are approaching. It’s not about you, it’s about everyone around you.
  1. Wear a mask or Buff. Yes, it can uncomfortable breathing through a mask, especially as temperatures rise in the middle of the day. At the very least, put it around your neck and make sure to cover your face before passing people.
  1. Be courteous to other trail users. Communicate openly as necessary as you approach people and yield the trail whenever possible. Keep in mind that many slow-moving hikers and new trail users can find trail runners to be aggressive just by the pace you are moving.
  1. Try to run on less populated trails at off-peak hours. Your experience will be better if you don’t try to run on a trail when it’s typically crowded. If you really want to run popular trails, go at the crack of dawn or run at dusk with a headlamp.
  1. Avoid contact and touching. If possible, avoid touching trail features like handrails or rocks or trailhead maps. For that matter, avoid high-fiving running buddies out on the trail with you, too. And be careful where you spit, sneeze, cough and snot-blast!

Brian Metzler is a Contributing Editor for Trail Runner.