Social Distance Running: 5 Ways to Stay Connected

What is it we give each other – gold, shark’s fin –

other than a renewed sense of the miraculous?

–“Earthshine,” Qiupu, Arthur Sze
Sunrise Sunday Trail Run Group

I used to have no problem waking at 5 a.m. Sunday mornings to meet for a long run at sunrise. The sound of trail shoes being clapped together at dawn stirs my senses more than coffee brewing, and hugs were always the first order of business. Now eight weeks into healthy at home orders, my runs have started later, they are less planned, and they are all alone.

I miss the preschool hours trail runs with some of my favorite people. I miss the chance to complain about the hills we’re climbing. I miss the swearing and sweating with other people who know. I miss running with one of my closest friends before grabbing a coffee and crepes together. I miss my tribe, my women’s running groups, my co-ed running groups, my people.

I know I’m not the only one missing their running partners, these friends in  who seem to always turn into confidants after spending so many hours together. This fall, winter, and early spring, my running partners listened to our daughter’s struggles adjusting to PreK, my own trail marathon doubts, my career aspirations, my frustrations, and my dreams. They cheered on my daughter’s progress, waited for me at the finish line of some of the toughest trail races I’ve ever completed, and ran me in at the end of my first marathon. As much as I can, I’ve returned the favor, celebrating their successes, supporting them on their big endeavors, and encouraging them to aim high. The bond of miles and hours together is strong.

After my first marathon at Otter Creek, Josh ran me in after finishing the marathon himself.

Of course, we runners aren’t the only ones who have had their habits totally changed. Most people are working at home, education has gone online, and phrases like “Zoom meetings” have entered our everyday vocabularies. As someone who teaches online writing classes, conversations about synchronous versus asynchronous are commonplace to me, and writing is usually solitary work. We can pull from some of these strategies to figure out ways to connect.

Hill repeats with Harkins.

While it’s up to you whether to start running with small groups or a partner or two as restrictions ease or whether you want to continue to run alone, there are low and high tech options to connect. I will share five ways you can connect with your running buddies, even from a distance.

1. Coordinate Run-bys

When you live near your running friends, coordinate a run-by. Many of the women in my local She Runs This Town chapter live near each other or run through each other’s neighborhoods. Text your friend and talk from the porch or a window if no porch is available. One of my dear friends, Stephanie, surprised me the other week, and just seeing and talking to her from a distance made a world of difference. I was struggling to get motivated to run, and my daughter was getting tired of just seeing me and my husband. Stephanie made both of our days.

2. Coordinate Podcasts

To make you feel like you’ve done your run together, pick a podcast to listen to while running and call each other or Facetime or Zoom call afterwards to talk about it. This is just like when  students listen to or read something before class for discussion except you get to pick something you just want to enjoy, whether it’s a running podcast, a comedy one, or something else. Some of my favorites are Trail Runner Nation, Koopcast, There’s No Such Thing As A Fish, and Drunk Women Solving Crime. Just be careful listening to true crime podcasts while running alone: it’s easy to get creeped out, especially on trails!

3. Coordinate Treadmill Runs

If you have a treadmill at home and so do your running friends, coordinate an easy pace treadmill run where you can connect on Facetime or over the phone and chat while you run. This option is great for running friends who run vastly different paces as well. For example, I would love to run with my neighbor Adeline more, but she’s way too speedy for me on a daily basis! She’s an 8 minute mile runner and I’m more 10+ most days. If she’s okay with slowing way down, we can run and chat, which we have done just to spend time together and talk shop as we both teach English/writing. But we could coordinate treadmill runs and run our own paces.

4. Send Videos/Message Friends

If you’ve ever thought “I wish my friend could see this” while on a run, stop and take a picture or video to send them. I’ve done this often, recording short video messages to some of my running friends as I think about them. This is something I do with my online students frequently, sending a quick video update or explanation. So far, I’ve recorded hilly cemeteries, me running down a hill I know a friend will love, and just “I’ve run this trail with you before and I miss you” to name a few. These brief moments of connection can mean so much.

5. Find an Online Running Group

Online running groups have been a way to find new running partners or routes and not physically run alone. Now they can be a way to connect with each other while running alone. Post your runs and comment on and like other people’s posts. Create virtual events where you have scavenger hunts, share interesting things you find on your runs, and just encourage each other. Reach out and make new friends, make posts that start discussion. I belong to several run clubs that have Facebook pages, and I’ve seen more and more new people posting over the past several weeks, both new runners and runners who just always lurked in groups. The outpouring of support has been simply wonderful to see.  

Summer group run

Closing

Believe that we look upon this stalk of time ;

and in this expansion, time too grows for us

richer and richer towards infinity. —

“Night Flight : New York,” Theory of Flight, Muriel Rukeyser

Spending time apart has hopefully made us value our time together more. We can still reach out to each other and live up to the motto of Run the Ville: motivate, encourage, and inspire. We just have to be smart and we will get through this together and see each other at races in the future. Do what’s in your comfort zone, and take advantage of technology to connect in our low tech sport. Together or alone, we can help each other do great thing!

Who do you miss? How have you been coping with being apart from your usual running partners? What strategies have you tried?   

2 Ways to Embrace Constraint in Running During COVID-19

Runners are used to being constrained only by their own physical limitations, how long we can stay on their feet, how much ground we can cover, and how quickly our legs turn over, just as writers are constrained only by their own limitations with language. We runners are used to being able to head out the door or hit the trailhead and explore wherever our feet take us. And we writers can put anything on a page if we can just get started, getting out that metaphorical door.

Running in the time of COVID-19 has changed all of that for us. Our races are canceled, rescheduled, or gone virtual. Our group runs are canceled and most of us have to social distance, running solo. Our training plans are not as pressing. Our motivations and priorities have changed. Without the mental benefit of constraint impressed by training schedule and races, many of us, myself included, feel at a loss. 

Constraint in Writing

We writers are very familiar with constraints like deadlines and style guides as well as roadblocks, often hitting “the wall” with writer’s block of some sort, not knowing where to start, writing ourselves into a corner. 

The way we often deal with these roadblocks is by putting some kind of constraint on ourselves. The following are all very common exercises. 

  • Write a story using six words or less.
  • Write an imitation of another piece.
  • Write in response to a piece of music or art.
  • Write in a new poetic form or a scene in another genre.
  • Write for a specified amount of time.
  • Write on a specific page size.
  • Write using a list of words chosen at random.

In fact, we gravitate to rules as seen through books like In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steven Kowit, now in its second edition. Writing exercise books and websites in general are quite popular. Giving ourselves these rules sets up a place to begin, a place to calm the chaos of ideas or jumpstart a stagnant mind. 

Giving ourselves these rules also gives us writers an end or a goal, something that us runners may be lacking at the moment.

Constraint in Running

When COVID-19 hit, I was training for a trail marathon. I felt great about my running routine: weekday runs 3 days a week with friends while my daughter was in preschool, Saturday afternoon run solo after riding horses, and Sunday long runs with one of the run groups I belong to. I went to a fabulous yoga class once a week taught by a Trail Sister and friend and lifted weights and practiced yoga 2-3 times a week at home. I was 12 weeks into an 18 week training cycle, and I felt strong. Then, the world changed with the spread of this virus.

My marathon was canceled but offered a virtual option or deferment to 2021. My husband and 5 year old are now at home all day, and my usual schedule is out of whack like so many other people. Even though I work mainly from home anyway, it’s gotten chaotic. With more time home in the day, somehow I seem to have less time available.

I hung in there, sticking to my training schedule initially but avoiding crowds and using social distancing. But I quickly realized I didn’t feel like running a virtual marathon by myself, and quite frankly, I didn’t like being gone from the house for very long for several reasons. I deferred and I decided to take the path of constraint with running, which has ended up making all the difference for me.

1. Explore New Places

Even in a country you know by heart

it’s hard to go the same way twice.

The life of the going changes.

Wendell Berry, “Traveling at Home,” Collected Poems: 1957-1082

One of my first decisions early on was not to drive anywhere to run. For me, that made sense and was practical. By limiting myself to where I could travel out to and back in an hour from my front door, I ended up discovering some new favorite places around my neighborhood while social distancing and avoid crowds. 

You can take the high tech or low tech approach to this:

  • High tech—Look for Strava segments in your area using the Explorer option or segments in Garmin Connectthrough the Training tab to see where other people have run. You can also Map My Run to map out a route with handy options like creating out-and-back and loop routes. 
  • Low tech—Literally follow your feet. Run down the street that you always wondered about, turn left where you always turn right, enter the tiny park you always drive by. Note: Cemeteries are also fantastic to explore as so many are hidden away in urban areas, but check the rules of the individual cemetery to make sure running is allowed before you use it as a route.

So far, I’ve found a beautiful park with a one mile dirt loop and two decent hills tucked away with a creek crossing, two historical cemeteries (posts forthcoming!) , and tree carvings in front yards, just taking the time to look. All of these places are one mile or less from my house.

Trail at George Rogers Clark
Carved tree trunk in Parkway Village

Think of it as being a tourist in your own neighborhood! You can even turn it into a scavenger hunt of sorts with a little planning. 

2. Explore New Distances/Metrics

You may have more time to run or less time right now, you may feel like you’ve gotten in a rut, or you may have no desire to run longer training runs with races canceled or do longer virtual runs. But guess what? That’s perfectly okay

Most likely, you were on a training plan that had defined rules for you, like I was. Now you can change those if you want and set your own rules. Now is the time to play around with your training by setting yourself distance or time goals, running your best time at a shorter distance or measuring your runs by time only

Note: Make sure you keep any changes in training within reason, avoiding ramping up your mileage or intensity just because you have time. Resist FOMO and high mileage challenges if you don’t have the base already. No one wants to end up on the injured list.

Other than the practical challenges some runners and families face finding the literal time to get out the door on your own, the two common complaints seem to fall into two following categories:

  • Lack of Motivation—You’ve been training for a marathon or an ultra or even a half marathon, but now you don’t have the motivation to get those long runs in. 
    • Solution–Focus on setting a personal best at a shorter distance for now. The gains will stay with you as you work back into your next training cycle.
    • Solution–Focus on another aspect of running, like climbing/vert, at a shorter distance. Again, the gains will stay with you.
  • Feeling Burnt Out—You’ve been training with tempo runs and speed workouts, always focusing on hitting a specific pace each run with a strict goal, and now you either don’t know what to do or just don’t want to do workouts. 
    • Solution–Set a specific time goal for each run, like running for 30 minutes or 45 minutes. Switch your watch face to the time of day and just go. The gains from easy running will pay off in running economy among other things.  

I’ve been doing a combination of both of these things. Personally, I have more time to run and have no desire to do any runs over 25K right now but want to be ready for the next training cycle, whenever that happens. I’m keeping my long runs around/under 25K and running for around 60-90 minutes the other four days of the week. It’s what works for me to keep my base up and my mental well-being in check. I’m actually running faster than ever and feel good about my relationship with running.

Closing

If you’re trying to stay motivated, try to give yourself some new rules and aim to enjoy your time. Take pictures, stop to read historical signs, or just tune in to the sounds around you. And if you’re absolutely not motivated, that’s okay too. Running isn’t going anywhere and will be waiting for you when you’re ready. How has COVID-19 changed your relationship with running?   

4 Lessons from the Forest: Trail Running, Writing, and Life

I discovered trail running about a year and half into my running journey, joining my sister-in-law, an ultrarunner, at dawn on Black Friday morning in 2018 at Jefferson Memorial Forest (JMF), which many describe as “beautifully brutal.” 

Between grueling climbs, valleys with fairy tale vegetation, and breathtaking views from ridges, I definitely didn’t start with an easy trail. But its majesty and expansiveness drew me in as I watched the sun rise on the top of the Red Trail for the first time, emerging over the tops of the trees and ridges like a waking, glowing giant. The forest is peaceful, challenging, ever changing, and requires me to be mentally present in a way that road running isn’t for me. In short, it sucked me in.

Fast forward to now, several trail races later including one trail marathon, and I will take a single track over the road any day of the week. I’m lucky enough to live within a couple of miles of several excellent trail systems and about 20 minutes from JMF, which has about 35 miles of trails. While the forest has humbled me in very physical ways with trips and stumbles resulting in scrapes and some pretty gnarly bruises (my left forearm finds any rock in the vicinity if I fall it seems), it’s humbled me in other ways, teaching and reminding me of lessons I needed and still need. 

I’m not the only one drawn to the forest in recent years, participation in trail running grows each year, especially among women, as more and more are retreating to the forest, away from bustle of everyday life. I want to share with you four lessons from trail running I’ve learned so far and how they apply to writing as well. 

1.   Enjoy the Process 

The forest can quickly pop your ego as you see your hard earned pace slow with the switch from roads. The exact same trail can be fast one day and slow the next depending on weather. And surprise obstacles after storms can definitely slow you down. If you’re just in it for the PRs or race results, you’re going to be disappointed. 

Coach and ultrarunner David Roche has built his whole coaching and running philosophy about truly enjoying the process, often pointing out it takes years to achieve your ultra/trail running potential. For me, I saw progress very quickly as a new runner on roads, and that progress seems to take a lot longer on trails, but I enjoy every minute.   

Of course, participation in any activity shouldn’t be done for the result, but for the enjoyment of the overall process. I’ve ridden horses for decades, and the time at the barn still means more to me than the classes at horse shows. If I was just riding for the ribbons, I’d be sorely disappointed. 

Instead, embrace the process, the “trial of miles,” whatever that looks like for you: just run. Similarly, make the writing time and schedule, even if you feel you don’t produce anything worthy. Put in the time at your desk, in your comfy chair, wherever you write best, but put in the time. Don’t pressure yourself to write your best piece ever. If all you can think of are titles or lists, jot that down: just write. For me, this blog is a way to fall back in love with that writing process.

As Denise Levertov states in her talk “Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse,” “For the artist—every kind of artist, and, I feel sure, not only the artist but everyone engaged in any kind of creative activity—is as enamored of the process of making as of the thing made.” Just as we runners should be as into the training process as the races. After all, the training process takes much longer than the race, just like life is more than any one moment or event.

2.   Be Prepared  

Being prepared for a road run usually just means grabbing your water, reflective gear if needed, and picking a direction. Being prepared for a trail run is a whole other task. Bug spray, sunscreen, first aid kit, water, nutrition, toilet paper, trail maps, oh my! And don’t forget a fully charged cell phone in case of emergencies. For more basics, check out this excellent intro to trail running guide from Trail Sister Maddie Giegold.  

That said, if there’s one thing you absolutely need to do before hitting a trail, it’s ideally to print out a trail map ahead of time to study or pick one up from the park’s Welcome Center. You can use a website or app like All Trails to familiarize yourself with a new trail as well, but I find having a hard copy map to look at makes it easier to see how trails connect. 

Make sure you are aware of any large elevation changes, expected weather, length of trail, etc. Especially when you have a large trail system or several interconnecting trails, you can end up a lot farther out than you meant to, turning a 5 or 6 mile intended run into 10 or more. If you’re running later in the day, give yourself plenty of time before sunset, so you’re not stuck in the dark. 

Being prepared for a writing task can look very similar, from making sure you’re aware of your audience and purposeto having the resources and tools you need by your workspace, whatever it takes to find your way “in” and stay focused. It may be as simple as sitting at your desk and closing the door or something more elaborate and personal. In “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” poet Jane Hirshfield states 

Writers, too, must find a path into concentration. Some keep a fixed time of day for writing, or engage in small rituals of preparation and invitation. One may lay out exactly six freshly sharpened pencils, another may darken the room, a third may develop as add a routine as Flaubert, who began each workday by sniffing a drawer of aging apples.

There may not be any aging fruit involved, but it’s just as important to not have to get up to find a book you want to reference or fix a coffee when you’re finally getting in the groove. Any task that you need to accomplish can be approached in this manner. 

3.   Chunk

Any runner has had the feeling of hitting “the wall,” that point where you feel you can’t or don’t want to go on. The mental challenge always seems the hardest.  With trail runners, this can be even harder when you’re out in the forest by yourself, knowing you have some killer climbs left and more miles than you’d like. While chunking has its roots in psychology and learning theory, the idea of breaking down of activity or larger goal into several smaller segments or goals, aka “chunks,” gives you an attainable goal to focus on.  

Chunking the distance or race or even elevation can be a useful mental trick to break it up. For example, for runs and races at Jefferson Memorial, I like to break it up into number of climbs, so I’ll tell myself “it’s just 4 more climbs to the end.” Of course, with those climbs being just under to just over a half mile each with some sudden grade changes, that’s only so reassuring! 

In less hilly places, I’ll break it up by distance into whatever seems manageable at the time. For me, it’s more useful to think of a 25K as three 5 milers plus a little rather than as five 5Ks. It’s whatever motivates you, whether it’s from one trail marker to another or something longer. 

Writing tasks can seem just as daunting as that 300 foot climb. We all know that blank page stares back at you and will never blink first! Break it down into tasks or chunks to help make it less scary. You have to get it on the page to be able to work with it. Don’t get too caught up in perfecting it, just get the tasks done the first time so you can rewrite. 

4.   Flow

We can’t control everything, and need to give in to the flow of the trail, hiking climbs when needed, cruising rollers and flats, and jamming the descents, letting gravity, trust, and quick feet guide you downhill. Listen to your body, walk when needed (or even better, before you need), and give yourself up to the trail. 

Firm pace expectations or goals? Pitch them before you hit the trailhead. There are just too many variables involved to guarantee you’re going to hit a narrow pace range on most trails.

Expectations of exact mileage in a trail race? Pitch them and note your trail races will likely be a bit longer than advertised. This is due to how difficult it is to measure them and race day course changes can happen due to flooding among other things. 

Certainly, we can’t all be 2018 Ultrarunner of the Year and all around badass Courtney Dauwalter, but we can all channel a little of her cool, relaxed demeanor. Famous for her “intuitive training,” she listens to her body, doesn’t keep a strict training schedule or diet, and strongly believes in letting go of the things you don’t have control over. This attitude keeps her stress levels low, so she can focus on being her best, wherever that falls in the race. 

Dauwalter embodies the sense of poetic flow former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright describes in Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews 1977-87: “You have to have ‘stride’ in your lines: you have to hit the right notes hard, and you have to be underway when you do it. Keep it in motion; and hit the right notes hard.” 

We all need to strive for movement in running and writing. With writing, some days it will flow well, and other days all you’ll come up with are lists, but keep showing up! Above all, keep showing up and keep it in motion. 

Closing

When approaching trail running, writing, or life, remember to enjoy the forest and immediate moment. Be open to what the world has to show and teach you. Trails are humbling and inspiring. They give you perspective and help develop perseverance through running, writing, and life.

The best advice, perhaps, comes from my favorite poem by my favorite poet, “For the Children” by Gary Snyder: 

To climb these coming crests 

one word to you, to

you and your children: 

 

stay together 

learn the flowers 

go light

What has the forest or running in general taught you? How does nature humble you? What do you still need to be reminded of?