FitnessHikingNew Jersey

Running through the quarantine

Is it possible to practice social distancing and stay six feet away from everyone when running past them on singletrack trails?

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Going into the third week of continuous time at home and the second with kids home nonstop from daycare while trying to work, I’m desperately clinging to any activity that gives me a sense of normalcy, schedule, and sanity. On the few nights its been warm enough to walk, family treks up the street have helped, but nothing works better than a nice long run from the house. I’m lucky to live near a state forest with miles of trails, of which I’ve explored roughly 25 in the last few weeks.

A few times a week, I head out the door and run up the street into the forest, eyes peeled for the bears. One time I turned a corner and came face to face with a medium sized bear who promptly took off. It’s also the exact same stretch of woods where a hiker was killed a few years back, though he was trying to take a selfie with a mama bear. On almost every day, I see a flock of 30ish turkeys instead. On most runs, I don’t run into more than a handful of hikers across the entire forest.

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This weekend though, in the midst of a statewide order to stay home and shut down non-essential businesses thanks to the rapid increase in cases of the CORVID-19 virus, it seemed like everyone had the idea to go out for a walk in the forest. On the stretch of track that connects my street to the first trail of the park, little more than a beaten down deer path with no markers or blazes, I encountered five groups hiking. Several of them contained more than four people together. Around the lake and down by the damn, usually the most popular spot to stop, people were lined up nearly shoulder to shoulder taking in the view. I’m not sure this is social distancing.

It does admittedly drive me a bit crazy to see groups of people mixing together in this time when everyone is supposed to be making sacrifices for the common good. We haven’t seen another sole in person in over two weeks and have had to conduct numerous Facetime chats with friends and family. We’ve had the kids home from daycare with no help from anyone in an attempt to minimize the potential spread of the virus. Yet there are large groups of people clearly flouting this in front of us. It’s the prisoners’ dilemma right in front of our noses.

Still, I don’t plan on ceasing my running through this. With weekdays filled with a carefully coordinated symphony of meetings between my wife and me and trying to hold any semblance of meaningful interaction and quality time with our boys rather than just sitting them in front of the tv all day while we work, running has been my only outlet. I even set up a Strava group for my team at work to help motivate each other.

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The virus and lockdowns tried to take it away from me. I was supposed to run a 50k trail race, my first at the distance and first real trail race except for the half I did without realizing it was on trails. It was still planed to occur up until this week since there were to be fewer than 250 participants. However, the latest recommendation prevented it from happening in good conscience, so it’s been postponed until September. This means that all of the miles of training and the hours I spent away from home on weekends could be completely wasted.

Instead, I plan to run the race virtually still by tackling the distance on the ridiculous mountain trails here. It might take me 12 hours, but I’m going to go for it still. I also have until May to ramp up training again, so I need something to keep the motivation levels up. I also can’t let all the times I tripped over unseen rocks and roots, the broken watch, bloodied knees, and torn shorts go to waste. Now that I’ve explored most of the forest (actually it keeps going up into New York and technically connects to the Appalachian Trail so I have a bit further to explore), I know all the trails I do not want to attempt to run on. I should be able to map out a route that mixes some technical bits with more reasonable paths, though I never seem to learn my lesson to look at the altitude changes, so probably won’t.

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Through the last four months of running outside and on the trails far more often than I ever had in the past, especially through the winter, I discovered how great running in nature can be. I’ve discovered viewpoints I never knew existed, found parts of towns I visited like Nashville and Austin I never would have otherwise, and found miles of trail just around the corned from my house I hadn’t seen in a decade of living here. I found an abandoned camping retreat that’s interesting in the daylight and probably terrifying at night. I watched a massive new cell tower go up in the forest (boo!) almost day by day until it towered so high it can be seen from my house (also boo). I pointed a handful of lost hikers in the right direction and discovered for myself how easy it is to lose a trail while running and staring down at the rocks at your feet. I discovered how it’s never the big rocks, but the tiniest pebbles that trip you up and that wearing gloves and zipping pockets holding phones are essential.

As the self isolation continues into more weeks and potentially months, people will need outlets like running and hiking. I’m going to keep running because it’s my meditation and therapy. It’s my time to think to myself and reflect – two activities that are near impossible with two toddlers at home. These four hour long trail runs also give me plenty of time to blast through audiobooks which I can pay full attention – or at least the attention left after focusing on not tripping – which isn’t otherwise possible in my day. I never thought I would miss my hour-plus commute on the bus each way every day, but I do miss the time I had to myself and to get through things I wanted to, like reading, writing, or watching Netflix. My consumption has gone way done during this, but thanks to running, my book reading rate has increased.

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However, if I keep encountering as many large groups on the trails, especially the ones who don’t move over, forcing me to get within a couple of feet, I might have to change up my routine. I’m not going to put myself, my family, or others at risk for it. Luckily there are plenty of miles of untouched trails, though they do see to always involve literally scrambling up the side of a mountain. There’s also always the town around me where no one ever seems to walk, but who knows now. This is the healthiest and most active I’ve ever seen this town, and though I don’t love the crowded sidewalks, I do like seeing people actually out and about unlike the ghost town of activity it usually is.

You’ll find me out on the trails.

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