Running from your problems

I’m a big fan of running, to the point where one of my labmates described me as being known among her friends as “a running and cider fiend”. I’ve written before about my lab’s crazy adventure in running across New Hampshire together and about using running as a form of stress relief, but I never expected my hobby to become such a crucial part of my life as it has over the last few weeks. Going outside to get some exercise is now one of the few justifiable reasons for leaving the house, and I’m extremely thankful for the release it provides.

Usually, running is a social activity for me. I was first motivated to become a consistent runner by hanging out with a running club that I joined. Although I thought that running itself was terrible, the people seemed fun, and I wanted to come back each week to get to know them better. However, after a group run on March 10th and a tiny 3-person meetup on March 12th, both of my weekly running clubs went on a hiatus of indeterminate length. One of the things I’ve missed the most during this period of social distancing is the group of runners who I usually see every week, rain or shine, when we meet up to run loops around Cambridge or Somerville and then grab a drink or some fries together. This week, we tried setting up a Zoom so that we could each run separately and then still meet up to chat afterwards. It was wonderful to see so many familiar faces after 3 weeks of running alone.

Assorted happy runners as we finally got to catch up over Zoom!
What did we even do before Zoom? Oh right, go outside??

The other way that I stay motivated to run is by signing up for races as goals to work towards. Last summer, I was very excited to qualify for my first Boston Marathon, which now feels like a hometown race (I’ve been living in the city for the last 5 years). I began my training cycle for the race in the depths of chilly January; the thought of running that famous course with thousands of other runners kept me going through all the winter weather that New England could throw at me. As the COVID-19 situation worsened in early March, rumours of cancellation or postponement began to swirl, while I tried to hope that somehow things would get better in time for April 20th. Unfortunately it was not to be. On March 12th, the exact day that I decided to buy myself the fancy Boston finisher jacket as a distraction from wondering what was going to happen, I got home to find out that the race had been pushed back to September 14th. For a few days, I sulked and stayed inside. But then, I remembered how much running calms me, put my shoes on and got back out there.

Although I still maintain that running is an excellent form of stress relief, there are some days where it’s simultaneously become a source of stress. As social distancing has become more stringent, sunny days have become less welcome, as I know that throngs of people will head out to make the most of each warm day. Thankfully, most people are spatially aware enough to leave 6 feet for me to conveniently veer around them on the path. But there are also plenty of families who like to meander along Memorial Drive side-by-side, forcing me to choose my moment to duck onto the road in order to leave an appropriate distance between us. In some cases, it’s become easier to run along city blocks — which are free of traffic for the first time in memory — rather than trying to take scenic bike paths or riverside trails, which are now filled with pedestrians.

The silver lining to all of this is that more of my friends have taken up running than ever before. Both of my housemates have been running in order to take study breaks outside the house, my labmates have asked for tips on good local routes, and we discuss the finer points of socially-distanced exercise with our lab director each week during our Zoom check-in. Although it’s difficult to run alone and be away from my friends right now, I’m enjoying seeing new runners each time I get out on the streets of Cambridge. I hope that they’re finding a helpful source of calm during these crazy weeks, and maybe some of them will even discover the same love of running that I’ve found during grad school.

This story was originally posted on the MIT Grad Admissions blog.