It may seem so easy to discount the impact of 2020 and COVID-19 on running, considering how many lives have been dramatically impacted. However, the world has gotten to the point where everything overlaps. It seems like we can no longer shield running from other aspects of the world.

How could we, considering that runners have lost their lives and livelihood to COVID? Even more, races have been canceled or have gone virtual and the recession caused by the pandemic made it even more difficult to reach individuals who would otherwise fall in love with the sport.

It is all a part of what the business of running and the running community has faced and, at times, benefitted from in a pandemic year.

A Prescription for Self-Care

For Anna Patil of Brooklyn, New York, running became the prescription for self-care. Prior to 2020, she was not a runner at all, though she was a certified personal trainer. Her story is one of running through a pandemic.

“Early in the pandemic stuck at home in Brooklyn trying to work and manage two little kids, no car, nowhere to go I started to just feel this urge to run. I wanted to get out in the world, move fast, feel free and get at least a little farther away from home than I could walk.” 

“I found a used jogging stroller on OfferUp and began to take my 18-month-old for runs in the park after dropping off the bigger kid at his outdoor playtime,” she explains, adding that she’s trying Couch to 5K again and so far she’s enjoying it.

“I’m running about twice a week now, very slowly and not very far, but still doing it and pretty proud of that.”

Patil’s opinion of the sport has changed so much, and though she finds it to be difficult, she is convinced of its chance to be a saving grace for a pandemic community.

“I still find running really hard, but I’m craving the challenge, the change of pace and honestly just the feeling of getting sweaty and physically exhausted. It’s cathartic. I actually wake up looking forward to the run, which I never thought I’d say.”

Runners of Color

The catharsis Patil feels on runs juxtaposes the harsh reality faced by runners of color, who run for many of the same reasons. And sometimes they run with the added burden of existing in a society where people who look like them may be met with suspicion in their own communities, or even killed, like Ahmaud Arbery.

This reality is not lost on Houston-based runner and journalist Emilia Benton. As if being benched by an injury in early 2020 weren’t enough, she had to face the notion that she had to keep politics out of running. As a woman of color, she’d like to discover a more supportive and inclusive space for others of color, especially seeing how many did not rally around Ahmaud Arbery as they did others who were murdered while out on a run.

She tells Running Insight, “It’s definitely been eye-opening, especially on a local level. Most of the social justice-related articles I’ve written have received mostly positive feedback on a national level, but living in a red state it’s gotten me to see that many people do view all of this as ‘too political.’”

Organizations and individuals that she’s trained with have actually distanced themselves from her because of the work she’s done. This has been frustrating and challenging to her beliefs that more work needs to be done.

“I want to get more involved and show up for my community and it’s hard when those in charge seem to want to just ‘check a box’ with a vague DEI statement and aren’t open to feedback from people of color about how they could improve and work to make the running scene truly more inclusive,” she adds.

The upside is that she has become acquainted with new individuals and more opportunities. “Through the writing I’ve done, I’ve gotten to connect with a lot of runners of color across the country who are doing great things and inspiring to me,” she says. “As a woman of color myself, sharing diverse stories that might otherwise not be told is something I’m really passionate about.”

The conversations that she’s having are essential, considering the barriers that keep running from being as diverse as it could be. One survey found that running marathons can cost between $1000 and well over $5000 between gear, fees and travel costs. This could shut out low-income groups, families with strained resources or even Black or Brown people. However, they do have a presence and many are running in predominantly white spaces. That is why Benton believes that amplification of their experiences both good and bad are important growth opportunities for the running community. 

“Share their stories. Did you read an article or listen to a podcast with a lesser-known runner who has a story you think people should know about? Send it to your friends or family. Promote it publicly. It might feel like overkill, but stories from minorities are still not receiving anywhere near the same amount of promotion and attention as White runners generally do.”

Running For Hope

Patrick Rodio of New Jersey has been equally shocked by how the events of 2020 and 2021 have forced him to look at his running community differently. While social media has helped him to meet everyone that he’s run with, it’s also been a tool of division.

“If it wasn’t for social media, I likely wouldn’t even know some of the sometimes wild thoughts of some of the runners I’m out there with. While the socials bring us together, it often does a great job of driving us apart. The election season was certainly a debacle for many of us, regardless of who we voted for, just from the natural divisive nature of social media rage.”

(He likens it to road rage, only some are banging their keyboards instead of their car horns.)

COVID-19 was another cause of debate. Do we run together anymore? Can we? Should we? Are we getting virus-soaked droplets on each other? Did we before? Are we running in masks? Or without masks but 17-feet apart?

“Regardless of studies or any other possibility of droplets hanging in the air, we kept running. By ourselves at first, running our neighborhoods and empty trails, but as it turned out, we really needed each other.”

He explains that nothing matches the camaraderie of a group run. “It gets you out the door, keeps us accountable. Hell, the social aspect gets most of us out the door on any given day to get that run in.”

Rodio has taken up many missions since the start of the pandemic, which has enabled people with varying opinions to work together, even with no races in sight. Last year, he ran 20 miles to raise funds for the local seniors in Collingswood to pay for their yearbooks. This year, he ran 21 miles for the class of 2021. Those friends, regardless of ill feelings held through the year, will join him on his race route and they’ve been donating to other important causes.

Rodio has seen how remarkable the community can be when differences are put aside for the sake of creating equity for others.

Reason For Optimism

Whether at the individual level or collectively, running in the last year has been a cathartic adventure. Being a part of the sport has been a means of healing and gathering despite differences in beliefs.

This past year has proven that while there is always room for growth, the running community can be stronger than anything that can divide us whether that is a pandemic, social distancing or social injustice.


Tonya Russell can be reached at [email protected]