Friday, May 15, 2020

Running Through the Outbreak: Joggers Lose the Social Connections of Major Races, Weekly Gatherings

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2020 at 2:51 PM

click to enlarge A group of runners start the TMC MeetMeDowntown 5K in 2018. The race, part of the Gabe Zimmerman Triple Crown organized by Run Tucson, will be run virtually this year. - COURTESY GOATOGRAPHER/KERRY WHELAN
  • Courtesy goatOGRAPHER/Kerry Whelan
  • A group of runners start the TMC MeetMeDowntown 5K in 2018. The race, part of the Gabe Zimmerman Triple Crown organized by Run Tucson, will be run virtually this year.

Although Gov. Doug Ducey has allowed gyms to reopen this week, runners who enjoy the social aspect of group activities will likely have to wait longer before they see an opportunity to join an organized pack.

While it hasn’t been hard to see runners jogging solo or in pairs through Arizona’s stay-at-home order, there are many eager to see social distancing protocols ease so they can get back to participating in activities that can help motivate and make running “social” again.

“It’s important to have those ‘accountability buddies’ so we can maintain our motivation,” says Dr. Amy Athey, executive director of Student Wellness and Retention at University of Arizona and former UA Dept. of Athletics Associate Athletics Director for Psychological Services and Wellness. “These are challenging times when our routines are disrupted, so this an opportunity to look for other connections.”

In lieu of face-to-face gatherings, Athey suggests utilizing virtual platforms—such as Strava or MapMyRun—to mimic “being there.”

“One of the challenges of social distancing is how can we keep [our] connections going?” she posits. “We need to be creative and flexible.”

Athey has been virtually exercising with a friend via phone apps. Afterwards, they connect by phone or video to talk about their experiences and otherwise catch up.

Another strategy she advocates is keeping things in perspective and managing expectations. If running isn’t a viable option, go for a walk or ride a bicycle. The important thing, Athey says, is to get out and exercise and maintain connections with the outside world.

“I’m encouraging people to say, ‘OK, that’s what I did today; I didn’t run today, but I did walk.’ The important thing to remember is that we will get through this,” she says. “It won’t be forever.”


Connecting socially with friends is an important aspect to the sport of running, despite its individualistic nature as an activity. To that end, there are several local organizations devoted to supporting the running community. Throughout the months of March and April, those organizations have shut down face-to-face events.

The first was Himmel Parkrun, a volunteer group that puts on a weekly, timed 5K (3.2 mile) run every Saturday at the park on North Tucson Boulevard south of Speedway Boulevard.
Parkrun is a global organization begun in 2004 in Teddington, UK, providing free events in 22 countries around the world, acting as a motivational tool for thousands of runners.

Himmel Parkrun organizers decided early on to suspend its weekly events, announcing the shutdown the first week of March.

“It was a health intervention,” founder and organizer David Armet says. “It’s about physical health, emotional health and community health. It's far more important to live another day.”

Parkrun International soon followed suit, announcing suspension of events worldwide, and on April 21 a posting on the Parkrun website confirmed there would be no events at least through the end of May.

Armet describes Parkrun as an egalitarian event open to runners of all abilities regardless of socio-economic status.

“Why do we do this? We’re not getting paid and are all volunteers,” he says. “It’s an organic outgrowth of a neighborhood event.”

Born and raised in Tucson, Armet began Himmel Parkrun in 2018 after returning to Tucson from London, where Parkrun originated. So far, the group has hosted 71 events for more than 600 runners.

Armet hopes when the COVID-19 pandemic ends and Tucson gets back to some semblance of “normal”—a decision that will be made in consultation with the global organization once local stay-at-home orders have been eased—Parkrun can expand to other, under-served parts of the city.

“We try to make this as inclusive as possible. Our event is free, so you’re not spending $25 to participate,” Armet says. “When you sign up for several runs a year it can cost a lot of money. We try to keep our costs as close to zero as possible.”

Even though many of the social restrictions have been lifted, it is still important to follow the rules of social distancing, but also to look out for personal safety.

Local running guru Randy Accetta, founder of Run Tucson and director of coaching education for the Road Runners Club of America, laid out safety guidelines for runners posted at runtucson.net.
Stressing the natural optimism of most runners, Accetta concedes that optimism and motivation might be in short supply during this stressful time. His advice runs the gamut from following CDC and social distancing guidelines to how to maintain motivation to the financial hardships organizers are going to face as a result of several months of event cancellations.

Run Tucson itself will be hit hard, as its series the Gabe Zimmerman Triple Crown (named in honor of Gabrielle Gifford’s director of community outreach killed in the January 2011 shooting), has gone virtual for its signature event TMC Meet Me Downtown Night Run, scheduled for June 6.

“Our ‘TMC Meet Me Downtown Virtual Experience’ is going strong—over 500 registrants with room for more,” Accetta says. “We're doing social media challenges and running-community Zoom sessions on a regular basis.”

He adds that Run Tucson is also still raising funds for a broad range of charities, including the BEYOND-Tucson Foundation, TMC health care employees, TUSD's Educational Enrichment Foundation, among others.

Outside of virtual or canceled events, Accetta stresses safety on the trails and roads, as well as practicing good trail etiquette for fellow users. Runners should also think about hydrating as the temperatures begin to spike in the desert.

“First, know your surroundings,” Accetta says. “I know people don’t want to hear it, but don’t wear headphones.”

In addition to being able to hear approaching trail users and wildlife, not using headphones allows you to follow your own thoughts wherever they might wander during exercise.

“For me, a powerful part of running—and walking and hiking for that matter—is the freedom to let my mind wander,” Accetta says. “I'd rather think my own thoughts and let my own creativity flourish than be forced into someone else's creativity.”

Another key piece of personal safety is to tell someone where you’re going or leave a note, email or text with a friend or loved one. Online tracking apps, like Strava, can be helpful.

The importance of those points was reinforced early in the morning of April 19, when a woman was accosted on the east side of town while out on a run. She was able to get away from the would-be attacker, but it was a stark lesson in personal safety for the running community.

Becky Grant, training programs coordinator for Fleet Feet Sports, Tucson emphasized the importance of personal safety, particularly during the crisis.

“Whenever I go out, I let my husband know where I’m going,” she says. “I share my location with him, carry pepper spray and take my phone. I’m also really careful when I pass someone and let them know I’m there.”

Fleet Feet acts as the anchor for many running communities throughout the U.S., so the Coronavirus crisis has hit their customer base hard. The two Pima County locations continue to motivate members through virtual training programs and limited store hours that have been expanded in recent days.

The stores are offering curbside pickup and free shipping and shopping by appointment only. Regular store hours through May 31 are from 12-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 12-5 p.m. on Sunday.

“We’re all disappointed we can’t run together,” Grant says. “Running is the best thing you can do for your health at this time. People are staying motivated using Strava and Facebook and we have virtual Zoom meetings on Wednesdays…. We’re getting kudos and a lot of positive comments.”

Grant too, has seen a huge influx of people on the trails and reminds users to wear masks and observe social distancing protocols. She is hopeful that soon there will be groups of runners and events in which to participate.

“Once the whole thing blows over, run with a group,” Grant concludes. “It helps with personal accountability and running is a way to surround yourself with like-minded people.”

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