I have never been the runner who simply laces up their sneakers, pops in their headphones, and zips out the door. I’m the runner who laces up some smart sneakers, pairs their wireless earbuds, opens up a running app, straps on a chest strap heart rate monitor, starts a workout on one smartwatch, quickly starts another on a second smartwatch, and then zips out the door. And when it’s over, I’m the self-quantifying nerd who reviews every bit of collected data to see how it compares across devices and, more importantly, against my past self.
Whenever I’d return home in the Before Times, my partner would ask, “How was your run?” My answer would always be in numbers. How many miles I ran, what my fastest splits and average pace were. My definition of a “good” run was a narrow one: I had to run faster or farther than my last attempt. It irked me if I wasn’t improving. And running a slower time or shorter distance? That felt like abject failure.
I’ll admit, this is a brutal, competitive approach to an activity that is essentially done for fun—but it delivered results. In just a year, I cut three minutes off my average pace. By the end of February, I was demolishing my personal bests left and right. Dear reader, I felt invincible. And then, of course, the global pandemic happened.
Running in the age of social distancing is tricky. In the first few weeks of stay-at-home orders, outdoor running was chaotic. In my neighborhood, foot traffic at the local park became more congested as green spaces stood in for shuttered gyms and fitness studios. There were the newbies in their jeans and slip-on Vans, sprinting down narrow paths with nary an “on your left.” There were the walkers, who had no idea what six feet of distance looked like or how to leave space for runners to pass. And there was everyone else, more defensive than ever over personal space in the densest city in the country.
These constant spatial calculations transformed running from a cathartic release to a source of anxiety—and all my apps and gadgets only exacerbated the problem. My step counts plummeted as working from home became the norm. So did my running and walking pace. Apple’s Activity app, which used to encourage me, adopted the concerned tone of a middle school counselor. “Overall, you’re doing well, but lately your running pace is slowing down,” it told me, practically glaring over a pair of reading glasses. “Increase your speed to keep your arrow up.”
It turns out the block-walking and subway-hopping of a New York commute does a lot for your overall fitness. To make up for the loss, I started packing more runs, walks, and at-home cardio into my schedule. It couldn’t stop the decline. The numbers showed I was objectively slower and less fit than I was just a few weeks before.
The more I tried to close the Activity Rings on my Apple Watch, the more my body seemed to rebel. I started hitting the dreaded “wall” faster and faster. I’ve never had knee problems while running, but suddenly they started feeling achy after a measly mile and a half. My right foot would go numb after thirty minutes, a problem I haven’t had since I first started seriously running years ago. One day in April, I looked up and realized that just two months earlier, I’d been able to run for an hour no problem. Now, I was gasping for air after twenty minutes—and I was on average two minutes slower at that.
Soon after, I came home following a particularly sub-par run and cried. If that sounds stupid to you, don’t worry, I felt dumb in the moment, too. While I told friends, family, and coworkers that I was dutifully racking up miles, to me it seemed like months of hard work had been lost for reasons entirely out of my control. If all my progress could just disappear, what was the point of trying so hard?
Faced with my quantified failures, the depression hit. I stopped lacing up regularly, logging just one or maybe two runs in a two-week period. Without my stress reliever of choice, I broke out my emergency potato chips, vaped, and drank at least one cocktail too many. I cried on the phone with my therapist. I pulled myself together long enough to blog and do my job, but the days were blurring together.
I dabbled with mindful meditation. It didn’t stick. I made an asshole of myself playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I whipped up dalgona coffee, baked cakes, re-grew scallions on my window sill—you name it, I tried it. Nothing replaced that washed-clean, emptied-out feeling that running gave me. As I lay catatonic on my bed after a long day in late April, my partner poked me in the foot and nudged me to go run.
“You don’t have to do it well,” he said. “Do it to feel better.”
I’ve always envied my partner’s running prowess. He’s a longtime runner with long legs, clocking a stupid-fast 7’30” pace over absurd distances. The kind of guy who sold his Apple Watch because, to him, all the tracking I do “seems like hell on Earth.” My partner doesn’t obsessively check his pace or heart rate mid-run. Sometimes, he even stops to take a picture or switch up his music.
Still, it seemed possible he was onto something. I took his advice, running a dismal two miles and run-walking a third. This time, I didn’t look at my metrics afterward. I felt better, the invisible critics in my head blissfully silent for once.
The next time I ran, I left the chest strap at home. The time after that, I left my comparison smartwatch in a drawer. I was still logging my runs on my Apple Watch and in my running app—at this point, it’s muscle memory—but I forced myself to stop looking at my Activity Rings, VO2 Max scores, and stat breakdowns. I turned off the voice-guided running coach that told me whether my cadence was appropriate for my target pace. I quit the training program I was in the middle of.
Sure enough, my anxiety decreased, but all those metrics also left a void. Without the endless numbers to fret over, my brain finally had time to think about other things during my runs. I noticed my running playlist was not only outdated, but no longer served its purpose. Before all this, even my music was a form of measurement. I’d listen to the same songs in the same order and use that as a marker. By the time I hit Pier 25, I’d have to be at least midway through Kanye West’s Power or I was lagging behind.
I added new artists and hit shuffle, and it surprised me how that small change took my mind off the lady flipping me the bird for pulling down my mask in a secluded area. Suddenly, I started noticing the city. The rollerblader with Jesus hair who always skates half-naked even if it’s raining. The security guard who occasionally hands out masks to people chilling on the lawn. The skyline of Manhattan during magic hour. It occurred to me that these were things I never cared to see before because I was preoccupied with chasing a better split.
I also finally gave myself permission to take walking breaks—a thing I used to berate myself over before social distancing. Ironically, telling myself I could quit gave me the fuel to run an extra five, 10, even 15 minutes.
It’s been a few weeks since I stopped obsessing over my numbers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am improving. Recently, I managed to run a full 45 minutes without stopping down the West Side Highway—something I haven’t managed since late February. My pace was far from my best, but shockingly, I don’t care much about that. Most importantly, I am enjoying myself in a way I haven’t since lockdown began.
2020 was supposed to be the year I ran four races: two 5Ks and two 10Ks. It was all part of a meticulous plan to work my way up to a half marathon by the end of 2021. I only managed one of these planned races before covid-19 struck, and maybe I’ve been chasing those lost finish lines ever since.
The thing is, finish lines are arbitrary. Since New York issued stay-at-home orders, I have run roughly 102 miles, which is well over the combined 18.6 miles those four races would’ve added up to. It doesn’t really matter how fast I ran them. Weathering the stresses of a global pandemic isn’t about breaking personal records. There is no trackable metric to quantify how well you survive a crisis. I will not outrun the coronavirus—or my anxiety.
I can endure though. I can, as that one Ariana Grande song on my playlist goes, keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’. I can alter my running routes and buy neck gaiters to alleviate the stress of exercising outdoors while still being respectful to others. I can be satisfied with the mere act of showing up, even if I don’t feel up to it.
Out of habit, my partner still asks me how my runs are. I’ve stopped answering in numbers. The fitness trackers would tell me they all suck compared to before, but I have found a way to keep going. “I feel better,” I tell him.