“I’ve realized I don’t enjoy running hard right now—I have no desire to run fast,” says Aliphine Tuliamuk, whose first-place victory at February’s Olympic Marathon Trials earned her a spot on Team USA in the now postponed Tokyo Olympic Games. The 31-year-old posted a finishing time of 2:27:23 at the trials, which breaks down to a mind-boggling average pace of just under 5:38 per mile throughout the 26.2-mile race. “Why would I want to break my body down when I don’t even have a race anytime soon?” she recently pondered aloud while on the phone with Vogue from her home near Santa Fe. “I’m beginning to realize that’s just not me. It gives me a lot of respect for people who just run to stay fit and don’t schedule any races.”
Of course, for the foreseeable future, recreational runners and pros alike have had their race schedules cleared. Tuliamuk, who was slated to compete at her first Olympics this summer, is among the millions turning to sidewalks, streets, trails, and rural green space to run for fitness. Amid widespread stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, recreational excursions have been limited for many to socially distanced outdoor exercise. Running has a relatively low buy-in—a single pair of running shoes can withstand between 300 to 700 miles of pounding the pavement. That, combined with a simplicity that transcends Zoom scheduling conflicts and the confines of apartments, has united the sport’s newcomers and seasoned nonprofessionals with its elite athletes and their coaches. Virtual races, in which runners cover the race distance on their own from wherever they are, have emerged as a valuable performance benchmark and a fun pastime for runners of all abilities in the age of social distancing. Spring road races that have been canceled because of COVID-19, like the Brooklyn Half, have embraced the virtual format too.
“For our veterans and our newer runners alike, it’s a motivation roller coaster because a lot of our days are looking the same, but not every day’s motivation is the same,” says Steve Finley, a Nike Run Club coach and head coach of the Brooklyn Track Club who trains around 600 runners total. Finley has recently channeled his efforts into coaching runners remotely for the upcoming virtual Brooklyn Mile race—a favorite of runners who fall within a wide range of experience levels thanks to its approachable one-mile distance. While developing the training plans, he focused his approach by asking, “How do we educate this group of people—that want so badly to learn about their bodies and to have confidence and find motivation—without necessarily having that physical contact of being at practice?”
Those running within the five boroughs of New York City face the added challenge of navigating the increasingly crowded public parks and promenades while trying to maintain social distancing protocols in the heart of the country’s COVID-19 epicenter. “A lot of people that I coach have started to shift to off-times of the day,” says Finley, who abandoned running in New York’s parks and tracks for late-night runs in the deserted streets of his neighborhood in Brooklyn. “You want to be as far away from people, both for the health reasons and for mental health reasons, just to have that space away from others.” Joe Holder, a Nike Master Trainer and a perennial go-to trainer of the fashion set, agrees: “When it gets a little nicer outside, people revert back to what they know, so that’s when either the West Side and East Side highways, or even Central Park, will be crowded. I’ve definitely gone off the beaten path and found empty stairwells, streets, and alleys. It is possible to run in New York City right now, even at relatively sane hours, and not be around anybody.”
But what about the professional runners, whose very careers depend on their execution of precise, regimented workouts? “It’s been completely turned upside down in a training aspect,” Allyson Felix, the most decorated track-and-field Olympian in history, recently told Vogue over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. Felix would have been gearing up for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials to compete for a spot on Team USA, which she has represented at every Olympic Games since 2004. With the tracks closed and team practices suspended, the 34-year-old sprinter has gone from spending hours at a time in close quarters with her coach and fellow runners on the track to, like everyone, getting creative in how and where she runs these days.
“I’ve been doing some running in my neighborhood, just by measuring out distances right in front of my house to do some sprints, some hill work, and drills,” she says. “I’ve also been on isolated trails, and I’ve been on empty baseball and soccer fields.”
Felix and her peers are all trying to make the best of sudden changes in training plans that have been years in the making. “I feel a bit of sadness at times,” she says. “Especially right now, when we would have been getting really close to the Olympic trials and all those big moments. But I think it’s quickly put into perspective just by what is happening in the world and by everyone experiencing such enormous loss, whether it’s loss of life or jobs or just the normalcy of every day.”
Dina Asher-Smith, Britain’s fastest sprinter, expressed a similar sentiment from her flat in London. “I was a bit sad because we’ve worked really, really hard for this,” the 24-year-old said. “We have tailored our bodies and our lives very much to peak in 2020. As time went on, though, it became clear to us athletes that the idea of hosting this sporting event where loads of people traveled from all around the world and athletes are in really close proximity—it just became more and more unfeasible.”
With the Olympics postponed, these athletes have found ways to overcome the limitations of physical distancing by engaging with their fans and the world around them virtually. Last week, Felix went on Instagram Live with California senator Kamala Harris to discuss the crises of black maternal health and pay inequity in America. Tuliamuk has funneled her free time into her Etsy shop, Allie Resiliency Hats, and spends hours at a time crocheting for fans and their children. Finley has managed to respond to the deluge of new runners eager for training tips and advice by building virtual communities through challenges and personalized training plans on Nike’s free Run Club app. Similarly, on Instagram, Asher-Smith has competed in Nike’s Living Room Cup series of workout challenges led by professional athletes in other disciplines, inviting her fans and followers to join in for a bit of movement to break up their days.
Of course, the sport and its races have long been a vehicle for inciting meaningful change. In 1967, 20-year-old Katherine Switzer famously became the first woman to complete the Boston marathon—and that was after being assaulted by the race manager, who attacked her on the course in the race’s first few miles. Today, some of the sport’s biggest races (and therefore those hardest to gain entry to), like the New York City and Big Sur marathons, have adopted a guaranteed-entry policy for runners who agree to fundraise several thousands of dollars for charity partners that fund research for such conditions as autism, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and ALS. Youth running clubs like Los Angeles’s Students Run L.A. and Philadelphia’s Girls on the Run rely on legions of adult volunteers to coach and mentor city children in after-school programs. And on May 8, several hundred thousand runners across the country used #IRunWithMaud on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to log 2.23-mile runs in commemoration of what would have been the 26th birthday of Ahmaud Arbery.
Despite their different backgrounds and geographic locations, every athlete and coach who spoke to Vogue for this story agreed on one thing: Now is the time for runners of all abilities to consider pulling back on intensity, or even mileage, to better reap the sport’s mental and physical benefits. “It’s important to remember just how you feel after you run,” says Tuliamuk. “Even for me, as a professional athlete, I still struggle with getting out the door. The hardest part of running is dressing up and getting out the door. If you can manage to do that, it’s all good.” And, as more public health authorities issue directives to wear masks while in public, it’s particularly important to ease the expectations runners (new and experienced) set for themselves. “If you’re going to a public place where you are able to socially distance but there are still people around, it’s probably in your best interest to wear a mask,” said Holder, who has worn a face covering—usually a bandana or a T-shirt tucked into his shirt collar—for each of his runs in New York City during the past six weeks. “You realize that your pace and your exertion won’t match what you’re used to because you’re not able to get air in as easily, and it’s covering both your nose and your mouth.”
“You don’t have to go out and run your personal best every single time,” agreed Asher-Smith. “Just go out there and run for fun and run for you.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue