The United States of Running

How a Year Without In-Person Races Is Changing Runners’ Relationships With the Sport

Kells McPhillips

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Photo: Getty Images/Leo Patrizi

I never could have predicted I’d miss the experience of peeing in a porta-potty before a 10K—then came 2020. The Olympics have been postponed until summer 2021, the 2020 New York and Boston marathons won’t happen this year, and everyday runners who normally rely on the 5K, half-marathon, or 26.2 race day circled on their calendars for motivation have been forced to tap into new wellsprings of inspiration. When Strava asked 25,000 people what fueled their runs back in January 2020, 41 percent named the “goal-setting” that comes with tackling mileage as their main reason to lace up. So the question is, in 2020 when race bibs, water stations, and post-race bagels are but a distant dream, how are runners staying motivated?

It’s a question that Jay Ell Alexander, founder of mileage community Black Girls Run, has spoken about extensively with her 200,000-member strong running crew that lives (and runs) everywhere from Albany, New York to Seattle, Washington. Alexander’s groups operate primarily through Facebook, and when I ask her what’s keeping everyone dedicated to their mileage during a time that’s unprecedented both within and beyond the sport, she has one answer: routine.

“I think that consistency and commitment is what’s motivating a lot of our members right now—especially for the women who were running pre-pandemic,” says Alexander. Specifically, she says that run streaks (in which you lace up and take on at least a mile a day—every single day) have grown increasingly popular as the months wear on. “We’re also seeing a lot of steps challenges asking you to get in your 10,000 steps a day. Also a lot of water and mileage challenges‚ like: ‘I want to plan to do at least 20 miles this week,'” adds Alexander. One member in of her group just hit 1,000 days of running… in a row. Talk about motivation.

“Progress today is mainly starting and finishing my distance.” —A Well+Good reader

When Well+Good asked the Instagram community what was fueling their miles right now, we found a similar theme of people forging ahead with their own goals, despite the lack of formality that races provide. “Progress today is mainly starting and finishing my distance,” says one Instagram user. “How great I feel at the end [of a run],” writes another. Then there are the people for whom quarantine provided the motivation to start running in the first place. “I started to run in the pandemic,” writes one such user. “I wish I had a race to train for because I’m getting pretty good.” The comments roll on, as do the miles.

Reading the Well+Good followers’ responses, I’m reminded of something Headspace founder and Well+Good Changemaker Andi Puddicombe says in one of the guided audio runs he co-coaches with Nike Running Global Head Coach Chris Bennett for the Nike Run Club App. On a 45-minute run called “A Whole Run,” Puddicombe says something along the lines of: “Motivation is always there, we just lose sight of it sometimes.” He goes onto explain that there are moments when we feel more or less connected to that feeling—but it’s as everpresent as our feet or our running shoes. Even in a pandemic, even without races, it thrives.

I think about this as I tighten my sneakers on what feels like day 1,000 of summer 2020. It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning and it’s already hot, hot, hot. Occasionally, there’s a breeze and I tell myself to take every one that comes my way as a motivation reminder. Oh, yes! It’s there. It’s right there. Not every run is perfect. Not every run feels motivated. But isn’t the very fact that we seek a reason to run… reason enough to run? I’m not sure yet—but I’ve got miles ahead to figure it out.

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