Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Peter Koll’s life was in a good place. The restaurant he helped start, St. Anselm in Northeast, had been open for a little more than a year. His schedule had fallen into a comfortable rhythm both at work and at home. He could even find time to exercise.

“Everything just felt like it was clicking the right way,” Koll says.

The timing appeared ideal for a new challenge. Last October, Koll, who’s 33, decided to sign up for his first marathon: the Rock ’n’ Roll Washington D.C. Marathon on March 28, 2020. He trained for months by himself, getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning for long runs that stretched between 16 to 20 miles. On Sundays, Koll would often go for a run before showing up for a double shift at the restaurant.

But on March 15, two weeks before the race, organizers canceled the marathon. The novel coronavirus sweeping through the world meant that sporting events, including road races, would come to a halt. 

“I had just spent the last 20 weeks or so running for this race,” Koll says. “It was just one more thing. It’s hard to get too upset about it, because so many things are going on right now that are impacting way more than running a race, but you still have that little twang of, this sucks, this was something I was really looking forward to.”

Five days later, Koll lost his job when the restaurant group he works for as a general manager decided to close St. Anselm. Koll gave himself a few days to digest his new reality. But in those moments of uncertainty, one thing felt clear.

On March 28, he would be running a marathon.

***

The mandates arrived one after another. On Monday, the governors of both Maryland and Virginia issued formal stay-at-home orders to prevent people from gathering and spreading the coronavirus. Shortly after, Mayor Muriel Bowser did the same in D.C., making it illegal for people to leave their residences except for “essential activities” until at least April 24.

In Virginia, the order will last until June 10 at the earliest, while Maryland’s order will continue indefinitely. 

Fortunately for many people, some outdoor activities are still allowed. And increasingly, local residents have taken to running outside as a way to break up the monotony of their days. It’s one of the few things that have given people some control over their lives during an unpredictable time.

“A running boom is taking off,” writes Talya Minsberg in the New York Times. Running USA, a not-for-profit organization promoting long distance running in the United States, predicts that this running boom “could be the biggest the world has ever seen.”

In France, a man ran the length of a marathon (26.2 miles) on his 23-foot long balcony in 6 hours and 48 minutes. Another runner in China ran 31 miles around his living room while on lockdown in February. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has touted the benefits of running outdoors during the pandemic, as long as people are following the proper precautions.

“It’s not only safe,” Fauci, a long distance runner, told Yahoo earlier this month. “It’s healthy.”

Ryan Musser, a 33-year-old Hill East resident, doesn’t own a pair of running shoes. Running isn’t really his thing. Musser typically bikes to work for exercise and doesn’t get home in time to join his wife on a run. 

But for the past few weeks, Musser has been borrowing his wife’s old purple-and-neon green ASICS Gel-Nimbus 15 shoes before heading out on the roads. Running gives him a reprieve from his work day and a reason to leave their English basement apartment.

“I kind of get anxious or stressed with work, just feeling there’s so much on my plate I need to do. And I can kind of feel like my body is responding to that anxiousness,” Musser says. “At the end of the day, it allows me to burn off that stress or anxiety and so for the rest of the evening, I kind of feel like a little bit more relaxed.”

Thirty five miles away in Olney, Jacqueline Hyman has experienced a similar turnabout. She “really hated” running for most of her life, even during her college and graduate school years at the University of Maryland where she would run on the treadmill or outside with a roommate for exercise.

Now that Hyman, 23, can’t do much else in terms of physical activity, her mindset has changed.

“It’s a treat, whereas running would feel like a chore before,” she says. “It’s a treat because I get to go outside, be physically active, be out in the sun, and feel the wind blowing.”

***

Few places exist in the D.C. area that Arlington resident and professional ultra runner Michael Wardian hasn’t run. His prolific career has taken him to nearly every corner of the city. Just two weeks ago, Wardian ran all the D.C. streets named after U.S. states.

But with the running boom, it’s getting tougher for him to find a place to run where he can maintain the six feet of physical distance from other pedestrians that health care experts recommend. Parks and trails have become a popular destination for not just runners, but walkers, cyclists, and families.

“I’ve never seen as many people on the trails that I frequent than I have in the last week and half,” Wardian says. “Even my secret trails, like the Potomac Heritage Trail, it was like rush hour. It was insane.”

The wave of people outside has forced runners to change their behaviors or alter their usual routes. The National Arboretum, a popular place for visitors to see cherry trees and for runners, is now closed to the public. In France, exercise is limited to a two kilometer (approximately 1.2 miles) radius from people’s homes.

Some health care professionals have implored runners not to exercise in groups. Even running with a non-cohabiting partner can be potentially risky.

“I would stick to solo runs,” says Kasia Baca, a local runner and a senior epidemiologist at Health Research and Analysis, LLC in Bethesda. “If you want to put yourself in the safest position, you want to keep social distancing recommendations—that gets a little more difficult if you’re not doing a solo run.”

Baca also recommends running during non-peak hours, like early or late morning, and finding new routes. That may also present challenges, but for some runners, the shift in routine and cancelation of races can be oddly liberating.

Aspen Hill resident Kristen Serafin, 31, doesn’t remember the last time she didn’t have a race around the corner. She had been training for the Boston Marathon, which has been rescheduled from April 20 to Sept. 14.

“I think for me, the rest of this training block is about trying the workouts and not worrying about ramifications of failure,” she says. “When’s the last time when you didn’t hit a workout or didn’t do a long run, that it didn’t matter? That’s so freeing … The end point is gone now.”

Wardian is using this time to come up with creative ways to get in his miles. The 45-year-old was registered to run in the Catalina Island Marathon on March 14, the Sri Lanka ultra marathon stage race from March 20 to 27, the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in D.C. on April 5, the Boston Marathon on April 20, and the London Marathon on April 26. Boston and London have rescheduled their races for the fall, while the rest have been canceled.

Without the pressure of racing, he wants to run for his friends in other countries that are on lockdown. On March 26, Wardian, with encouragement from his wife, Jennifer, decided to run a solo marathon on the flat block around his house. It took about 65 laps and 2 hours, 33 minutes, and 31 seconds to finish.

Wardian says that nearly 60 people came out to their front yards to watch him run. And when road races return, Wardian says he has a premonition that a lot of runners will have “breakthrough runs” after the pandemic is over. 

“Just because people will be able to refocus and prioritize and when we do get out there, push each other to higher levels,” he says. “At least, that’s what I’m hoping.”

***

Koll left his condo in Adams Morgan on March 28 at around 5:30 a.m. under a downpour of rain.

He headed toward the C&O Canal, and for the first 10 miles, he didn’t see a single person. He watched the sunrise on the towpath, and only the sounds of birds chirping in the trees broke the meditative silence. “It was very peaceful,” Koll says.

Around mile 22, he hit the wall. His clothes were soaked and his muddy shoes felt like 10-pound weights. Koll didn’t know if he would be able to finish in his predicted time of three and a half hours. He thought about his wife, Gina Holman, and how she might be concerned if he didn’t show up on time.

Koll kept moving. 

Just after 9 a.m., he reached the Key Bridge Boathouse in Georgetown. Koll had run 26.2 miles in 3 hours, 36 minutes, and 15 seconds. His wife and parents were there to greet the marathon runner.

“I’m sure I will remember all of it,” Koll says. “I think the feeling of just appreciation for the support of my wife and parents. When I saw them standing out in the rain waiting for me, that’s definitely a feeling that doesn’t leave you.”

As he walked toward them, Koll’s father tossed him a small plastic bag. Inside was a finisher’s medal from the 2017 Rock ’n’ Roll Washington D.C. Half Marathon. The “1/2” in front of the word “Marathon” was crossed out.