Most afternoons, I go for a run in my neighborhood. I usually run before I’ve had lunch, sometimes after; it depends. I am not a serious runner. My running shoes are bottom-tier Nikes, my clothes a thrifty composite of Target shorts, Walmart socks, and Old Navy “Go Dry” outerwear. I do not run with others, have only once run a 5K, as part of a holiday cruise that was just enough of a taste of communal running to tide me over for years. I do not run “intervals.” I do not wear AirPods. Despite my doctor’s caution, I rarely warm up with stretches. When asked by a neighbor far more serious about running and with far superior footwear whether I might be “heel-striking,” I pretended to know what he was talking about, and admitted, with genuine shame, that I probably was.
Every day, I begin at the same corner. A three-way intersection with a pavement marking—“STOP”—that neatly doubles as my starting line. The distance around the block—I think of it as a loop, the way my path must look from above—is eight-tenths of a mile. I’ve measured. My daily goal: to run the loop five times, or four miles. That’s the distance I want. Each time I pass the intersection, I add one to the count. Usually, since not many people are around when I run, I raise my hand and signal the count with my fingers. “Three!” I’ll say, and hold up three fingers—this for the benefit of a parked car or an empty trash can or a sprinkler rainbowing a lawn, the grass glistening in its wake.
Some days I count two or three loops without seeing anyone else running. Other days I can make it until the last loop before spotting another runner. It’s rare that I complete my run without seeing at least one, but it has happened on several occasions. That it was never something I gave much thought to indicates how strange it is, these past few months, to see so many people out running, so many that it would now be impossible for me to complete one loop, let alone half a loop, without seeing at least two or three. The neighborhood became, almost in an instant, a community of runners, out circling the loop.
We keep our distance, this tribe. Unwritten rules, never before in play, have been adopted, accepted, and mastered, even. For example, if I spot another runner in the distance, it is my job to ascertain, well in advance of the runner’s approach, whether the person is on my side of the road. If yes, I must turn my head to check the mostly non-existent traffic (another byproduct of the pandemic: fewer cars driving the loop) and then cross, unless the approaching runner has already done the same and is now running safely on the opposite side. A new phenomenon in the world: the moment of physical comedy when two socially conscious runners cross at the same time and must then defer to each other to work out who will cross back to the opposite side, each with a wave that seems to say, Sorry! I didn’t realize you planned to cross, too!
The distancing rules vary in complexity. If another runner approaches on the same side, but is with another runner, it is understood that I must yield right-of-way. Master touch: give an apologetic wave while crossing the street, as if to say, I am sorry I considered for a moment that you two might cross to the opposite side when you are in fact two runners, whereas I am strictly a solo act. However, if another solo runner approaches, and—strangely, this happens all the time now—a third runner appears on the opposite side, prohibiting me from crossing, it is now my option (responsibility?) to move to the center of the street so that all three of us can pass each other while still maintaining at least six feet of distance. Appropriate acknowledgment for executing a successful three-way pass is a subtle nod, sans “thanks” or “hello” to reduce the minimal risk of outdoor aerosol transmission.
Yesterday I did something I’ve never done while running the loop: I stood in a neighbor’s yard—a yard I’ve passed several hundred times in years of running—and waited for another runner to go by. The situation: a landscaping truck was parked on one side of the road, blocking my passage, while, on the opposite side, a runner and her children (the children were on bikes) had stopped to talk to a neighbor out raking. As I approached, my mind weighed the possibilities for distancing if I were to attempt to run alongside the landscaping truck, but the task was complicated by the children on their bikes, who, bored with the dull grown-up talk between their mother and the neighbor, began idly pedaling in circles. I ran close enough, I thought, that the other runner would see me and instruct her children to move to the side. But she only gave a glance and went back to her conversation. So I gave up. The grass had been mowed recently. Blades stuck to my shoes. After a solid minute and a half, I folded my arms, which even as I did it felt a bit theatrical. Then it was two minutes. Two and a half. The other runner regarded me from time to time, but she did not tell her children to move.
Once she finally waved goodbye to the neighbor, I could begin my run again too, but instead, I waited until the woman and her children had passed into the distance. It was as if their leaving had freed me from my attitude. What was I hoping to prove by crossing my arms and making a show of my displeasure? The sun sent mottled light through the leaves. I stretched a little. They deserved space to forget about the runner who’d wanted them to respect his distance, when they were only trying to narrow theirs.
Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press, forthcoming 2019), as well as four story collections: Everyone Was There (Elixir Press, 2017), winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award; Think of Me and I’ll Know (Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books, 2013); Out Loud (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and This Day in History (University of Iowa Press, 2005), winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the College of Charleston (in Charleston, South Carolina), where he serves as fiction editor of Crazyhorse. (updated 7/2019)