My pandemic epiphany: running a half marathon alone was incredible

I often feel choked up walking to the start line of a race. It feels silly to be overcome by emotion, but it’s beautiful to be part of a large group of people doing the same simple activity. I usually love running because it is solitary, for me at least – I don’t run with a buddy or a running club. But race days are special.

When lockdowns first began in New York in March and everyone started to cancel – well, everything – the fate of the NYRR Brooklyn Half Marathon, which I usually run each year, seemed up in the air. As it increasingly became evident there would be no treatment or vaccine for months or years, it was obvious the race would need to be called off. It would have been the 40th running of the Brooklyn Half, which claims to be the largest half in the US. Usually close to 30,000 people run the route each May, from Prospect Park to the Coney Island boardwalk.

I felt sad about it, but also guilty for feeling sad. I know I am fortunate to still have a job which can be done from home, and to like the people I’m in lockdown with (my husband, Will, and 20-month-old son, Marvin).

So I decided to run a half marathon alone. But it wasn’t really on my own. Forty-four people were there with me, in my ears at least. In lieu of an in-person cheering squad, Will organized a spreadsheet of five-minute windows for friends and family to call me while I ran.

Soaked with rain and nearing the ‘finish line’ on my street in Brooklyn. Photograph: Caitlin Curran/The Guardian

The day of the race, rain was forecast – which in these times is a positive, because it means fewer people to maintain distance from on the sidewalks. The streets weren’t totally empty, but empty enough that I could pull down my face mask for a breath of fresh air during several stretches.

The logistics were tricky – answering a phone call every five minutes via Bluetooth while keeping a decent pace in the rain wasn’t easy. My fingers became slippery – once I rudely hung up on a friend by accident and scrambled to call back before his allotted time was up.

Several people spoke without stopping, as though leaving me a live voice message, insisting that I not waste my breath by responding. Others played me songs to keep up my stamina – I was serenaded with Robyn, Gang of Four and 90s-era Jock Jams staples. My parents walked in solidarity while on the call, others were in a different time zone and still in bed. I gave a lot of live weather reports – not raining now, a few drops coming down, now it’s a heavy downpour!

Two very creative friends booked two time slots so that they could perform impossibly bad dialogue from a scene in Showgirls (“I used to love doggie chow, too!”), and I laughed so much I drew confused looks from the few people I passed on the wide running path by the water.

My pace was slower than usual, but I didn’t mind – the distance was my goal, which felt more possible as the time flew by in five-minute bursts of conversation. The hardest part was ending conversations when I wanted to keep talking.

The Verrazzano Bridge on 23 May 2020.

The Verrazzano Bridge on 23 May 2020. Photograph: Caitlin Curran/The Guardian

At the end of the Brooklyn half, thousands of runners are forced to funnel onto a slim wooden ramp that leads to the boardwalk in Coney Island. It’s joyously chaotic. The finish line is a crowded assemblage of sweaty runners, boardwalk eateries, volunteers handing out water, and bystanders. It’s staggering to even picture such a scene in these times.

Meanwhile during my solo half, as I approached the New York Harbor, the rain held off for a moment while a spectral fog made the Verrazzano Bridge barely visible. It was quietly striking – a moment to absorb the solitude before my phone rang again.

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