A few weeks ago, I came back from a run when my mom, graciously watching my children, asked " How was your run?"
I bit my lip. Paused. Then mustered the courage to sheepishly admit, "I ran on the Riverwalk."
My mom, who has accompanied me on my journey as a runner for the last 30+ years, took her own pause. She's used to me coming back telling her I ran on the trails of the forest preserve, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by meadows, gravel paths and wild turkeys, lucky enough to pass just one runner along the way. I can't help it. Running has always been my escape from the world, off of the beaten path, deep into my own mind.
But on this particular Saturday, seven months into the pandemic, plotting my route out for the run, I found myself filled with a different feeling.
I needed humans.
Early in the pandemic, I remember the trails exploding in people: families, dog walkers, adults who clearly had dug out their rusty bike after 30 years of slumber in the garage.
At first I felt warmed by watching others discover the awesomeness of trails. Finally, they see!
As the weeks went by, the trails got more and more congested. Groups walking, riding, talking across the trail. Dogs on long leashes. Riding became a frustrating exercise in on your left! (No, that left, your other left, oh just stand there and stay out of my way already!).
I found myself running deeper into the woods, seeking out single track to once again get away, thinking to myself would everyone just get off of the trails!?
Fast forward to a few months later. I spend most of my time behind a computer "connecting" with the world. I hear the sound of 20+ children coming from my daughter's remote learning laptop, every single day. Despite these connections and signs of life, I found myself often feeling lonely. Empty. Despite texts, emails, liking photos on Facebook, it wasn't enough. There was a longing. I started to wonder, maybe I need people?
At a time when we were encouraged to stay far away from people, I wanted closeness. I wanted to interact with real people. Even at the grocery store, a place where in my mind I previously begged to be left alone as the cashier tried to engage. Her: So what's your favorite recipes for these beets? Me: I just want you to check my groceries, I don't want a relationship.
Turns out without those small, what seemed like insignificant interactions, I started realized their significance. How our ability to authentically connect was indeed quite meaningful. How we need the full spectrum of relationships: family, neighbor, community, stranger and beyond.
So on that Saturday, I ran on the Riverwalk. A short but beautiful path in our downtown area, winding along the DuPage River. Early on a crisp Saturday morning it was bustling with walkers and runners. Bustling with humans.
Normally preferring to do one long out and back, I ran loops: up and down, around, back and forth over bridges. I was filled with the desire to stop and talk to each person I passed: are you ok? Are we ok? Instead, I enjoyed vigorously saying hello and smiling at each human. I felt more energized than I had in weeks.
Back at home, when I admitted this to my mom, I felt almost shameful. In a world where I often prefer to be alone, nestled into the comfort of introversion, proud of my independence, I wanted to cross every boundary. I wanted to feel a bigger connection to all of the people.
Since then, I've committed to spending more time with real humans outside of my family. It's important. I need it. We all do. I've taken walks with a neighborhood friend. I've scheduled "live" meetings with my athletes. I've tried to show the world that I'm still here and I care that you're still here too.
The other day, I returned to the trails. It was a cold, damp morning and the trails were empty again. As I got deeper in the trail, I found myself juxtaposed against enjoying the solitude and longing to see another human. On that day, I enjoyed it. I felt a sense of owning the trails, embracing the gift all to myself.
But I committed to my next run on the Riverwalk. To remind myself we're all in this together and still need to connect: human to human.
Read more Seven Months into the Pandemic essays.