An Ode to the Morning Run During Gym Closures

How an early morning run gets me through the day.

This morning, before the sun rose, I woke up as we all do now, disgruntled and gassy, but before checking my phone for the latest distressing news, I threw on my stanky old hoodie, pulled on some shoes and went out to run.

As always, I had to overcome initial resistance and force myself to leave the house, go out into the cold, and move my tired legs. But once that was over and the run began, I was briefly lost in the repetition and effort, and I almost forgot that this would be the only time I’d leave the house today.

This new routine was far different than it was just a few weeks ago, when I had work in Milwaukee, an hour’s commute each way, and would devote a half hour at my local gym.

Right around the time this global pandemic started to pick up steam, I hit that gym for my usual super sweaty saliva-slinging workout sesh.

Amongst the musclebound chalk-flingers, neon treadmill marathoners and elderly locker room men who are far too comfortable with nudity, I commenced my usual routine – 20 sets of diphthong razor blasts – but I quickly found myself distracted. The puddles of sweat underneath the squat racks didn’t seem quite as acceptable as they had a week earlier. Everything started freaking me out – dozens of chapped hands rubbing each dumbbell, a lady hacking phlegm on the elliptical, that guy offering free bare-handed muscle massages by the glute-thrust machines (although to be fair, I always felt a little weird about that guy).

I got out of there fast, washed my hands, took a shower, washed my hands again, and decided that maybe my time at the gym was coming to an end for now. Per usual, I was right. About a week later, my gym was shut down.

Working out has been a real important thing for me. Not because I’m a great athlete (if you went to high school with me and watched me “play football,” you know that is not the case). Or because I’m into healthy living (if you lived with me in college and watched me eat cold soup out of a can with a side of boiled hot dogs, you know that is not the case). Or even because I want to look good (if you’ve ever spotted a young pale man on the street and wondered why anyone would wear pants like that, you know that is not the case).

It’s because I need the daily discipline, distraction and accomplishment to keep my life on track.

I started working out in college – first with some cardio so I could outrun my enemies. After that, I took up weightlifting so I could lift my enemies. No matter how bad things were going, I could still pick up a real heavy piece of metal or run around an empty field for an hour, which for me made that day worthwhile.

Now that we’ve all had to abandon that world of sweaty benches, sleeveless T-shirts and spit-spewing, somewhat-sexual grunting, I’ve been left workout free. After a few scummy days spent watching television and eating beef jerky, I felt the cooped-up and exhausted abandon that comes with doing nothing. With no gym to attend and no fancy-pants Pelotons or whatever rich people workout at home with, I went back to the original workout from the first paragraph of this column – the savanna-crossing trek that felled many an elk in our ancestors’ time – the long-distance run.

It’s been pretty great. A simple, quiet bright spot in these long dreary weeks.

Running gives you the same sense of accomplishment as any other workout, if not more since it requires you to push yourself constantly for minutes on end. The repeated discipline brings a certain level of order to an otherwise unorderly world. When you wake up early, you enter a slightly different world – one not yet populated by awfulness. Surrounded by sleep, you’re free to run your troubles into the ground in the wide-open outdoors, before the reality of our situation comes around in the noonday sun to smack you down.

With your arms pumping, sweat dripping, and legs aching, you’re briefly in another world where all that matters is getting to the end of this mile and then the next and then the next.

Nearing the end of my run this morning, I pushed forward in an exhausted endorphin rush, satisfied with the work I had done. Turning the corner onto my block, I saw someone down the street. I had almost forgot what was happening around us, until she stepped off the curb, and walked along the gutter in order to socially distance herself from me. We smiled at each other as we passed, in quiet acknowledgment of this constant oppressive worry forcing us apart.

With that, my run was over, as was my escape from the day, but I was still satisfied that in the midst of this, there were still things to accomplish and mile times to chase.

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