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Running in a Pandemic

August 9, 2020
By: 
Julie Cairnie
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies
University of Guelph

What does it mean to run in a pandemic? A few short months ago, members of my running club might have joked about the popular Zombies, Run! app . Zombie movies often depict disparate people joining forces to fight human contagion, yet these battles underscore deep social and racial rifts. While there seems to be something unifying and equalizing about the Covid-19 pandemic ( #wereallinthistogether , Madonna’s bathtub soliloquy ), any answer to my opening question should highlight the inequalities and divergences that mark experiences of the pandemic. In other words, who cares about running when people are getting sick and dying, losing their jobs, and risking their health to buy groceries? And while white runners might despair that they are maligned on social media for indulging in an activity that accents their privilege and puts others’ lives in peril, for Black people simply going out for a run on a pleasant Sunday afternoon poses a health risk, before and during Covid ( “Running While Black”, Ahmaud Arbery ). To further complicate my question, social media platforms have been flooded with mawkish videos of lockdown athletes completing marathons on their balconies or in their backyards. Running bodies produce a range of responses -- heartwarming, indulgent, threatening, dangerous – and these responses have deep roots in colonial sport history.

It is a mistake to dismiss sport as simply recreation and entertainment. In Sport and Postcolonialism , Bale and Cronin argue that colonial regimes across the globe used sport to govern and control, to quiet dissent. It is well understood that sport was instrumental to colonial control of recalcitrant populations and bodies. There was emphasis throughout the colonial world on sport regimes: gymnastic displays at residential schools in Canada, as well as the use of hockey to foment nationalism (see Forsyth and Giles, Aboriginal Peoples and Sport in Canada ; Wagamese, Indian Horse); and track and field events in British-controlled Africa (Bale and Sang). The sports field was a metaphor of empire (Bale and Sang 85), and the track and stopwatch were measures to ensure compliance (98-9). Sport was segregated, and there were limitations placed on girls and women’s participation. Such demarcations are evident in hockey’s overwhelming whiteness and the language of race hygiene that still informs conversations about race and running. An understanding of the political and social contexts of sport helps us to navigate the contemporary world, and these contexts provide a framework for what it might mean to move our bodies, to run in a pandemic. And what stands out immediately is that while surveillance and the control of bodies is a broad characteristic, there is no one way of running or even seeing running in a pandemic.

There is evident division between competitive running, which is often viewed as the domain of Black athletes (“the black man’s athletic stamina,” Bale and Sang 53), and recreational running, which has associations with whiteness, enterprise, and discipline (see Dyer, White ; Hoberman, Mortal Engines ). In a variety of ways we are all participating in or are subject to panoptic surveillance, but with vastly different consequences. While it might be thrilling to watch an elite Black athlete racing on a track, it can be unsettling for white spectators to see a Black man running for fitness in a white neighbourhood. This latter scenario is distinct from the professional runners who were arrested in Iten, Kenya for not complying with social distancing regulations; they posed no threat to white safety. In France and the UK runners under lockdown were restricted to distance and time-of-day parameters, and there were fines and public admonishment if these were violated. There have also been heart-warming stories on social media of creative runners competing marathons on their balconies and in their backyards . But vitriol was evident on social media, as many responded to a non-peer reviewed Dutch study that suggested runners and cyclists produce an airstream that may infect others. While runners, and running is a mostly white activity , worry about the ways in which a face mask might impede breathing and thus performance, black people have been sharing their fears about the consequences of wearing face masks . There are clear differences between running in a pandemic.

Similar to running, stories and literature might be deemed less urgent than science and scientific research in the midst of a pandemic. But sport and art are helping countless people cope with uncertainty and stress, and attentive ‘reading’ provides us with insight into the divergent experiences of running in a pandemic. There is a stunning passage from the Ojibwa writer Richard Wagamese’s last book, Starlight , which presents running as recovery and reconciliation. In it, Frank Starlight, an Indigenous man, teaches Emmy, a white woman he is sheltering from her abuser, to run because “runnin’ was breathin’ in the breath of all things” (165). He teaches her to run and to narrate the experience: “I feel the world movin’ through me more’n I feel me movin’ through the world” (167). My Oneida running coach emerged from poverty and a legacy of colonial violence to attend an engineering programme at the University of Toronto and became an accomplished athlete despite being blind in his left eye. A simplistic reading would cast him as a success story, the ways in which colonized people can overcome “the past,” and this is a common neo-liberal running narrative. I first sought out his help for my son, as I was desperate to find ways to obviate the difficulties of sensory issues, gross and fine motor challenges, and amblyopia in his left eye, all a result of severe prematurity. Sure, there is a focus on running, but there is no pressure to perform; instead, their relationship is characterized by mutual respect despite their different political orientations (our coach a fiscal conservative, my son an anarchist). They have conversations about reconciliation, pipelines, good relations – and “good arms!” As Frank Starlight and our coach teach, running has the potential to heal our personal and shared wounds, but, to quote Robert Frost, we have “miles to go” .