I noticed the buildup immediately after Governor Cooper issued the stay at home order March 27. Greenway trails I frequent were suddenly replete with cyclists, walkers, and runners. Seeing folks getting exercise the first weekend of the shutdown wasn’t too surprising. We had warm sunny weather and exercise was one of the few legit reasons people could leave their homes. But crowds persisted during a cold snap the next week. I saw more people than I could count-especially runners-on a gloomy low 50’s kind of day when I normally would have the trail to myself.
As North Carolina has gradually begun to reopen, greenway use appears to have dropped off a bit, especially among casual walkers. But the increase in runners looks to be holding. Even during the very wet days of last week I saw 5, 6, or one day 7 other runners sloshing through the emergent puddles produced by five inches of rain.
This is not just a Raleigh phenomenon. On the west side of the Triangle, Rick Strunk, who fashioned a career in media relations before retiring in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, keeps count of feet (walkers and runners) and wheels (cyclists). One day Strunk registered 62 walkers and runners during a 30 minute period. He has seen as many as 37 cyclists in that span of time. On the rainy days of May 19-21 the bike riders stayed in but Strunk reports seeing six other runners during his wet weather jaunt. He estimates the number of runners at 4-5 times higher than before the pandemic. During a recent Strunk family weekend trip to visit grandchildren in Charlotte, Rick took a road run in the Queen City. Again he saw far more runners than during his previous workouts there.
Running specialty stores have noticed the uptick as well. Jacob Dagger, Director of Retail Sales and Marketing at Fleet Feet in Raleigh, says they are seeing excitement from people who have never run before, as well as runners who want to get back on the road after taking a few years off, or even decades off.
Fleet Feet reopened March 8 by appointment only. For the first two weeks appointments at all three store locations in the Triangle were booked four days in advance. With the transition to Phase II of the governor’s plan to reopen the state, Fleet Feet is now seeing some walk-in customers but appointments are still booked one to two days in advance. And so, instead of May being a slow month as anticipated, Dagger says the store has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly business has come back. And the interest is not centered exclusively on buying shoes and apparel. Fleet Feet launched a virtual training program last week that includes running challenges, video chats and seminars with local running experts, and a running-themed book club. More than 150 people signed up.
The original running boom
I first joined the movement during my radio days in 1974. A UNC pharmacy student named Marshall Edwards came calling at WCHL and persuaded us to sponsor a road race in Chapel Hill. I wanted to call it the “WCHL Hill Run.” Our GM said no, “We’re calling it the ‘Bob Holliday Cross Country Challenge.” Training began, and thank goodness, as I was at least 25 pounds overweight. My children would later describe photos of me taken in that era as “the fat daddy pictures.”
Marshall was an accomplished distance runner, and he often worked out with me, slowing his pace to give me positive feedback. Which I needed! I decided my first goal in the inaugural BHCCC was simply to finish the race. My second goal was to beat somebody. I accomplished the first goal. It wasn’t until 1975, the second year of the event that I was actually able to finish in front of a couple of runners.
Interest in our race mushroomed, as it did with the Great Raleigh Road Race, which started in 1973 on the other side of the Triangle. The whole country enjoyed a running boom from 1975-1980. Track meets were often shown on TV in that era, even in non-Olympic years, as America celebrated great distance runners like Bill Rogers, Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, and UNC’s Tony Waldrop. When Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman fashioned a new, light running shoe using a mold created from his waffle iron, his friend Phil Knight launched the Nike Waffle Trainer. The shoes sold like hot cakes – I know I wound up buying several pair – and the sales from that shoe helped begin Nike’s own remarkable journey, while at the same time giving runners a new reason to log more mileage. A man named Jim Fixx published a running how to book “The Complete Book of Running.” Fixx, an overweight, two pack a day smoker with a hereditary heart condition, made lifestyle changes and inspired others to take up running as he did. When President Jimmy Carter took time away from his White House duties to take part in a 10K road race in Maryland near Camp David, the running boom had reached a crescendo.
And then it leveled off. The decade of the ’80s presented people with new and more diverse choices in how to keep fit; aerobics for example, became quite popular, and ESPN ran workout programs that folks could take part in from the comfort of their living rooms. Fitness gyms also took off.
Serious runners kept at it, of course. Marathons and road races continued to attract large numbers of participants. The 1988 Great Raleigh Road Race, broadcast by WRAL-TV, packed several thousand runners into downtown Raleigh. My friend Tom Suiter and Rusty Buchanan called the race, which was won easily by former UNC All-American Ralph King. I gave Tom and Rusty a pre-race report on conditions-it was 56 degrees and windy-then jumped into the field of runners to help chase Ralph King down Hillsborough Street. I finished in the middle of the pack but ran a respectable sub 46 minute 10K. My personal best at this distance was 42 minutes in 1979, two years before I left WCHL for television in Raleigh. It took time and training, including speed and interval work, to achieve even these modest times, considering what poor shape I was in when I first began running. Alas, I was not able to maintain that regimen.
But I was able to continue a program of long slow distance. Beginning in 1990, I actually increased my mileage, setting a new goal of running 1000 miles over the course of a year. TV Sports kept me busy, but I would usually squeeze in runs around my neighborhood before or after work, plus I always took my shoes with me on sports road trips. So I ran at least 1000 miles every year during the 90’s and began keeping a running journal to help document this journey. So many benefits accrued!
1. Weight control: I was getting older and my metabolism was slowing down. But the extra mileage enabled me to keep my weight between 200-210 pounds without dieting.
2. Improved health: A study in Runner’s World Magazine shows running can prevent not just obesity, but heart disease, type 2 Diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, even some cancers. There is an old saying “running is my doctor.” I truly believe that. I do, of course, have an actual doctor. She, too, is a runner.
3. Strengthen muscles, knees, and joints: If done correctly with good shoes, warm up, and proper biomechanics, running can make a positive difference here, even with knees. Yes, knees and joints take something of a pounding during a long run, but that is more than offset by much improved circulation, getting extra oxygen to all body parts. David Felson, a researcher at Boston University said in a recent interview on NPR “We know from long term studies running doesn’t cause much damage to the knees.” Physical benefits are only half the story.
Mental Health Benefits
1. Hormone release: I have always heard runners receive an endorphin release during and after their workout. In fact, this exercise generates a rush of several feel good hormones called endocannabinoids. Studies have shown that running helps alleviate anxiety, and even depression. There is a thing called “a runner’s high.” It is real.
2. Brain health: Running improves brain health by stimulating the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that encourages survival and growth of neurons in the brain. Running affords protection against the brain plaques linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimers. Side note: I’ve always found running helps me write. Frequently in my career, thoughts, concepts, and phrasing, which popped into my head during a run, have made their way into a story or column.
3. Self-esteem: Running is not easy. There are times we want to stop and walk. There are some days we don’t even want to start. But the discipline of putting one foot in front of the other and finishing the workout is extremely satisfying. Effort produces results. As Oprah Winfrey said in 1994 after she trained for and finished a marathon, “Life is like a marathon. If you can finish a marathon, you can do anything you want.”
I learned more about the benefits of running the hard way when I suffered an Achilles injury in May 2001 and had to do without. MRI showed that I did not tear my tendon, so no surgery was needed. But I developed painful tendonitis that was probably heading to tendonosis without help. It took me several months to find a physical therapist that knew how to treat my condition. What a difference she made! I began wearing orthotics under her direction. But by this time my calves had begun to atrophy, so they as well as my Achilles needed a great deal of work before I could even walk around my neighborhood. Finally in October, five months after the injury, I was cleared to walk for exercise. This improved my mental outlook a great deal; also I rode an exercise bike. But for me, the benefits of walking and stationary cycling, though significant, were not nearly the same as running. I gained 20 pounds. My clothes barely fit. I cannot put into words how much I missed running. In early 2002 the very gradual transition to running unfolded, with the instruction that I was to ice my Achilles after every workout. I thanked the Almighty and my incredible PT with every step.
In 2005, just after the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, I began having wear and tear issues with my other Achilles tendon. My PT recommended a change to softer orthotics. This along with a full summer of walking brought me to the brink of recovery. But in the fall, just as I was about to be cleared to run again, I suffered a major setback, when I literally slipped mowing the steep hill of my front yard. The diagnosis: Paratenonitis. I had to wear a boot for three months. That meant no walking, at least for exercise, and of course no running. I rode the exercise bike feverishly; it was the one thing I could do without the boot. However, my weight ballooned to 240 pounds. And all of those benefits of running listed above? I missed them in ways that defy description. To keep my spirits up I listened to CD’s that inspired me while I rode on the stationary bike 20-40 miles each evening.
One night I rode while watching a movie, “What Women Want.” Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson star in this film as creative people at an ad agency working on a commercial for a women’s running shoe. The copy for this spot just tore me up:
She likes to run alone. No pressure no stress.
This is the one place she can be herself. Look anyway she wants, dress, think anyway she wants.
No game playing. No rules.
Helen Hunt as Darcy McGuire “What Women Want”
Gender aside, this moment in the movie reminded me in a very personal way of the role running plays in my life and how deeply I was missing it. No way I could continue riding after that. I spent the remainder of the night on the couch wallowing in self pity.
Finally the boot came off. I made my return to running on the flat sidewalks of Athens Drive. The first few hundred yards were terrifying. Between the added weight and the loss of eight months of cardiovascular conditioning, I struggled mightily. Think I ran just a mile that day—and things did get better—but I vowed then never to get hurt again.
I now do quite a few things to stay injury free. I change shoes every 120-150 miles. I run in maximum daylight so I can see where I’m going—as you get older, a stumble is scary and a fall could be catastrophic. I run flat surfaces most days, hills only once or twice a week. A few years ago I added weekly massage therapy to my monthly PT maintenance appointments. My wonderful massage therapist recommended that I start taking hot baths with Epsom salts. Almost every run now begins with a hot bath, followed by 45 minutes of foam rolling, stretching, and strength exercises. Post-run, I now ice for 30-60 minutes, making sure both Achilles, knees, and hips get attention. I have had a couple of setbacks: a strained piriformis one September and a strain to my biceps femoris (lateral hamstring) a couple of winters ago. However, for four of the last five years I have been able to run 1000 miles, and am on track to do so again in 2020. My weight is back down to 210 pounds or so. I run much more slowly than I did when I ran 1000 miles per year in the 90’s. But I’m still out there!
My increased mileage comes courtesy of the City of Raleigh Greenway Trails. I discovered the greenways in 2014 and quickly saw the advantages: Asphalt, shade, scenery, and safety. My favorite trail is the Crabtree Creek Trail, which is fairly flat, another plus. When you tally the benefits-asphalt, which is kinder to knees than concrete; shade, which helps keep you cooler in summer; nature, which is much more pleasant to look at than traffic; then factor in the absence of cars and motorized vehicles-the greenways are superior. I believe four miles on one of the Raleigh trails takes less out of me than three miles around the hilly sidewalks in my neighborhood.
The Crabtree Creek Trail extends more than 14 miles from Lindsay Drive west of Crabtree Valley Mall to Anderson Point Park east of the city, where it joins the Neuse River Trail. One problem. Many sections of the Crabtree Trail are closed due to flood damage from Hurricane Florence and the interminable but very important Crabtree Sewer Pipeline Project. Hopefully by sometime in 2021 the full trail will be open again.
I personally find it challenging mentally to run the same exact route more than once per week. With all the closures I can fashion four separate routes in the Crabtree Trail’s open sections between Lindsay Drive and Capital Boulevard. For the other days that means running a more hilly route, such as Shelley Lake and the nearby Ironwood Trail, which I really like, or the Reedy Creek Trail from the North Carolina Museum of Art across the bridge over the beltline to Meredith. I have to admit, those trails, though enjoyable are more difficult physically.
I always take one day a week off, sometimes two. I run in all weather except ice, heavy rain, and thunderstorms.
10 All-Time Best Runs
Going back to 1974 I’ve run in some pretty fabulous places. Here in no particular order are ten all-time favorites.
1. Hyde Park, London. It was 34 degrees and I’m bundled up. Will never forget seeing this Norseman with long hair running past me shirtless and barefoot wearing nothing but short shorts.
2. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. Stared at beautiful Diamond Head the entire run.
3. Montreal. I love the architecture, especially in the old city.
4. Coastal Maine. Exhilarating in June whether sunny and 80 or blustery and 45.
5. West Point, NY. Running down from the grounds at the US Military Academy to the Hudson River, so wide and beautiful there, is something I never shall forget.
6. New Orleans. French Quarter and Garden District are special.
7. Indianapolis. During the Final Four there is no better place to feel the excitement of fans on Saturday. All the hotels are located near the arena.
8. San Antonio. See Indianapolis – plus it has the Riverwalk.
9. Pinehurst #2. Ran the entire course the night before the ’99 U.S. Open. Amazing!
10. Outer Banks. I used to run in the sand. Now I have to run on the road. Love the views and the breezes!
Please let me add to this list: I want to include every single run during this pandemic.
Lifestyle changes required by the outbreak of the coronavirus have been difficult for all of us. The isolation, the job losses, the inability to enjoy many forms of entertainment, the precautions required when shopping or seeking essential services, the relentless flow of Covid 19 updates in the media—all of these are part of this pandemic and yet together they exact a toll on one’s psyche. Running provides some relief from all this.
While running, for all or part of an hour, to paraphrase Darcy McGuire in “What Women Want” you can run alone. No pressure. No stress. You can be yourself.
But now of course there is one rule. You must social distance from the other runners, walkers, and cyclists that you see. Run safely and feel the cardiovascular benefits of the workout. Run safely and appreciate the endorphin release that comes during and after every trek.
A voice from the past
My old friend Marshall Edwards, the guy who got me to start running so many years ago, called me out of the blue one night in April. We hadn’t spoken since 1976. Marshall suffered devastating injuries when he was hit by a drunk driver in the 90’s, yet he has recovered well enough to run a 23 minute 5K. I told him I would be fortunate to finish within ten minutes of him.
I can’t help but think of this phone call in a more cosmic sense, however. What are the odds my old friend would contact me after being away for 44 years during the worst pandemic of our lifetimes? As my mother likes to say, sometimes there are no coincidences.
I am so grateful for Marshall’s phone call. It gave me a chance to thank him from the bottom of my heart for the gift he gave me in 1974. I don’t know where I would be without Marshall Edwards. I don’t know how well I would endure this pandemic if not for running.