By Jeff Paladina
I’ve been at this a while now – both running and life. There have now been three events in my life that shocked and froze the world. For the first two of those events, the world stopped, but runners didn’t. We held onto the sport that we love to provide a routine and release at a time when everything around us was upside down. The crisis before us may be the toughest challenge of all. But we are runners, we don’t live in our fears – we live in our dreams. We don’t run just for fun – we run to live. Running isn’t over until we say it is over.
The first time in my life when the world around me stopped turning was September 11, 2001. I was a prosecutor at the Beaver County District Attorney’s Office, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had just left the courtroom after a preliminary hearing in a sexual assault case, when our victim-services director told me that planes crashed in the world trade center, and that President Bush was on television saying that we had been attacked. There were rumors that another plane had been hijacked and was flying in the air over Pittsburgh. We all stayed in the office glued to the news. That morning would be the last day in my legal career that I ever entered a courthouse without a screening involving a metal detector.
Then, I went home and I ran. My favorite running spot back then was the Montour Trail, a rail-to-trail with a stretch that was just a few miles from the Pittsburgh airport. It was normally a frequent sight to see planes flying to land. There were no planes in the air this day, except for a few military planes flying over – a jarring site.
It was a stressful time, as our country licked its wounds, tried to figure out what had just happened, and determined how to respond and how to ensure our collective safety. The running community continued to run. Soon, the commercial planes started flying again, and it was such a welcomed sight to see them in the air during my runs.
The second jarring event was when domestic terrorists planted bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. This was a direct attack on my friends who were there, on the running community, and on our freedom to race. Was this the end of running marathons? Were marathons a “soft target” for terrorists? How could we ever protect 26.2 miles of a race course and ensure the safety of runners and spectators?
Two weeks later, on May 5, 2013, I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon, a race with tens of thousands of runners and spectators. Leading up to the race and other marathons coming after Boston, there had been talk about cancellation. But the race organizers consulted with security experts and revamped security procedures so well that they set a model for other races to follow. The mood at the start line was somber, and tense. I talked to a runner that was doing her first marathon, who was nervous about running. “We will be fine”, I assured her, even when I wasn’t so assured myself. I kept my family from coming that day to spectate, as they traditionally had for other races. We completed our race that day – defeating the distance, and in our own small way, defeating terrorism. It was a victory for running, and a victory for freedom. We would not let the forces of evil make us prisoners of fear.
Now, the world stopped turning yet again. We have been attacked globally by an invisible virus. There are so many unknowns – about the virus, about our future health, about our financial security, and perhaps most troubling – we don’t know when the world will start turning again.
But we are runners – we’ve got this. We know how to social distance because we have done it every time we have had a big race coming up. We have always been petrified about getting sick before a race. We have been carrying hand sanitizer before it was cool.
Running will help heal us – and heal the world around us. It is one of the few activities we can engage in safely. And if we don’t exhaust ourselves, running will help bulletproof our immune system. The World Health Organization recommends that we be active during the crisis. Recognizing this, I believe (and perhaps we will get confirmation in the future) that thousands of people started running for the first time during the lockdowns. When we come out of this, our sport may be stronger than it ever was.
And we as individuals will be stronger. Sure, we have run tough races from 5ks to ultras, in rain, snow, and in smothering humidity. But what an accomplishment to run through this. When the COVID-19 crisis is finally over, we will all have one heck of a figurative medal to hang around our necks.
Let’s do this, friends! It’s what we always do – in both running and life – one foot in front of the other. As they said in Animal House: It’s not over until we say it is!
Jeff Paladina is a husband and father of four with a passion for running and the running community. He resides with his family in Central Pennsylvania near Harrisburg. Jeff was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, and loves all things related to the City of Pittsburgh. In the local running community, he is known for organizing large groups of runners to travel to Pittsburgh each May to take part in Pittsburgh Marathon weekend. You can connect with Jeff on his blog, cultureofrunning.com, Twitter @jeff7272, Instagram @jpaladina, or Facebook facebook.com/jeffpaladina.