Community Running, Friendship, and Possibility in a Pandemic

    Running, Friendship, and Possibility in a Pandemic

    A very international run crew on a Tribe Fitness Saturday run. Ireland, Italy, Trinidad, Australia, and many others represented. That's Marco, first from the left in the back row. Image courtesy of Tribe Fitness.

    Marco came to Canada to further his career and training as a radiologist, feeling that opportunities were scarce in his native Italy. When he first showed up to a Saturday run, the distance between the hem of our running shorts and our kneecaps revealed our different origins before we even made introductions. 

    Marco was styled with colourful, often neon running attire and shades that belonged on a piazza as much as on Toronto’s Martin Goodman Trail. I usually stuck to monochrome and the pair of shades I managed to wrangle for $15 at Shoppers Drug Mart, a smart choice considering my propensity for losing them.  

    Each week’s run gave way to a little more communication as he added more phrases to his repertoire–our crew and the show Suits were among his primary sources of learning–and found more confidence. In time, we were his Canadian family, one of the first constants in a country he still barely knew. 

    By some miracle, he developed a genuine liking for Tim Horton’s coffee, something that’s eluded me my entire life, while some elements of our culture still baffled him. How is it, he still asks, that we Canadians can’t purchase beer before 11 am? Following a long run on a hot June morning, being told that you’ll have to be content with water, coffee, or grapefruit juice is cruelty. 

    In 2016, we were suddenly having a goodbye dinner. An opportunity had come up back across the Atlantic and Marco would return home to Turin. Transfers and moves within Italy, presentations at conferences as he advanced his career, and a continued commitment to running were the themes of the next few years. In our conversations, we always anticipated a reunion. As recently as Christmas of last year, we discussed plans to run the Turin Half Marathon in 2021.

    And now we’re here. “Positive patients are increasing exponentially and by law we are not allowed to go anywhere except work with a valid proof,” he told me in March. Colleagues were infected, meaning extra shifts were often necessary and exhaustion, uncertainty, and unprecedented horror were the norm. “This Monday I did a portable chest x-ray to a patient and next to him there was a dead person in a bag,” he mentioned another time. 

    Marco cheers on crew mates at the 2016 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Image courtesy of Tribe Fitness.

    I was in awe of his stoicism. “It’s our duty!” remained Marco’s refrain as he walked into uncertainty day after day. I couldn’t imagine what news I would hear next, and there’s rarely been a day when I’ve woken up without some worry about what awaited my friend. 

    Running too is now plagued with uncertainty. It’s not necessarily anytime you want and anywhere you wish to go on an open road. The silence and solitude of a run nowadays sometimes feels a bit less like a gift and more like a strange imposition. Marco sends the group selfies from his runs, adorned with the face mask that has been made mandatory in his home country. I see my own scenery shift from the glorious expanse of Toronto’s lakefront, where we first ran together, to quiet residential and industrial roads where I’m more easily able to avoid others. 

    The insularity that running always provided from the rest of life or the rest of the world has been invaded and compromised. Running must now bend to the whim of a changing world in a way that it hasn’t in the years since I’ve been running–the years marked by an unstoppable boom in popularity and participation. The loneliest sport that suddenly became a communal ritual is lonely again. 

    But somewhere buried in these days of distance is the memory of all that running made possible and the realization that it’s still with us. Personal bests aren’t at the forefront of our minds, but rather the possibility that can find us when we run–the promise of joy, solace, strength, and love. With four years and thousands of miles between us and our last run together, the honour of making a newcomer to Canada one of our own stands as testament to that. Every conversation we have still turns to memories of  runs and plans to run together again one day. 

    And that’s the greatest hope I have for running right now, and what our Italian friend taught me. Running in good faith, with an open heart and mind, can bring riches you never anticipated, this wonderful and inspiring friendship chief among them.

    So we continue to run into uncertainty–that’s what we did the very first time we laced up, ran with a group, raced, or tried to come back from injury–because when we run we can still make space for the possibility of new riches and the return of old ones.