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The COVID-19 Crisis: Runners on the Frontlines and (Virtual) Finish Lines

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the sport in many ways, but for many recreational runners, lacing up and heading outdoors has been a saving grace.

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Editor’s note: This is final piece of a six-part series about how the running industry is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re investigating several aspects of the sport through the experiences of the women who are navigating and leading the industry.

Part One: How Racing Will Rebound

Part Two: Helping Running Clubs Get Back on Track

Part Three: A Running Brand Leans on Community Building

Part Four: Diljeet Taylor on Coping as a Coach

Part Five: Pro Athletes Recalculate Their Careers

It was supposed to be Nicole Pieszchata’s comeback year. After suffering a stress fracture in her right tibia in 2019 that forced her to scratch from the New York City Marathon, she thought she might enter 2020 rejuvenated and ready to train again.

But like almost every dedicated recreational runner in the U.S., Pieszchata’s plans didn’t come together as she had hoped. The comeback would have to wait as race after race has been canceled. Her goal was to run the NYC Half, but it was one of the first to take the COVID-19 hit in the spring.

“Obviously that didn’t happen,” Pieszchata, 39, says. “So, at the beginning of quarantine I was trying to take the time to do my strengthening exercises, because I’m one of those runners who’s bad about doing those. Now I’m just running a few times a week.”

Runners all over the country have coping with the lack of races, the demise of the group workouts, and the void left while clubs and crews are unable to meet for miles and post-run socializing. The pandemic has forced a reevaluation for everybody—as Desiree Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion, said back in March, “you have to find some purpose in putting one foot in front of the other and tap into why you run. It can’t just be about race results—hopefully you have a good ‘why.’” 

Some runners have spent the past six months going for goals that they never had time to pursue before the COVID-19 pandemic, like trying to increase weekly mileage, giving more attention to strength training, or staging solo time trials at distances that don’t typically race. Others felt it was a time to rest and recover, taking a break from running and maybe replacing workouts with walks. Many have decided to try virtual races, which have saturated the industry, providing outlets for competition and PR-chasing from the convenience of home.

Nicole Pieszchata Running
Nicole Pieszchata has used running as a release from the stress of working in a COVID-19 unit in New York. Photo: Courtesy NYRR

And as gyms have remained closed nearly everywhere, anecdotal evidence suggests that more Americans have turned to running as a means of exercising. Running shoe brands saw an uptick in sales while the apps like MapyMyRun and Strava saw record downloads. Strava was the top-grossing health and fitness app in July, according to Sensor Tower, bringing in $10.1 million in user spending, 4.3 times the revenue earned in July 2019.

Pieszchata, however, found a different reason for her running altogether when she became a frontline healthcare worker in the American city hardest hit by COVID-19—it was a release from the high tension environment at work. Typically she works as an outpatient physical therapist in the cardio-pulmonary department at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Hospital, but as New York quickly became a hotspot for virus spread, her responsibilities changed drastically to help with the worst cases of COVID-19.

“When the pandemic hit, they created the ‘prone team,’” she says. “We went into the rooms of patients with COVID who were on ventilators, so they were intubated and sedated, and helped turn them from their backs to their stomachs so that they could breathe better.”

Her normal eight-hour shifts turned to 12-hour shifts, with more walking and physical labor involved. The most stressful part was making sure to safely take off the layers of personal protective equipment (PPE) that might be contaminated with the virus.

“I felt like I really needed to be part of it because I had the skill set and I wanted to be helpful,” Pieszchata says. “I think running has taught me how to compartmentalize, which was helpful in just seeing how sick these patients were and how full the ICU was. I tried not to think about things too much while I was working.”

And like many runners who have dealt with all kinds of personal and professional anxiety this year, running has also become a coping mechanism when Pieszchata has been able to fit it in.

“On my longer work days, I’d just come home and not want to move, to be honest,” she says. “It impacted my health, because mentally I just needed to chill out. But when I was able to get out, I tried to do some running. I feel like once you start getting into a run, it’s an escape.”

As safety measures provide more opportunity to ease some restrictions, runners are also itching to get back to group activities. Pieszchata, for example, volunteers as a captain for New York Road Runners’ Open Run in Morningside Park on Saturdays. The free run is open to all abilities and often attracts up to 50 people, though it remains on hiatus right now.

The Prone Team during COVID-19 pandemic
Nicole Pieszchata was part of the New York-Presbyterian Hosptial Prone Team during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Courtesy NYRR

Because of her work and her volunteerism within the running community, Pieszchata is one of NYRR’s “Heroes on the Run,” for the virtual Fifth Avenue Mile. For each of its virtual races, the organization is recognizing one participant who has served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I appreciate the love, but I feel like there’s so many people who have done so much, like all the nurses,” she says. “I feel for them and how hard they’ve had to work for their patients. They really were in it at the height of it and they’re still dealing with it.”

Indeed, COVID-19 continues throughout the country and will continue to influence the way in which we all live, work, and run. The industry will inevitably look much different on the other side, but runners, it seems, will continue to find a way to do what they love.

After overcoming injury and emerging healthy from the thick of the pandemic response, Pieszchata, for one, isn’t taking it for granted.

“I’m just happy to be out there running again,” she says.