Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Run On: Amid pandemic, many find therapy on the run

A body in motion tends to stay in motion.

Sound familiar? It’s part of Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion.

Physics aside, it’s also a credo many runners live by.

“Running provides a sense of freedom—I find joy in it, and running has always been one of my coping mechanisms,” said Joe Church, 68, a longtime Harrisburg resident who now resides in Dover, York County.

And he knows a thing or two about staying in motion. Church typically runs 50 to 60 miles per week. He’s completed 103 marathons—at least one in each of the 50 states, on all seven continents and in 44 different countries. He also ran the marathon distance (26.2 miles) around a cruise ship deck. Not once—but 29 different times. And those runs were just for fun (at least that’s how Church defines them), so they didn’t count as actual “races.”

In March, Church was in the Cook Islands, planning to run a marathon there, when the pandemic swept across the globe to the United States. The race was canceled, flights were being canceled, but he was able to catch one of the last ones home—just in time for Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home orders.

But he’s not exactly a homebody—running provided an “escape.”

“It helped me because when you’re thinking about people getting laid off from their jobs, or people not being able to pay their rent—I have friends in that situation—running allowed me to take that in my head and deal with it,” Church said. “If I feel any anxiety, running has always been a relief.”

Many runners, like Church, find running therapeutic during the pandemic. According to an informal poll of more than 200 River Runners, a Harrisburg-area running group, 75 percent said they’ve been maintaining or increasing their typical running mileage since the pandemic.

And apparently there’s a psychological reason for that.

“So much control was taken away from us during the pandemic, and most everybody’s coping skills were taken away too, and that’s one reason we’re seeing a surge in walking and running—people are going stir-crazy, cooped up,” said John Dennis, a counselor and sports psychologist at Parenting & Family Solutions LLC, with offices in Harrisburg and Lancaster. “And for long-time runners, it’s part of their daily routine—a spirituality, like a religion.”

Running, he said, improves the mind, body and spirit. Beyond the obvious physical benefits, the release of endorphins decreases stress, anxiety and depression and regulates a healthy appetite and sleep cycle.

Those endorphins, a “runner’s high,” are addictive—in a good way.

“In terms of mental health… for the majority of people, running is a way to clear their head,” Dennis said.

However, mentally and emotionally, COVID-19 also constructed hurdles on runners’ paths. After months of training, many runners are “grieving” the loss of canceled races—the non-existent high school track season, local races and high-profile events such as the Boston Marathon, Dennis said.

One of those runners is Scott McGeary, 32, of Harrisburg, who’s been a competitive runner since his high school days at Central Dauphin East. With his 2020 race schedule canceled, he’s increased his weekly run totals to about 90 miles.

“Running is my identity—more so than anything else,” McGeary said. “My eating schedule, my travel schedule—everything is based around running. It’s my stress relief, my exercise, my fun time, my socialization, my competitive outlet.”

McGeary, clinic director and physical therapist at Mechanicsburg’s Pivot Physical Therapy, has a recommendation for brand-new runners: a couch-to-5K plan that involves intervals of running and walking that gradually introduces your body to running.

Runners over-doing their mileage may become his patients this fall.

“It typically takes three to six months for overuse injuries, so the fallout from COVID-19 changes in running are a few months down the road,” McGeary said.

The social aspects of run clubs, or lack thereof during the pandemic, is also affecting runners.

“Enjoying a cup of coffee with friends after a run—that will come again,” said Mary Lou Harris, 73, of Camp Hill. “While I’m not always cognizant of my age, when I realized I was part of that vulnerable population, I realized I had to be smart and run strictly solo—the social things can wait.”

Harris, the founding race director of Harrisburg’s “Capital 10-Miler: A Run for the Arts,” is concerned about the pandemic’s ripple effects on races, charities that typically benefit from race proceeds, plus race-related tourism.

“As we come out of this, I think people will be looking for races closer to home—perhaps smaller races trying to help a charity,” said Harris. “In terms of runners’ comfort level in racing again, providing a safe, healthy race environment is really a puzzle. People are scrunched together at the start and finish lines—how do you make that safe?”

Amid the pandemic, both Harris and Church signed up for a number of “virtual race challenges,” in which runners track their total monthly or summer miles. For example, the Runnsylvania 283 organized by Fleet Feet Mechanicsburg challenges runners to rack up 283 miles—the approximate distance across the state—between the first and last days of summer. The sign-up fee includes a shirt and other goodies; proceeds benefit a nonprofit assisting with COVID-19 relief efforts.

At her age, Harris wonders, “Have I run my last [traditional] race? It’s sobering but you come to terms with it.”

Church is simultaneously participating in several virtual race challenges. In addition to the Runnsylvania 283, he’s running virtually across New York (a 1,000K distance) and Tennessee. He submits his running mileage to all three challenges.

“One of the benefits, if there is a bright side of pandemic running, is that in real life you can only go to one race at a time,” said Church. “But with virtual races, I can be virtually in many places at once.”


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