It was the night before lockdown. Pandemic restrictions announced by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in March of 2020 were about to go into effect.
Among the slew of closures and event cancellations? Organized running groups and clubs.
That’s when a light bulb moment struck a group of Harrisburg-area runners, gathered at a local brewery. Ideas and plans hatched over beers often fizzle—but this one actually took hold.
Julia Tolosa of Harrisburg remembers it this way:
“We said, ‘Why don’t we meet at the island tomorrow night? We’ll see how it goes,’” said Tolosa, a nurse of 24 years. “Having a psych background, I was really concerned about what isolation would do to people.”
“The island” was City Island. And around 5 p.m., on March 17, 2020, the ragtag group of fewer than 10 runners met and ran the mile-long path that circles the island, three times.
“We said, ‘Let’s do it again tomorrow night,’ and we just kinda kept it up,” Tolosa said.
In fact, they still haven’t stopped. Every weeknight since, they’ve met to run three miles—hence, their name: The Three Mile Islanders, likely one of the few humorous references to the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, downstream.
In the beginning, the group—like the rest of society—was trying to get a handle on COVID-19 facts.
“We thought the risk, being outside, had to be so very low,” said Tolosa. “I was more concerned about the mental toll.”
They were careful to run socially distanced. And while their feet did the running, their conversations ran the gamut.
“We could check on each other and talk about being in a global pandemic together, every night,” Tolosa said. “We could talk about what we saw on the news. We could talk about wild predictions—would it be similar to the Spanish flu?—all these things early on, were crazy discussions.”
Fears, information, frustrations, as well as glimmers of hope, were all shared on the run. What started as a running group morphed into much more.
“It’s like a therapy group. You need both physical and psychological health, for optimum health. Running can help both physically and psychologically, so running was a win-win,” said Tolosa. “And, sometimes, we just walked because the emotional toll of something that happened in life was too much.”
On a little island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, during the pandemic’s bleak moments, the group also found humor.
They named the island’s resident skunks—Dancing Snowflake was nearly all white, Junior was the smallest, and Bikini’s markings determined her name. One night, the runners chased and corralled a dog that had gotten loose. They made friends with other City Island regulars, including a family with a little boy who raced them every night.
One tradition continues. They celebrate every Friday by walking rather than running, followed by a stop at the island’s ice cream stand.
Lauren McIntire and her entire family come often.
“It’s given us a sense of normalcy. It was nice to see people through the quarantine and to be able to socialize with people outside our family,” said Lauren, of Camp Hill.
Her children are some of the youngest Three Mile Islanders.
“It was one of the few things keeping me from flipping over the edge of insanity,” said Lauren’s daughter, Bella, 13. “I’m actually better talking with adults. Kids my own age—you can tell they’re judging you, and plus you can have mature, civil conversations with adults. This group helped me overcome social anxiety—not being totally socially awkward.”
In the Long Run
One of the runners best known for telling funny stories and cheering up others is Ali Firoozmand of Harrisburg.
“We had so many laughs and cries, unbelievable discussions—I don’t know what I would have done without this group through the pandemic,” said Firoozmand, a retiree who lives alone. “I don’t see my family as often as I see these people.”
He was one of the original runners who came on day one. And he’s hardly missed a day since. In fact, a few times, he was the lone Three Mile Islander looping the island, solo. The group, all friends of friends, has grown to 30-ish runners.
“The support from this group is awesome,” said Firoozmand. “As a society, we think a man shouldn’t show his emotions, but there’s no shame in crying or being sad or upset—just share it. Holding it inside is much worse in the long run.”
Melissa Powell of Harrisburg never belonged to a running group before joining the Three Mile Islanders.
“When they said they run every day, I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ I was lagging behind in the beginning,” Powell said. “Six months in, my body started to adjust, I started losing weight, getting more muscular and confident.”
That confidence propelled Powell to run the Capital 10-Miler this past spring—her longest run ever.
“I had been running for years, but I never had running friends,” Powell said. “I wasn’t expecting this—I wasn’t searching for this. I wish I could say the same about my love life.”
As vaccine rates increase and mask restrictions lift, will the group continue?
“I don’t ever see us ending,” said Firoozmand.
Weather certainly hasn’t stopped them. They’ve run through sleet, snow and “wind that has gusted so bad you just laugh because you want to cry,” said Tolosa. Bad weather drove them into the City Island parking garage a few times—they ran under cover, up and down the ramps.
Otherwise, “we’ve never gotten sick of looping this island three times a night, and we’ve never been at a loss for words,” said Tolosa. “This island was like our little sanctuary.”
The pandemic may be coming full circle, but this tight-knit circle of runners is still, well, running circles.
“We bonded through a really traumatic time in our world’s history,” said Tolosa. “COVID has been a terrible thing, but we created something awesome through it.”
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