Running in the Time of Coronavirus

Running in the Time of Coronavirus
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HONG KONG — I had just returned home from my 47th training run late in January when the text came in from a friend: “Marathon cancelled.”

I was crushed. I had been eagerly looking forward to running the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, scheduled for Feb. 9, but now it had been canceled because of health concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak.

It was my first marathon, and I had secured a place back in October, after sending a pleading email along with my application. I had slogged through most of the 16-week training plan for beginners that I had stuck to my wall and had been raising money for Mind Hong Kong, a mental health charity. After decades of hating running, I was finally beginning to feel like a real runner, obsessing about things like energy gels, running belts and motivational podcasts. My parents had been planning to fly over from Britain to cheer me on, but now they’d have nothing to cheer.

The cancellation was understandable. The race typically draws more than 70,000 runners, and the thought of that many heavily breathing people covering long distances in public is a precarious scenario when a contagious and life-threatening virus is spreading across the region.

Cancellations were also something we had become resigned to in recent months, in a city where almost every public event, including the New Year’s Eve fireworks and Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s biggest music and arts festival, had been postponed or canceled because of antigovernment protests. Coronavirus was simply the latest reason to call things off.

But I was still crushed. In the runners’ WhatsApp groups I had joined, more seasoned athletes were sanguine. “Run more races and will understand these things happen…,” one wrote. “Japanese marathons get called off four hours before the run” because of weather, consoled another. But this was my first marathon, I wanted to write back. How could you have forgotten how momentous everything feels when it’s your first marathon?

Very quickly, though, I decided I was going to run the distance anyway. I had already built up to 20 miles in training, and I wanted to know what it felt like to run the venerated 26.2. I wanted to make it worthwhile for all the friends and colleagues who had donated to my race charity.

I also determined that it was relatively safe. At the time the marathon was canceled, there were five confirmed cases and by the event’s scheduled date, there were 36. But people here are not required to be under quarantine unless they have recently visited mainland China, where many areas are under lockdown. Despite the uncertainty about how the virus spreads and the advice from Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection to “stay at home as far as possible,” there are still a lot of people on the streets.

While all the swimming pools and public sports centers are closed, many gyms and workout spaces are open, though fewer people are showing up. Temperature checks are taken at entrances, and both hands and equipment have to be regularly sanitized. At least one yoga class has made face masks mandatory. Hiking remains a popular workout option for many people; Hong Kong, with its steep hills and network of trails, is great for that.

I went ahead and cobbled together my own messy 26.2-mile course to create my own marathon, using the GPS running app, Strava. I would run back and forth along Hong Kong’s waterfront, notable for its flatness, with the route ending conveniently close to a burger bistro near my house. Two other runners, friends who were also victims of the canceled marathon, were keen to join me, one to run the full course and another for a half marathon.

[Read more: Running virtual marathons.]

Over the next two weeks, I tapered my training, stocked up on gels, and tried to decipher the confusing information on the internet about what to eat in the last 24 hours before running.

Race day dawned. Feb. 9 was cold by Hong Kong standards, at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), but dry, perfect conditions for running.

I wore a surgical mask over my face on the walk to our made-up starting line in Golden Bauhinia Square, but ditched it once we set off. There was never any question of wearing a mask while running: They create a hot, stifling cocoon around your nose and mouth that makes it uncomfortable to breathe even when walking. While masks are uniform on public transport and in crowded places, you can still see the odd uncovered face in parks or more open spaces beside the sea. My route largely went through places like that.

The three of us started our run to a gong, not a starting gun. And while I didn’t have an official race T-shirt, I had my own unofficial version designed by the charity I was supporting, Mind Hong Kong, along with a hand-drawn bib that read “Please cheer.”

We had none of the whooping crowds that everyone says give you so much stamina on marathon day, but we did have a small band of friends, and their dogs, who appeared at unexpected spots along the way carrying motivational signs and yelling their support.

The streets were quiet at first but grew gradually busier, particularly near the ferry piers in the middle of the course, where we wove around oblivious passengers embarking and disembarking from the boats. In the harborside parks we ran past the usual assortment of families out strolling, people exercising and older Hong Kongers practicing tai chi. Despite my “please cheer” sign, no strangers offered vocal support for us. Maybe the message was too small to read, or they were simply mystified.

  • Updated June 5, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


We encountered only one coronavirus-related issue during the run: In a hygiene blitz, the health authorities had taped black plastic over all the water fountains to avoid contamination risks. I had to ration my water supplies and probably ended up more dehydrated than I should have been.

But we were grateful that the toilet paper crisis that has engulfed the city since early February, when a rumor that supplies were running low prompted mass buying and caused a real shortage, had not extended to the public toilets on our route.

My friend and I finished our marathon together and were draped not with shiny medallions but with shortbread cookie medals that our friend had baked and tied on ribbons. And although our phone batteries died somewhere around the 23-mile mark, making it hard to tell if we actually ran slightly over or under 26.2 miles, it felt like a real marathon: painful, seemingly endless and exhilarating, in equal measure.

Olivia Parker is an editor on the International Edition of The New York Times, based in Hong Kong.



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