Running on Empty Streets

Clark Street in the middle of a recent Wednesday

Everyone’s grasping for something to keep themselves sane these days, to find comfort in a situation that has forced all of us way out of our comfort zones.

For me that comfort has been in lacing up my shoes and hitting the pavement by myself.

I’ve run almost 100 miles since social distancing started according to my running app. I’m not training for anything yet. Training for the Chicago Marathon doesn’t officially start until early June, and all races have either been cancelled or converted to virtual races for the foreseeable future.

I’m just running because I don’t know what else to do. I’ve watched all the Netflix I care to watch, I don’t want to gain a ton of weight or develop a drinking habit, and while I’ve got plenty of workout apps on my phone, there’s no substitute for fresh air, sunshine, and exercising outdoors.

With Chicago’s lakefront path closed to the general public for the past month or so, I — and thousands of other Chicagoans — have had to alter our running routines to minimize risk to ourselves and our neighbors.

The lakefront has been my running home since I got back into running three years ago, an easy and familiar place to zone out and knock out a few miles while enjoying a view of the skyline, the calm of the water, and an escape from our everyday lives.

Now? Everything’s different.

Whereas I used to run first thing in the morning or in the evening because I’d be in an office from 8–5:30 during the week, now I’m running in the middle of the day or early afternoon in between Zoom calls when I know I can carve out an hour to an hour and a half to run 4–6 miles and disconnect from the world. Running in the age of social distancing means adjusting your route and taking extra precautions to not get too close to anyone else moreso than ever before, darting on and off the sidewalk to make sure everyone has their space. You want to make sure you’re safe, sure, but you also want to do what you can to make sure the random strangers you’re passing by also feel safe because we’re all a little on edge these days.

If the best way to get to know a city is to run its streets, then getting to know Chicago through its streets in the middle of a global pandemic has been an unusual and enlightening experience.

That’s because you can run in the middle of some of our busiest streets — Clark, Division, Southport — in the middle of the day for stretches at a time without worrying about being bothered.

It is an unusual experience to say the absolute least, to see a city that is usually too busy to appreciate itself come to a halt. Streets and sidewalks that would normally be packed with cars and pedestrians are empty. The stillness is calming and eerie.

You run up familiar blocks and take stock of what’s there, what’s missing, and what’s different.

Wrigley Field, the grand old ballpark that’s usually a hub of activity this time of year now sitting idle. The empty corner bar with the stools up, as if frozen in time in mid-March. The restaurant that you’ve walked by a thousand times that you swore up and down you were going to visit still open for carryout and delivery and imploring people to please support local businesses. The lines outside of Trader Joe’s in the middle of the day stretching around the block, people standing at least six feet apart from one another, waiting to buy basic necessities.

You take note of all of this and hope that all of those businesses that are currently sitting empty will have life breathed back into them once it’s safe to gather again. You hope that you’ll be able to go to a grocery store without having to stand in line to get in or worry about whether or not you’ll be able to find the most basic of needs. You hope that the streets will be full again, that life will return to the neighborhood and make it the place that you fell in love with.

You take note of all of this as you run the empty streets and you hope it doesn’t have to be like this for much longer.

Chicago-based freelance writer as seen in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, RedEye, ESPN.com, and others. Bourbon and pajama pant enthusiast.