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What I learned from my anxious experiment in masked running through Seattle

What I learned from my anxious experiment in masked running through Seattle

Picture of William Heisel
Is this family breathing in this runner’s plume? Or are the rules outside fundamentally different?
Is this family breathing in this runner’s plume? Or are the rules outside fundamentally different?
(Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

My family lives a short walk from one of the nation’s great urban trails: the Burke-Gilman in Seattle. If you’re ambitious, you can literally run from the ocean, through the city, past a beautiful lake, and into the suburbs where you can keep on running for another 11 miles to a beautiful riverside park.

If you’re me, you can run from your house, into some nice beachfront property and back again.

But when the pandemic began and studies started to show how the virus was transmitted through airborne droplets that could remain in the air for minutes — not dissipate in seconds — then my wife and I started to question the prudence of running on a trail that tightly bound by trees and houses where we live and always busy. We began to refer to it as the “COVID corridor.”

As I saw more and more people wearing masks in public, though, I started to wonder if runners and bikers on the trail would take up the same practice. I now find myself regularly standing in line at the grocery store with everyone masked, or standing in line at the coffee shop with everyone masked. My family went on a hike high up in the Cascade mountains the other weekend, and everyone we encountered on the trail was in a mask. Couldn’t I run safely on the trail if everyone was masked up?

I did a little reading in advance. The Cleveland Clinic had a helpful piece where sports medicine physician Dr. Caitlin Lewis gave guidance on what to do when running:

As a general rule, wear a face mask when you’re running in an area where social distancing is hard to maintain. If you’re going to be passing people or weaving in and out of crowds or others around you, you’ll want to wear a mask, says Dr. Lewis.

That sounds like the Burke. I have never gone on a run on the trail without encountering groups of cyclists and multiple people running on the trail. Sometimes I have a hard time passing people (or people have a hard time passing me!).

So I masked up, wondering whether it would cut down on my speed and lung power. I also decided to keep a count. How many people would I see on the trail in masks? On sidewalks in busy areas, it’s easily 75% these days in Seattle. On the mountain hike it was 100%. In stores,with the governor’s mandate here in Washington, it is now 100%.

On the Burke, I thought it would be 75%. Far from it. Out of 239 people I counted, 17 were in masks, a rate of 7%. I also thought I’d be able to run with a mask without suffering a cardiac arrest. I finished the run, but not without a struggle.

Here’s how it went.

Mile 1. I was feeling strong. I haven’t been able to go to the gym or the pool during the pandemic. And the Burke has been off limits. But I’ve been working out at home and going on shorter runs through the neighborhood. I thought I would feel the effects of the lack of consistent exercise more than any impact from the mask. And for the first mile, I ran exactly the same pace as my typical pre-COVID-19 run. I saw a few dozen people in that first leg, none of them in masks.

Mile 2. My breaths were getting a little deeper at this point, and I felt myself literally sucking the mask into my mouth. An unusual sensation but not as unusual as it would have been before months of wearing a mask in public. I counted more people walking, running, or biking, including a handful with masks. I started to wonder if I was just being an idiot. Had all these people figured out something that I didn’t know? Did the state health department issue some new decree that morning that exempted runners and cyclists from wearing masks? Did people think I was glaring at them for ignoring the mask mandate? Were they, instead, glaring at me for putting on self-righteous airs?

Mile 3. The trail was no busier than when I started. I had to slow down at one point and wait for a group of cyclists to pass so I could get around a group of three people walking together. Amid that little traffic jam, I was the only one in a mask.

Mile 4. At this point, I started to really feel the effects of not being able to breathe as easily as I could without what effectively felt like having a sock in my mouth. Is this what it would feel like to break free from being a hostage and run into the forest with a hood over your head, hearing the hunting dogs barking behind you? Dark thoughts crept in.

Mile 5. I was wiped out. It didn’t help that it was a sunny afternoon, a temperature of 76 degrees that felt like 90 with the mask on. I made my way home at the slowest pace of any of my runs on record. One of the only things keeping me going was the idea of just arriving at my door and pulling that mask, now fairly damp inside from my breath, off my face.

So I learned a couple of things. You can run with a mask, but it’s definitely less comfortable. I also learned that there will be no way for you to maintain six feet of distance all around you on a trail like the Burke. On average, I was encountering a person every 110 feet, but if their cloudsof breath and respiratory droplets spread out from them as far as 6 feet and hung in the breezeless air, I was running right through them. Not to mention the fact that you can’t possibly maintain a sizeable difference between people when they are running, walking, and cycling different directions on the trail.

We are living in a real-time, horror-show version of people acting against their self-interest and against the larger interest of society in part because the information being presented by government leaders about COVID-19 is confusing, gap-filled, and sometimes contradictory.

The highest calling for a journalist is to bring clarity in crisis. And in the absence of clear direction, journalists can clarify what we know and don’t know, as new science emerges and our understanding grows.

I learned a little bit from my experiment with mask wearing, and I hope to see some of your own self-created experiments, too.

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