Opinion

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Reporter's Notebook

Flathead Running Boom

Local runners take to the streets and trails as the perfect pandemic pastime enjoys newfound popularity

There’s a running boom taking off in the Flathead Valley — a stampede of hobby joggers and track jockeys, pavement pounders and trail junkies, all laced up and awash in anxiety-numbing endorphins, embracing the perfect pandemic pastime.

At least, there seems to be one in my orbit.

Lacking any sound local data to support this half-baked theory, I’ll concede that it may well be a construct of my own skewed perception, a self-curated selection of anecdotes disguised as empirical evidence listing toward personal biases because, well, I’ve resumed running regularly.

And because I’m running regularly, I’ve taken keen notice of others engaged in the same quotidian activity, hence my declaration of a “boom” and the tenuous thesis for this column.

But in the four months since the coronavirus pandemic forced a series of seismic social shifts, prompting business closures and shelter-in-place orders and a high degree of national stress, I have noticed a groundswell of runners in neighborhoods, runners at parks, runners on trails, runners along dusty backroads, runners darting through narrow six-foot human buffers on sidewalks, runners zooming through sets of barefoot striders on soccer fields, runners everywhere.

The other day, while driving, I passed a 70-year-old man jogging along an unpaved county road wearing a 70s-era YMCA singlet, a pair of mustard-yellow, 3-inch split shorts and a set of calf-high socks, a shock of gray hair jutting out from beneath his cap. He might have been the ghost of Jim Fixx, the famed author of “The Complete Book of Running,” who popularized the sport more than four decades ago, during the first major running boom.

Not wanting to blast him with a cloud of dust, I slowed and waved awkwardly as I crept past. He smiled and waved back.

It was a remarkable sight, and it’s a remarkable time for runners.

The reason I started running again is as capricious as the reason I stopped — I felt like it — but the reason I felt like running again is one worth exploring, particularly because it’s a feeling I’d wager a lot of runners share right now.

As a regular runner, you become addicted to the simple, metronomic rhythm of putting one foot beyond the other, because when you’re healthy and running well that simplicity and smoothness eclipses everything else, stripping life down to its most elemental state.

And while running is often perceived as a solo endeavor, it’s actually a terrific unifier, evidenced by the thousands of runners who line up en masse every year for the same major marathon events, trail races, turkey trots, and one-mile charity runs.

Whether or not you subscribe to the paleoanthropic argument that humans adopted certain evolutionary traits to accommodate feats of endurance running as a means of persistence hunting, we can all agree that a spirit of camaraderie emerges out of the simple act of running. We might train alone, but we celebrate our fitness together by racing.

The dilemma of this modern-day running boom, however, is that because it was, according to my flawed theory, born of a need to socially isolate, nearly all races and running-related events are canceled.

Enter the Hellroaring Running Club, a loosely organized group of local runners with no formal bylaws or constitution who assemble most Wednesdays at a local trailhead to pad along at an accommodating pace and celebrate the simple act of running together.