Runners change pace for distant and virtual races

Members+of+the+New+Orleans+chapter+of+Black+Men+Run+pose+for+a+photo+after+a+morning+track+practice+Sept.+12.+Black+Men+Run+is+just+one+runners+group+in+New+Orleans+who+has+had+to+adapt+to+COVID-19+safety+restrictions.+Courtesy+of+Howard+Jones.

Members of the New Orleans chapter of Black Men Run pose for a photo after a morning track practice Sept. 12. Black Men Run is just one runners group in New Orleans who has had to adapt to COVID-19 safety restrictions. Courtesy of Howard Jones.

Shadera Moore

Fewer throngs of running shoes have pounded the pavement since spring, as COVID-19 precautionary restrictions on large gatherings have changed the ways communities of runners train for and run races.

It’s been more than 35 years since Chuck George departed his oil industry job to found New Orleans Running Systems, Inc. through which he directs run-walk events with support from his staff. His company plans events that typically draw between 200 and 1000 participants.

A runner himself, George enjoys the sense of community he feels his business fosters among runners and walkers in the Greater New Orleans area.

“You get to see people that are emotional in finishing a run or walk event in which it means something very special to them, and that touches me because I played a major part in making that special event happen for them,” George said.

Having planned run-walk events under a variety of circumstances, George said the adaptations to the sport this year have been unlike anything he has managed.

“I was a director doing this Katrina and post-Katrina, and that was a long transition to get back on our feet. This is many many times longer,” George said. “The thing I miss most is just seeing the smiling faces of my staff and production crew and of all my runners and walkers.”

Of the races New Orleans Running Systems Inc. directs annually, this year, George said The Rivershack Run/Walk set for June and July went virtual, two other events are postponed for Phase 3 of reopening, and two races are tentatively scheduled for this winter, if phase 3 guidelines permit them.

Chloe Nicolosi, New Orleans Track Club’s executive race director, said the love for running she found during her time at LSU led her to complete three marathons. Nicolosi said that since she graduated, she enjoys being able to blend her passion for running with her career.

Since February, New Orleans Track Club has not put on any in-person running events but, over Labor Day weekend, the Track Club put on the New Orleans Pride Run & Walk, virtually, for personal challenge and charity purposes.

“It was great to see the community come together for both a celebration of the event, but also to support a worthy cause,” Nicolosi said.

Among the runners in the virtual Pride Run & Walk’s Big Gay 5k event was Kyle Simmons of Stonewall Sports’ New Orleans chapter. Stonewall Sports is an LGBTQ+ and ally-oriented league for recreational sports that offers weekly running and walking groups and, most recently, socially distanced yoga.

Simmons still intends to run the route for Big Gay 5k’s last stop in New Orleans, but he said the virtual experience isn’t a full substitute for in-person races.

“You’re not really pushing yourself as hard as you may be when you’re physically running next to somebody. It’s just a natural instinct that when you’re running right next to somebody and you’re approaching that finish line, you’re going to get that extra kick of endorphins to try to outpace them. You just don’t get that in a virtual race when you’re running by yourself,” Simmons said.

Since Phase 2 of reopening began, Stonewall Sports’ running club has met once weekly to follow the Monday route Simmons designed and go directly home after practice has wrapped, unlike pre-pandemic meets.

“It’s a social gathering. You hang out, you meet people, you talk, you hi-five after the run, you encourage people all through what they’re doing, et cetera. After runs, a local bar might sponsor us, give us a dollar off beer, something along those lines to kind of encourage people to hang around and also to patron their business for a little while,” Simmons said.

“Are some of our members unhappy that they can’t hang out a little bit after socially and throw back a beer with a couple of their friends? Absolutely. But these are just a sign of the times, and we will pivot, and we will do what we need to do to move forward with the sign of the times,” he said.

Goodbyes for the night now look different for local running clubs, as do greetings.

“Phase 2, we were very careful with how we decided to start our group runs,” said Howard Jones, captain of Black Men Run New Orleans.

“We definitely knew that how people greet is, you lean in with the shake, you tuck it, when you greet your fellow person, your fellow brother, it was kind of awkward having to be distant and speak from afar. It felt weird, but we knew we definitely have to take each others’ health into account, no matter how good you feel, still practice social distancing. Even in running,” Jones said.

Inspired by a series of events, including the loss of his mother to congestive heart failure, his visit to athletic Atlanta, and his own journey from difficult loops in his backyard to several consecutive mile long runs, Jones became captain of the ever-growing New Orleans chapter of Black Men Run New Orleans in 2018. He described the organization as “a support group that accepts people of all ages and all abilities” and one that seeks particularly to create more representation for black men in races and to address physical health risks in the black male community.

Black Men Run New Orleans resumed training during Phase 2 of reopening, and although, according to Jones, the absence of local in-person races around town has allowed time for athletes to heal and take it easy, the group recently undertook an especially ambitious run— 4.3 miles to honor the late actor Chadwick Boseman, who died from cancer at age 43 in August.

“We have a lot of beginners in the group, you know, so they really hadn’t run that distance before, but I put it out there. If you want to run your three miles, feel free to do so. I made two routes. I made the more challenging route and said, you know, for brother Chadwick, we definitely want to commemorate his example,” Jones said.

Jones emphasized the impact Boseman made during his lifetime, and how excited the runners were to honor the late actor.

“Definitely a brother who was black excellence in many’s eyes, and he gave us an icon in a superhero landscape to definitely appreciate for years to come,” said Jones. “The group was behind it, even the kids, the mentees from Son of a Saint. They were up for it, which really blessed my heart. And at the end, we decided to do the pose, of course, it’s iconic, and it turned out to be a great photo.”