“I’m thinking about going to the track and running a mile as fast as I can,” I told my husband. It was a cold, damp Monday in early December. We had just dropped our son off at preschool after a two-week Covid-related closure. In the car, driving home, we’d both claimed we were eager to get back to our work.
“I’ll do that with you,” he said.
I had run consistently since April, when the landlord locked the building’s gym and draped the door in caution tape, Halloween-style. My goals, so far, had been about distance: turning five kilometers into ten, 10K into a half marathon. But occasionally I would run a single timed mile just to marvel at my pace. Before the pandemic, my perception of my athletic ability was warped by the misery of middle school gym class. Lithe popular kids sprinted effortlessly around the track while I—vaguely goth, already sweaty—walked slow on purpose. Only when the teacher bellowed our last names did my two friends and I break into a desultory shuffle. It was a surprise to learn, at age thirty, that I love running. That I am not half bad at it.
My husband and I drove to the local high school, closed since March. In the December drizzle we had the track to ourselves. As I ran, I thought about nothing until I wanted to stop running, and then I thought about un-medicated childbirth—the relief I would have felt had the end of labor been in sight. My husband ran his mile in 6:40. It took me a minute longer. Still, 7:47 was a personal record. At the finish line, I stopped my watch and cheered. My husband cut across the football field from the opposite side of the track. He wore old athletic shorts and a striped pajama shirt now wet from the rain. He looked as if he had not planned to run that morning—or maybe ever again.
At home, I uploaded my run to Strava and took a screenshot, which I texted to my brother. “First sub-8-minute mile,” I wrote. I asked him if he could run a sub-6. “I doubt it,” he said, “but maybe?” My brother runs regularly. He also cycles, skis, and backpacks, has been known to fish, swim, and sail. He once told me that any day he wakes up in the woods—no matter how sore or blistered or rain-soaked—is “better than a regular day,” defining a “regular day” as one spent beneath a roof.
Exactly one week later my brother ran a mile in 5:36. My friend Kyra, an ultra-marathoner, matched his time to the second. A photo finish—except that my brother lives in Tacoma, while Kyra lives in northern Ontario. “We’re calling it Mile Monday,” I announced. I made a spreadsheet, including columns for terrain, weather, extenuating circumstances—such as a hangover, death in the family, or general lack of motivation—and any additional comments a runner might want to include. Each week, the fastest runner gets their name highlighted in gold. If you break a personal record, you get a blue highlight.
That’s it. That’s the game.
My mother, a nurse in Portland, signed up for Mile Monday immediately. So did Lily, a longtime internet friend (and lifelong runner) from Brooklyn whom I’ve never met. Initially, my brother’s friend Alex said, “That sounds stupid,” but then I called him “uncool” and he ran. Others seemed to agree to participate but have yet to run. They cite inclement weather, steep roads, or having jobs. They promise competitive times eventually. But running a mile every Monday—whatever the weather, however slowly—is the whole point. One week after Kyra clocked a 5:36, she submitted a split of 14:54.
Terrain: deep snow
Weather: heavy snowfall right into my eyeballs
Extenuating circumstances: running in snow shoes
From 1966 until 2012, American public schoolchildren took the Presidential Physical Fitness Test annually. A component of the test was the “endurance run,” which, according to a 2009 pamphlet issued by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was a “safe one-mile distance” meant to be run or walked in “as short a time as possible.” The pamphlet stipulated that students should pace themselves. Students were also supposed to practice running a mile in advance of the test. I have clear memories of taking this test in middle school between the years 2000 and 2003. We did not practice. One minute, we sat in the cafeteria dipping greasy breadsticks into marinara sauce. Next, we were shivering on the track in shorts from JCPenny, waiting for our gym teacher to blow the whistle he wore—militarily, ridiculously—on a chain around his neck.
As an adult, I’m convinced that this test was effective only in dissuading generations of Americans from ever running again. Running a mile, if you haven’t trained your legs and lungs to endure the distance, is actually pretty hard. And running a mile as fast as you can—I’ll admit it—sucks.
On Monday, December 28th, my brother ran a mile in 6:14.
Terrain: dirt track, full moon
Weather: clear, 37 degrees Fahrenheit
Extenuating circumstances: skied all day, just ate meatballs
Additional comments: why am I doing this?
Growing up, my brother and I steered clear of each other. Friends of mine would glimpse him striding down the halls of our high school and ask about him. I would shrug and say, “We’ve met.” Neither of us engaged with the world in a way that appealed to the other. I was bewildered by his commitment to organized sports, his tendency to please authority figures. And he was equally disturbed by my habit of disappearing into my bedroom, which doubled as a parakeet aviary, with a carton of Goldfish crackers and enough library books to last the summer. In hindsight, I may have cultivated disinterest in sports precisely because my brother was so athletic. What sibling wants to be—consistently, inevitably—the worst at something?
My brother and I became friends as adults, in part because we like each other’s spouses, and in part because we turned out to be more similar than previously imagined. We are both disciplined, both prone to goofy spontaneity. Why is he doing this? Why is he sprinting beneath a full moon, his stomach full of meatballs?
Because I dared him to.
It’s relevant that I haven’t seen my brother in over a year. Nor have I seen my friend Kyra, or my mother, or anyone else (with the exception of my husband) who participates in Mile Monday. Sprinting as a means of emotional connection may seem strange, dramatic, needlessly difficult. But so are the circumstances of our separation.
When I’m running down a flat-ish road in New Haven, avoiding patches of black ice, choking on cold-weather phlegm, I’m not thinking about my brother in Tacoma, my mom in Portland, Kyra in Canada, or Lily in Brooklyn. I’m thinking about different kinds of pain, remembering that the on-purpose kind is a privilege.
Then a disembodied voice says “Distance: one mile.” I stop running, and I do think about my family and friends. I want to know how fast they ran, and in what conditions, and how it felt.
Running a timed mile is not a good metaphor for the past year of our lives. Enduring months of social isolation, that pandemic-induced combo of anxiety and boredom, does not feel like sprinting. That there’s nothing metaphorical about Mile Monday is part of its appeal. The game is a conversation, an attempt at togetherness in a time that makes togetherness impossible: let’s tell each other how fast we ran, and in what conditions, and how it felt.
Current events return in the spreadsheet, though. Entries in the column for “extenuating circumstances” include canvassed in Georgia for seven hours today (Lily) and on break from administering Covid vaccines at the hospital (my mom) and ran in circles around my own house to comply with government-mandated quarantine (Kyra). This is my favorite column. Because I’d like to think we’re not baking sourdough loaves, or scheduling Zoom happy hours, idly waiting for an emergency to pass. We’re pushing ourselves to keep moving through a weird and broken world, knowing that a day will come when our bodies can’t so easily run it off.
When the goal is time, a mile is a challenging distance. A runner can’t sustain her body’s maximum speed for a mile; nor does she really get a chance to settle into a comfortable pace. “Did it hurt?” I asked my friend Kyra after she ran that blistering 5:36. “Not physically,” she answered. “But it hurt mentally. I had to push my brain to its maximum limit but my body was like, okay, okay, whatever you say, you crazy bitch!”
In a time of relentless extenuating circumstances, of situations spiraling out of control, it’s satisfying to feel my body concede to the amazing crazy bitch of my brain. To think that next Monday, maybe, I’ll run faster than I’ve ever run before.
Emily Adrian is the author of Everything Here Is Under Control and The Second Season. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Image: Kyra running, in snow but not in snow shoes.