‘Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other’: running in the time of coronavirus


The residential streets of southern Edinburgh are quiet this morning. A lone, calling wood pigeon. A car bumping over potholes. A couple, heads down, shuffling towards the shop.

I run on, beating the couple to the shop, turn right, then left at traffic lights, and without any plan, find my legs inexorably drawn to the little path by the burn. It is quiet here, too, in this damp, garlicky glen. A woodpecker, a squirrel (grey, unfortunately), an orange plastic bag snared and straggled octopus-like on a high branch.

I climb out of the glen, onto the grassy ramparts of the hill, Edinburgh falling beneath my feet. Unusually, I’m not alone up here. Runners are converging, destined for the same modest summit. There is already someone standing by the pillar that marks the highest point. I avoid them; I do not even look at them.

Coronavirus has made us friendlier, an as-cheerful-as-you-can-be-just-now presenter on Radio 5 announced. (The radio has become a permanent fixture of life in my home, babbling away in the background, turned up and children shushed when it is required to play its role as the harbinger of the hour’s latest doom). The isolation is encouraging a Blitz-like spirit, the presenter went on.

I don’t think so. Earlier in the week, a man – who otherwise did not resemble a runner – had broken into a steady trot when my five-year-old daughter wandered innocently into a space he obviously deemed as invaded. At other times, when ‘meeting’ other family groups on the same path, one of the groups withdraws to the very edges, in a way that is unintentionally satirising ‘social distancing’. We are desperate to stay apart, but to brazenly behave in such an obvious way would be plainly rude. So, farcically, we have instinctively adopted an array of socially acceptable social distancing conventions. The view in the other direction suddenly becomes transfixing, the conversation riveting. Or, like penguins, groups gather in a tight circle, kicking at the mud, the father reiterating the instructions: two metres, no touching, and for goodness sake, don’t stroke the dog. Others literally turn around, frantically searching for another way, pretending they have simply changed their minds about the direction they were walking. If I was Bill Bryson, I would gently deride this as so deliciously British: we can’t even achieve ‘social distancing’ without a stilted, hilarious awkwardness. Nor are people, generally – contrary to the presenter’s claim – saying hello (or anything at all, or if they do it’s an exaggerated gesture in an effort to disguise our fear of appearing antisocial). Maybe it’s the oppressive weather in Edinburgh – cold and misty – that dampens the mood; either way, greetings are almost apologetic or not even attempted. And every time I am reminded of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men: ‘Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.’

It seems that way on the hill. We must avoid each other. I see us all, like those slow-motion, UV-lit sneezes: literally oozing and gushing from every barn door wide pore. Flecks of spit, heavy breath, sweat. No wonder we are petrified of each other.

I do not pause, going immediately into descent, throwing a token glance at the city over my right shoulder. To the north and west, buried beneath the horizon, are the hills and mountains that I won’t run up anytime soon. I drop on a muddy line into the clasp of the glen, then rise out the other side. A runner approaches. A shared nod. Next, two walkers. They move off the path, eyes lowered, the gorse proving fascinating. Or perhaps their attention was caught by a plastic bag, a white one this time.

I am soon home. Too soon perhaps, but these days are different. ‘One form of exercise’ – there is a reason to be grateful. I can run. We can run. Running just now might not be running as we know it, but nor is anything.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Johnny Parsons says:

    Excellent blog, as always.
    It is a most unnerving time.
    I live in Peru, we are in week 2 of a national lockdown. Luckily on top of my diddy flat, there is 12.5 yards of roof space, where I trot back and forth for a hour. Better than nowt, in the time being…
    Just reading “The Mountains are Calling” for the 3rd time. An absolute classic of classics.
    Stay calm, stay strong, stay fit and stay safe 😉

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      I hope you are okay in Peru, what with talk of emergency flights. Still, if you’d told me a year ago that someone in Peru was reading my book for a third time in the midst of a pandemic, you can imagine my reaction.

  2. baronmaxi says:

    I was thinking exactly the same on my run last night and cycle today. People are avoiding eye contact. Maybe it’s because we shouldn’t really be outside, certainly not for something frivolous! Maybe we should make more of an effort to say hello. But without over doing it of course – this is Edinburgh after all , not Glasgow! (Ahem) And of course not getting too close to say hello!

  3. Nick says:

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but are you making an effort to keep your distance when passing people?

    You write “Next, two walkers. They move off the path, eyes lowered, the gorse proving fascinating. Or perhaps their attention was caught by a plastic bag, a white one this time.” Perhaps the two walkers have been passed at close quarters by several puffing, sweating runners already and are angry/upset when another one approaches closely and at speed?

  4. Nick says:

    Apologies, I’ve just read your twitter feed and clearly you are keeping your distance. If only everyone would!

    1. heightsofmadness says:

      That’s okay. I always think that the person moving fastest should be the one to give way or change course – which ordinarily will be the runner.

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