Staying Active Outdoors in the Age of Social Distancing
Across the Blue Ridge and around the world, people came together while apart. We saw outdoor enthusiasts going on teddy bear hunts around their neighborhoods, riding bikes, and running marathons in their backyards. In a time when we were asked to socially distance to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19, we spoke to adventurers across the region about how they adapted to restrictions while creatively getting outside.
Exploring the Neighborhood
With two young children at home, restrictions on gatherings and access to their usual hangout spots meant getting creative for Molly and David Wolff. Social distancing is difficult to explain to a two- and four-year-old. At first, the West Virginia-based Wolffs were still going to trails in their local area. But as trailheads became overcrowded, making it difficult to practice social distancing, they eventually restricted their outdoor time to around their neighborhood.
“You can’t keep a two- and four-year-old from touching picnic tables,” Molly Wolff said.
Instead, they explored new places in their neighborhood, places they had always wanted to check out but put off for other things. The kids helped build foam boats to play with in the creek. Wolff said her oldest, Arthur, went from riding a strider bike to a pedal bike with no wheels. Now he goes on three bike rides a day with dad.
The virus hit at the time of year when many families kick off their camping season. Since Grayson Highlands and other family favorites were inaccessible, the Wolffs decided to make their yard the campground.
“We almost blew it off,” Wolff said. “But as soon as we set up the tent in the front yard, the kids started losing their minds. It was the easiest camping trip we ever had. We threw out a tent and sleeping bags. The kids were ecstatic. And in the morning, we walked back inside and had a cup of coffee. But they loved it. That was a great way to break up some of the boredom.”
Wolff, a photographer and paddler in the Mountain State’s New River Gorge area, cut out downriver kayaking almost immediately.
“I have lupus, which is an autoimmune disease,” she said. “All through flu season, I’ve been kind of practicing social distancing anyways. It was not to this extreme. When this all went down, I was already fairly well prepared. We immediately stopped hanging out with other groups.”
Wolff didn’t want to risk running a shuttle with other people. Instead, she transitioned to flatwater kayaking solo on a lake near her neighborhood.
“For kayaking, I just tried to get in the mindset that now is a great time to work on flexibility, strength, and stabilizing so that when we get back to kayaking, I’m rested and stronger,” she said.
With everything going on, Wolff said screen time has definitely increased in their household. But it’s also been eye opening for how much they can do outside on a budget, making do with what is around them.
“While a lot of things are super depressing, scary, and uncertain, I’m definitely grateful to be stuck home with these guys,” Wolff said. “It really is a time where we’re making sacrifices for the greater good. If we just remind ourselves of that, we can keep our sanity and hang on a little longer.”
Because she falls into the high-risk population, Wolff said she plans to take extra precautions when getting back into socializing. But she’s looking forward to getting back outside with New River Climbing School, a guiding business she and her husband own.
First thing Wolff plans to do when things start to open back up: Go for a paddle on the New River with a group of friends.
Looking Forward to Friends
Although she’s still biking on her own, Devin Cowens said she misses riding with a large group of people and sharing a mutual passion for cycling. “That’s something I didn’t expect to really feel,” she said. “Bikes bring me a lot of joy, but so does the social aspect of biking.”
As the events planner for East Coast Greenway, Cowens was already working from home on a semi-regular basis. But she also got to travel, taking her bike wherever she went. Now limited to biking around her home base in Atlanta, she’s finding new ways to explore the city. She’s been working on a scavenger hunt of sorts, finding cool backdrops around town to take photos of her bike.
“I think that when this is over, nothing will be the same,” Cowens said. “There will be a new normal. I think I will ride a ton, but I think I’ll be a lot more present and more appreciative of that time.”
Cowens recognizes that she’s not biking nearly as often without group rides or friends to go out with. Instead, she’s preparing for future trips as she plans new routes to take and places to visit.
In order to preserve that community aspect, Cowens said she’s been connecting with other local cyclists through social media. She co-hosted an online bikepacking info session with WTF Bikexplorers ATL and Girls Gone Gravel.
“I still want to get my backpacking fix, since I can’t really do that right now,” she said. “I think we’re all getting a lot of information right now and there’s an immediacy to learn something new. We wanted to do more of a low key, informal session. Engage with folks who are itching to get outside but can’t or folks looking to fill time.”
When things start opening up and travel is safe, Cowens said she’s looking forward to exploring more of Georgia and its parks. “We’re going to be in this for a while, and that’s okay,” Cowens said. “I do want to be able to get back outside with other people but recognizing the necessity to be patient about that and take it slow. I’m really looking forward to a time when we can meet again but know that may not be right around the corner for the safety of everyone.”
First thing Cowens plans to do when things start to open back up: Although the destination isn’t set yet, a long weekend bikepacking trip with some friends.
A Virtual Marathon
The Asheville Marathon was supposed to be Carrie Ann Chandler’s first marathon. Since starting her training last fall, she overcame injuries, raised money for Girls on the Run, and wondered on numerous occasions why she was giving up her Saturdays for this. She found support from local running groups like Badass Lady Gang and Trail Sisters to keep going.
“Running has been a whole journey, which it is for everyone,” Chandler said. “It’s this very personal thing.”
A few weeks before the race date, the Asheville Marathon’s organizers canceled the event after North Carolina’s governor issued a state of emergency. Instead, they encouraged runners to participate in the event virtually, posting their runs to Strava and social media.
When COVID-19 first hit, Chandler said she was consumed by all of the news and recommendations coming out. With the race now canceled, she made the decision not to participate in the virtual event. But on March 22nd, the day the race was supposed to happen, all the hard work and pain she put into training hit.
“It was so emotional and awful,” Chandler said. “This has been my life for the last six months.”
A few days later, she put on her shoes and started her marathon. Instead of running the hills of the Biltmore Estate, Chandler ran loops around her neighborhood in the pouring rain, determined to finish under the cutoff time of six and a half hours.
“It was harrowing,” she said. “I had like four miles left to go and my sister, who lives in New York City, calls me because she was watching me on Strava. She was like you’re not going fast enough. You’re not going to make it. The only reason I was able to beat the cutoff was because she talked to me for three miles.”
With her wife set up as the only aid station, Chandler beat the cutoff time and completed her first marathon.
“The follow through and the staying power is worth it,” she said. “I’m glad I did it. I wish it would have been different. I was sad and didn’t really acknowledge the grief that this thing has been taken away from me. But I think it’s worth it.”
As for her next marathon, Chandler said it definitely won’t be another virtual event. But she’s looking forward to the chance to compete in person with other runners, the excitement of the race, and the feeling of accomplishing something.
First thing Chandler plans to do when things start to open back up: Head to 12 Bones Brewing for a beer and blueberry chipotle wings.
Brushing Up on Skills
You can usually find Cliford Mervil in the mountains of western North Carolina, checking out the peaks of the Blue Ridge with his dog, Leah, a camera, and some friends. With trail closures and social distancing guidelines, all of his connections with other hikers and photographers have moved online.
Instead, Mervil’s been hitting the mountain biking trails early in the morning to keep out of contact with others and going for long walks with podcasts in the afternoon. Since Leah usually hikes with him, it’s a great way for both to get their energy out.
Since he can’t use this time for camping or backpacking trips, Mervil has been preparing for future trips by brushing up on skills and knowledge. He’s excited to get into the world of alpine climbing when things start opening up.
“The main thing is knowing the snow, knowing how avalanches work, and the safety of it,” Mervil said. “I’ve never really had the time to sit down and actually focus on it. I’ve been spending a lot more time doing research and training, seeing what it’s all about, sharpening my tools while resting a bit.”
To keep up with his photography, Mervil has been taking online adventure photography workshops with Jimmy Chin and others to work on things like framing and composition.
“One of the most important things as photographers is finding new compositions,” Mervil said. “You will see people who have done it before. So, it’s finding something to make yourself stand out, being different, and capturing the emotion in what you see.”
But he’s also using this time to rest and recharge so that he’s ready to go when trails and campsites start opening up again.
“I feel like it’ll make me spend a lot more time outside because you simply don’t know when something else might happen that limits whatever you were planning on doing,” Mervil said. “I’ll wait until tomorrow to do this or I’ll wait until next week to do this trip. Whatever you’re thinking, just do it now because you never know when something might happen.”
Although we can’t be together now, there’s a lot to look forward to in the future.
First thing Mervil plans to do when things start to open back up: Watch the sunrise from Tennent Mountain followed by a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota.
Cover Photo: The Wolff family goes for a bike ride. Photo by Molly Wolff