COVID-19 shuts down races, but not why area distance runners put on miles

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Alexandria’s Brett Larson (right) and his friend, Henrik Bjorndahl, share a photo in the crowd at a marathon they ran in Atlanta, Ga. on March 1, 2020. Larson has finished 36 marathons and has a goal of running the 26.2-mile race in all 50 states after weighing 325 pounds and making a decision to change his life after health concerns in 2010. (Contributed photo)

Alexandria’s Brett Larson had quite a goal set for himself that was supposed to take place in early June this year.

The plan for Larson, 39, was to run four marathons in four days across four states in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Racking up that kind of mileage in such a short amount of time is generally not recommended for distance runners, but Larson has been working toward a larger goal of completing 50 marathons in all 50 states.

He just got done completing the 26.2-mile race in Georgia and South Carolina in March to cross two more off that list. That brought him to 36 states that he has completed runs in, but getting to No. 40 will have to wait due to the COVID-19 pandemic postponing or canceling marathons all over the country this spring and early summer.

“I’ve done two marathons in two days a couple times, and it’s always gone well,” Larson said. “I was at a point where I did those two in March and then within that week after, the NBA canceled and then the NHL canceled. Everything just blew up overnight, and I was starting to brace for the whole spring being very much in question here.”

Larson did not feel like all of his winter training was done in vain due to the fact that he was able to get two marathons in before everything shut down in March. Distance runners in Minnesota who train for spring marathons do so knowing that will mean a lot of indoor exercises or running outdoors in some cold and often-times dark conditions.


Running, biking and walking -- as long as they are done individually or in small groups and through practicing social distancing -- have been some of the outdoor activities that people are encouraged to keep doing while abiding by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order that remains in place through at least May 4.

“I think the running community by and large is still pretty active,” Larson said. “I think there are less organized group runs. Not a lot of people coordinating and saying, ‘Let’s meet up at the state park or Big Ole and go for a big group run with six or eight people, but I would say more people encouraging each other to get out from their own houses and be active...I hope it leads to long-term changes and disciplines that maybe people find a new love for being active and being healthy.”

Larson speaks about that from a very personal perspective. When he started running in 2010, he could not run one minute. Larson weighed about 325 pounds at that point, and health issues created a breaking point that led to a change in his life.

“I started a couch-to-5K, 30-minute type program,” Larson said. “I ended up running a 5K and thought, ‘I want to try a 10K.’ I went to a half marathon, and then a year later in 2011 I ran the Fargo Marathon. What happened to me is I got super ingrained in it, and I loved the process of training for something and having a goal and working toward it. When Fargo was done, I needed something to keep me motivated and keep me training for a long-term goal. That’s when I had the idea of 50 marathons in 50 states. The rest is history, I guess.”

“All the reasons I run are still there”

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken away some of Larson’s opportunity to cross a few states off that list in the short term, but it hasn’t taken away his primary reason for running.

The same can be said for Alexandria’s Julie Miller. Miller was planning to run the Boston Marathon on April 20, but the 124th running of that historic race has been postponed to Sept. 14. The Fargo Marathon, scheduled for May 9, is postponed to Aug. 29. Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth that was set for June 20 was canceled. The list goes on and on.

“My main motivator for running is just my enjoyment of doing it. Doing it with my friends. Then it’s the health of it and all of that, but those motivators haven’t gone away,” Miller said. “All the reasons I run are still there. It’s not going to stop me from running.”

Miller, 50, still sees friends through running, while being mindful of everything that is going on.


“We’re keeping our distance and being smart,” she said. “We’re not gathering in groups, but I get together with a friend and do that several different times a week. I’m still getting to see different people, and it’s a great outlet for each of us.”

Miller still has the New York City Marathon on her schedule for Nov. 1, and she is undecided on whether or not she will run in Boston in September. Miller enjoys the race-day feeling, but it is not her purpose for running. If there is a small silver lining in any of the current circumstances, one might be that more people are finding ways to be active.

“I have seen a lot of people exercising on the trail. I have seen a lot of people getting out for bike rides and walks, and it’s just enjoyable for me to see that people are taking the time, taking their families and getting out,” Miller said. “It’s not just because I’m a runner, but I work at the clinic as a dietitian and diabetes educator. I know how important exercise is for your physical health and just as importantly, your mental health.”

A break from the stress

Alexandria’s Jeanne Barlage understands fully right now how running can be an outlet.

As a registered nurse, Barlage is one of many people who see the difficulties the pandemic is causing through both her work and personal life.

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Alexandria’s Jeanne Barlage (front, left) is scheduled to run her third Boston Marathon this September 14 after the race was postponed from April 20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured with Barlage before a local run are (front) Sara Knath, (back, left to right) Michelle Russell, Becky Walsh, Linda Hager, Kathy Ballou and Julie Burmeister. (Contributed photo)

“You just never get away from it. You live it all day long at work, and your family life is affected,” she said. “We can’t see our grandchildren. That’s a tough thing.”


Barlage trained all winter in preparation for the Boston Marathon on April 20. That often meant bringing a change of clothes to work and running after dark anywhere from 35-50 miles a week.

Barlage turns 60-years-old this year and wants to run her third Boston Marathon in the same year. That’s still the plan as she has committed to running the race this September.

“Being a nurse, I knew (postponing it) was the best thing to do,” Barlage said. “I was OK with it, but disappointed because I had done all that training in the cold and dark. You know it’s the best thing, but are you disappointed? Yes.”

Barlage is maintaining her mileage right now before she jumps back into a more structured plan again in mid-May to be ready for Boston. That too comes with uncertainty with so many questions surrounding what life will look like five months from now.

“If they go ahead with it, I think it will be safe,” she said. “It’s more of, you’re going to start the training again and are they going to just cancel it until next year?”

Barlage knows that is a possibility, but her plans of getting her miles in every week won’t change. After starting running at age 50, she is now a veteran of nearly a dozen marathons. Barlage is seeing the benefits of running as much now as ever.

“It’s a mental thing,” she said. “I have that release, and since the postponement of Boston, my long mileage runs have gotten shorter, but I still run four or five days a week. Just because I need it for a mental release, and I just feel so much better.”


Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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