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Runners still finding release on the road during coronavirus

Henry Ton was looking for a way to help himself and neighbors stay fit and active after his gym closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 46-year-old software engineer in suburban Phoenix organized a small running group he jokingly calls his “Social Distance Distance Running Club.”

Runners across the country are still hitting the pavement and the trails, singly and in small groups. It’s a way to get in their workouts, reduce the sense of isolation and work off some stress with gyms closed amid the coronavirus.

Walkers and runners take advantage of the 1-mile Parham Bridges walking track, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. Runners across the country are still hitting the pavement and the trails, staying fit and working off some stress amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoRogelio V. Solis)

“Everybody's probably like me, just sitting around in my house eating all day,” Ton quipped. “This is a way to get out, get some fresh air, sweat a little.”

For some, running also provides a social outlet in a time when officials are encouraging social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings to 10 or fewer. Many have given up that aspect of it too, yielding to the safety of solo runs.

Elite distance runner Kaitlin Gregg Goodman is among those urging people to run alone. Goodman posted on Twitter: “QUIT RUNNING IN GROUPS."

Walkers and runners take advantage of the 1-mile Parham Bridges walking track, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. Runners across the country are still hitting the pavement and the trails, staying fit and working off some stress amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoRogelio V. Solis)

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Sports cardiologist Benjamin Levine said continuing to run has physical and psychological benefits. But he also suggests those running with others should likely double the recommended six feet of social distancing because of the increase in the amount of air they’re breathing in and out.

“I think it’s preserving both your physical and your mental health,” said Levine, who is a professor of medicine at UT Southwestern and Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas.

Tommy Laster, 48, uses a boxer's cadence as he skips rope following an afternoon run, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. Runners across the country are still hitting the pavement and the trails, staying fit and working off some stress amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoRogelio V. Solis)

“I think it’s critical. But that’s not just psychological. That’s biological. I think exercise is one of the few things we can do that has a very, very clear and manifest positive mental health benefit.”

But Levine, the director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, said people need to observe guidelines.

“It’s not the time to be running hand in hand,” he said.

Jelani Houseworth, 41, runs along the 1-mile Parham Bridges walking track, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. Runners across the country are still hitting the pavement and the trails, staying fit and working off some stress amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoRogelio V. Solis)

In Montgomery, Alabama, Marsha Trotter and members of her running group still gather four mornings a week for runs. They split up into smaller groups for different workouts, as usual, but are more conscious of keeping their distance.

They spread out for post-run photos to post on their Facebook page instead of standing side by side.

“It’s a normalcy,” said Trotter, a 45-year-old registered nurse. “Obviously people are not going to come out if they’re running a fever or have a cough or feel sick. That’s normal all year round anyway. But I think runners are crazy enough anyway so that nothing really scares them, so they’re going to come out and run and then go home.”

Jelani Houseworth, 41, runs along the 1-mile Parham Bridges walking track, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. Runners across the country are still hitting the pavement and the trails, staying fit and working off some stress amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoRogelio V. Solis)

Runners keep lacing up and heading out even while most races are canceled or postponed, including the Boston Marathon.

Gail Nestor, a 52-year-old from Johns Creek, Georgia, had qualified for Boston, which has been postponed until Sept. 14. Nestor has kept logging about 75 miles a week, first enjoying the social aspect and “running just for running’s sake.” She said it helps her cope and she has more time these days, too.

“We joke about how we’re helping our immune system," Nestor said. “We’re like, We need a support group, Runners Without Races.”

The rapidly changing dynamics of this pandemic have changed the running habits of Nestor, who has finished Boston twice among her 19 marathons. Nestor originally was still running with one or two other people, though they tried their best to stay at least 6 feet away from one another at all times. She noted Wednesday that she’s now running on her own to protect herself from the virus as much as possible.

Like Nestor, other runners have opted to mostly go solo.

Aidan Walsh, founder of Racefaster in New Jersey, advises his runners to run alone these days. The 39-year-old former Fairleigh Dickinson runner said many are logging more miles with their social and perhaps professional lives restricted to varying degrees.

“I would venture to say they’re doing more than they ever did simply because they have less going on in their lives and also there’s really nothing else to do," said Walsh, who started the retail stores and serves as a running coach and race director.

“They can’t go to work, they can’t go to the gym. They can’t go swimming."

But people can run — even in virtual races.

For those Harry Potter enthusiasts, there's this: A virtual running group that's "changing the muggle world — one mile at a time."

The Potterhead Running Club is the brainchild of Brian Biggs, a big Harry Potter fan who caught the running bug six years ago. He started the club with participants completing a distance that’s chosen along with an individualized theme. They can walk, bike, swim and lift weights to complete their goals.

“Everyone is welcome in our community, and every skill level can do a virtual run. Because you don't have to actually run," said Biggs, an reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently assigned as an emergency preparedness officer for the state of Vermont and lives in Connecticut.

“You can walk, you can bike, you can swim. You can sashay or meander. We like to say, 'It's your race, your pace at your place.'”

So far, the Harry Potter group has logged more than 12 million miles and earned more than $2,200,000 for nonprofit charities around the world.

Another Georgia runner, Susan Camp, founded the Decatur branch of Moms Run This Town. Camp said her group generally had 12-15 runners for their Saturday morning outings. When the coronavirus threat first hit, they discussed doing group runs with staggered starts.

That changed as the virus spread. By Monday, her chapter decided not to organize any group runs during this period of social distancing.

“I had some women chime in and thank us for making that call because it was making them nervous, seeing people organizing group runs and asking for people to run with them,” the 40-year-old Camp said.

Camp acknowledged that she would miss the connection, friendship and support that often comes from running with others. One member established a Facebook page that gave them a place on social media to discuss the running and wellness goals they otherwise might have shared during their group runs.

“We just get so much out of running together,” Camp said. “You can ask anybody, it’s for our mental health.”

AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Milwaukee, David Brandt in Phoenix and Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.