In May of 2020, I began a project to run every street in Santa Barbara. It had been one of those things I wanted to do “someday,” but I never thought I would ever have the time. When the pandemic hit, my someday became today.
I am a writer and stay-at-home mom with two elementary-aged children. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was thrust into juggling Zoom school and household duties and trying to keep my family safe.
My husband was working long hours in health-care administration, putting in 14-hour days. When he came home, I just stared at his shoes, imagining all the little red COVID balls jumping off him and crawling into our lungs.
It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to start prioritizing my mental health. I had to get outside, break up the monotony of lockdown, and reduce the stress of daily news reports. A weekly run through Santa Barbara seemed like the perfect escape.
The inspiration for my COVID Project came from professional runner, writer, and photographer Rickey Gates. In 2018, he ran every street in San Francisco, averaging 29 miles a day. He finished in just 45 days. As I listened to his story of running and sleeping in a van, it seemed crazy but also somehow accessible. Maybe that was crazy too, but I wanted to give it a try.
One of my favorite things about Santa Barbara is its size. Locked in by mountains to the north and ocean to the south, with only one major freeway, it was easy to picture how I might complete something like running every street.
I picked up a map from Chaucer’s Books, and one day while out on my usual loop through San Marcos Foothill preserve, I decided to just keep going. I took a left turn on La Cumbre and weaved in and out of my neighborhood streets.
Typically, I go about my day, rarely straying far from my usual routes. I take the same streets, park in the same lots, visit the same restaurants. I’ve never entered an unfamiliar neighborhood purely out of curiosity. Now, every run felt like a new adventure.
Aside from confirming I have a poor sense of direction, a funny thing started happening. I would be out running, and suddenly I would find myself in a familiar place. It could be an apartment I once lived in on the Westside or a restaurant where I used to work. I often found myself near a friend’s house, and we would have a quick chat from a safe distance. Even though I run alone, this project has connected me to the people I love and the place where I live at a time when the world feels so fractured.
I’ve never been one for speed, so rather than run as fast as I could, I set out to run as mindfully as I could. Last week, I found myself at the Frog Wall on the Riviera. It’s a special place for my family. In November of 2019, we lost our 20-month-old son Aiden to brain cancer. While in the hospital, a friend gave us a plush frog named Floyd. She explained that frogs are incapable of hopping backward, and from here on out, we could only hop forward. Through Aiden’s treatment and after his death, frogs became a symbol of hope, and “keep moving forward” became our family’s motto. I visit the Frog Wall from time to time to feel close to my son.
I have been running for over 20 years. For me, it’s more than just exercise; it’s sweaty meditation. Our family has been through a lot in the last few years. The pandemic has made it difficult to untangle the grief I feel over losing my son with the collective grief the world is experiencing now. I have turned to running to help me sort it all out. Seeing my city from the street level enabled me to understand it more, and in turn, I understand myself more.
This week, I finished my run just as the rain came rolling in. I snapped a picture from the top of Shoreline Park. I felt grateful that my legs, lungs, and heart are strong enough to carry me from the top of the Rivera down to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge and everywhere in between.
Emily Henderson is a freelance writer living in Santa Barbara. She writes personal essays about running, parenting, sobriety, and grief. She is currently writing a memoir. Follow Emily on her blog MyJustRightLife.com or find her on Instagram @myjustrightlife.
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