To rising college junior Leela Sarukkai, quarantine has given her more time to appreciate running not just as a sport but as a lifelong outdoor passion. Leela runs cross-country and track for the University of Chicago, but her races are not solely confined to the school course. “I enjoy running really long distances, like half marathons, and hope to one day do marathons after college,” she says of running achievements she is proud of.
Leela first started running as she transitioned out of competitive swimming in adolescence – “I always loved being outdoors and figured running was a great way to get outside and exercise!” These envisioned benefits turned out to be exactly what running provided for Leela, who continued as an active cross-country and track runner all throughout the high school and collegiate levels. Running “gets me outside at least once a day and I get fresh air, time away from devices and electronics, and time to just be me.”
Due to social distancing orders in quarantine, Leela had to make a major shift in her workout routine: from team practices to running solo. This transition proved beneficial to the amount of training she did rather than diminishing her drive to continue exercising. “I just loved being outside as much as I could.” Without as much direct academic pressure, Leela was able “to dedicate so much more time to…and improve” on her sport. “I know I have made a lot of progress during quarantine and I am grateful for that.” Certainly quarantine has given runners much more time to focus on training, if not the motivation. Leela still wanted ways to keep herself motivated to run without the mutual encouragement from her school team. “I never ran with music or anything before, but now I tend to listen to podcasts during my runs.”
It comes as no surprise that Leela’s entire outdoor UChicago track season was cancelled along with numerous other sporting events worldwide, but Leela is “honestly not greatly disappointed” about this loss. The purpose she finds in running extends beyond competitive training. She puts it simply: “I love running for my school but I don’t run for the competition – I run because I love it…for the feeling of running itself.”
As a runner, Leela is not limited by cumbersome equipment or an essential team routine: quarantine has simply given her greater flexibility in her schedule to train as she pleases. Her message to other runners: “I definitely think it is feasible to train during quarantine. My progress has only accelerated and I have improved more in the last 3 months than I ever have by a lot. I think it really depends on the person and why you run, but it definitely is possible.” While running solely for the competitive pressure can make training feel more obsolete upon a canceled track season, Leela’s honest love for running has enabled her to thrive even in the absence of teammates and meets.
The Internet has helped Leela stay in touch with her team even while they are scattered across the country and globe. “My teammates are my friends and I am staying in touch through all the normal means: social media, text, Facetime. Of course it is not ideal to be training alone but I think it is manageable.” She has been able to virtually model running with teammates: “I sometimes call my teammates, wear AirPods, and go for a run. So I can still talk to my teammates while I run even if it is not in person.” Leela is not taking part in any virtual running events, such as Athletic.net’s virtual meets. “I do know that Strava has a lot of virtual events for those interested!” she adds.
Leela is proud of how her training has progressed throughout quarantine: ironically, the lack of a track season has given her time to make amazing personal running improvements. “My mileage and pace has really increased more than it ever had before! I am able to set far more adventurous goals and meet them which I’m super proud of.” Alongside running, Leela enjoys cross-training and has numerous fun ways to get her exercise in. “I’ve gotten into a habit of going on walks, biking and doing yoga, all of which I hope to continue even once the season picks back up.” As a fun way to stay connected to friends and teammates, she has started doing yoga or core workouts through Zoom.
Mainly, Leela stays motivated “just by the want to get outside and experience nature,” a major reason why she picked up running in the first place. She continues: “now more than ever, I think it’s important to have time alone, away from home and family and friends, to just reflect and think.” Running has provided a refreshing space for Leela to engage in this kind of self-reflection and enjoy nature.
Leela runs a personal vegan food blog – “to see my recipes and food, tune into @leelaeats on Instagram!” she says. “It’s really taken off during quarantine, if I do say so myself.” Her quarantine kitchen has been very productive. She elaborates, “I’ve tried a whole bunch of new baking adventures and varied forms of breakfast foods. Probably some of my favorites have been tahini millionaire bars as well as sweet potato brownies. These recipes have been quality.”
A few of Leela’s aesthetic vegan culinary creations:
While training outside in the midst of a pandemic, Leela takes precautions by being “mindful of who else I’m sharing the trail with. I try to give everyone a large amount of space and I do exercise alone.” She has explored new running routes throughout the Eastside, such as Cross Kirkland Corridor, and incorporated them into her routine. “Somehow in all the years I lived in Seattle, I never visited the Cross Kirkland Corridor. Shocking, I know! But this quarantine I’ve really been on that trail at least 3 times a week.”
Leela is happy to say she has not been injured recently – as a longtime runner, her weekly exercise routine involves preventative techniques that protect her from injury. “I stretch and roll [leg muscles] before and after every run. I also lift twice a week and cross-train about 4 times a week. I think all these other activities help improve my running and prevent me from getting hurt.”
Her advice for anyone who may be struggling with staying home as an athlete: “I would say to just do what feels right. If you don’t feel like running, don’t run. If you want to try a different sport (e.g. biking) go do that! If you don’t want to exercise at all, then don’t. The most important thing in my opinion is to be kind to yourself and do what feels good.”
We asked Leela if she thought her life would ever go back to normal after the pandemic. She responded by pointing out that the definition of normal isn’t the same anymore.
“I absolutely don’t think it will return to exactly how it was before. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t be good, fun, or enjoyable. I think it will just be different with its own set of pros and cons.”
If anything, I hope you come away from reading this interview knowing that I truly believe that exercising right now, with all the stressors in our lives, is not the number one priority by ANY means. I think there are so many more important things so if it doesn’t fit your life right now, then I wouldn’t worry about it.