2020 added urgency to Minnesota man’s idea to bring strangers together to run and talk

On Feb. 28 of 2020, J.C. Lippold looked at the front page of this newspaper and smiled. At the top was a banner that read, “Running Conversation” with a picture of he and his fellow runners jumping in the air.

The story was about Lippold’s brainchild, which he called “5K Everyday Conversations.” The idea was simple: Strangers would meet up, run 5 kilometers together and talk. This would help connect people in our disconnected age, and combat the tidal wave of loneliness.

Two months in, the project was going well. Lippold planned to run and talk for all 366 days of 2020. But just below the banner was another headline: “Stocks’ worst day as fears go viral.” COVID-19 was on its way.

Looking at the front page, Lippold felt a sliver of doubt about whether his project would go as planned. But strangers kept running and talking until March 25, when Gov. Tim Walz ordered a two-week lockdown.

Being is a creative person, Lippold is not one to let something like a global pandemic keep him down. He pivoted.

“The second the lockdown started happening, I found a treadmill, and was running on it on Facebook Live. But I thought, ‘This doesn’t seem like something that’s going to be either interesting or manageable.’ ”

Broadcasting himself to people on social media wasn’t why he started this project. In fact, it was the opposite. Yet to his surprise, other runners wanted to keep it going. It had only been a few months, but connections had been made.

So Lippold kept up the daily Facebook Live conversations, and soon others stepped up to lead the videos, with the online group expanding to Florida, New Mexico and Canada, with nearly 1,000 members today.

“It would have been useful in any year to combine the elements of connecting with people and giving them a chance to get out and run,” said Ben Hackel, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, and one of the runners who took some solace in the online stream. “But it was especially helpful this year.”

“When the pandemic hit and everything shut down,” said Madonna Backstrom, a technology consultant and another runner, “the daily Facebook Live video gave you a connection to a group of people, and a chance to get close to them. It was really nice to have.”

Summer came. The lockdown eased. The group decided to run again, but also kept Facebook Live going for those who couldn’t make the runs. Additional runs cropped up in Chaska, Edina, Bloomington and St. Paul.

At the end May, George Floyd was killed. Minneapolis was torn apart. The runners talked about these things as they ran. One day Lippold saw a post on Facebook by Jesse Ross, the executive director of the nonprofit Still Kickin. Ross said he had seen pickup trucks filled with white men rolling through his north Minneapolis neighborhood at 2:30 a.m.

“I used to run really early in the mornings, and I wrote about not feeling safe about running right after Ahmaud Arbery was killed, and after George Floyd was killed,” said Ross, who is African American. “Then JC responded to the post, saying he’d be willing to run with me. A couple weeks later, I took him up on it.”

At 4 a.m. each Wednesday, the two alternately ran at Ross’s house in north Minneapolis, then at Lippold’s in St. Louis Park. Soon they then decided to turn it into a 5K Everyday Conversation, starting Wednesdays at 4 a.m. at Sanctuary Covenant Church, running down Broadway Avenue and back.

“It became a thing for my friends and I to just get up every Wednesday, get some fresh air and go,” said Sarina Baker, who teaches at Lucy Laney Elementary School in north Minneapolis. “We’d run at different paces, so we’d meet new people throughout. There was one woman who was a chemist. At what point would I think about talking to a chemist? Also, just to chat about what was happening in life, and in the city, and to have real conversations, was really nice.”

The north Minneapolis runs turned into the most popular ones, with as many as 20 people coming from all over the city and the suburbs and from north.

“There are a lot of prejudices we build up by staying in our comfy little corner of the world,” said Peter Elbridge, a bank manager who lives in Bloomington. “There’s something to be said for being there in person, in a place, with a group of people, in an area where you’ve always thought of it as ‘them’ or ‘those people,’ and seeing that we’re the same deep down, that we’re all in this together.”

The runners ran and talked through the summer and the fall. Once Lippold organized a Facebook Live marathon to raise money for Touchstone Mental Health. Another time, he coordinated the North Minneapolis Conversations, Connections & a Half Marathon, which included six hours of conversations about race and George Floyd, facilitated by artists, activists, business people and others representing north Minneapolis. Too, there was a virtual 5K, 10K and half-marathon courses that listeners could run through north Minneapolis that same weekend. Later, when Ross started a coat drive for north Minneapolis schools, the runners stepped up with nearly $2,000 in donations.

“There was a large chunk of money that came through connections I made through 5K Everyday Conversations,” Ross said. “I was ridiculously proud of the people I met and the relationships I made there.”

As kilometers piled up, the runners were changed.

“As cheesy as that sounds,” Backstrom said, “I’ve made friends for life.”

For some, it changed how they thought about conversation.

“We tend to think that conversation requires a relationship,” said Elbridge. “But I’ve learned that conversation is a beautiful thing, whether you have a relationship or not. All it takes is people being a little bit brave, and a little weird, to say, ‘Hey, let’s have conversations for no reason.’ ”

In November, the lockdown returned. The conversations went back to Facebook. Lippold tried to think of a celebration to cap the year, but nothing right came to mind. So he put it to the group.

He said, “They were like, ‘Let’s just keep it going for another year.’ ”

Frank Bures is an author and freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.

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