Walk on by – Éanna Brophy on exercise in the pandemic

An Irishman’s Diary

It was shortly after the First Cocooning of 2020 that something very strange began to occur. Suburban footpaths and the pavements alongside main roads which had hardly felt the pressure of a human footstep for decades since the proliferation of the motor-car were suddenly subjected to the tramp of many pairs of walking feet.

People who had never sauntered further than the distance from the front door to their awaiting automotive vehicle were donning shoes and long-neglected boots and taking to the concrete in their dozens.

The dozens became scores and then hundreds. The impact of all the footslogging was even measurable by seismologists because virtually all other human-made vibrations had ceased.

Soon, however, it became almost dangerous to go out. It got worse; some people took to the jogging. The footpaths were becoming so populated that it was impossible to walk in a straight line. The oncoming walker might decide to zigzag just as you had begun to do the same.


Others, usually young and unaware of life beyond their earphones, were unable to see oncoming older people – and thus were sometimes surprised to learn colourful new phrases from the latter’s rich vocabulary.

It was not just young people who were blind to those coming towards them – two or three people of any age engaged in animated chat with each other took it for granted that anyone coming towards them must step aside lest their flow of verbiage be interrupted. Even those more enlightened folk who wished to accommodate oncoming walkers began to find the constant zigzagging both tedious and exhausting.

Crossing the road wasn’t much help, because you could easily meet someone in mid-zag coming from the opposite footpath on a similar mission in mid-zig. One could be in mortal danger during such mid-street stand-offs. As there was less than the normal traffic, the drivers of the proliferating delivery vans could now put the foot down – and you might suffer a lockdown knock-down.

It became clear that for urban dwellers of certain ages and medical conditions the only safe refuge was to find a public park. At least here there would be plenty of wide open space in which they could employ avoidance manoeuvres.

Park walking has its own hazards, however. In these suburban oases you can find several species of pedestrian. The main categories are Doggy People, Buggy People and Joggy People. Quite a few of the first mentioned have been coming here for years but their haven has been invaded by many newcomers. On their own, or even in pairs, these constitute no hazard to the pandemic pedestrian. It is when several of them encounter each other that the problem arises. You have to step gingerly over the dogs’ trailing leads and do your best to block out such chat as, “Ah yes, he had his shot yesterday, but he’s recovering well after just a few little side-effects . . . Aren’t you pet?”

You realise this is not addressed to the husband at the next line: “Ah would you look at him waggin’ his little tail.”

Buggy People, usually young women but occasionally men, are generally no hazard, except when in groups, or when accompanied by squadrons of fast-moving toddlers on bikes, trikes and scooters. You have to be quick to take to the grass to avoid falling over them. This has its own dangers; you could slip on wet grass. Worse still, you could be hit in the small of the back by one of the Joggy People.

You might be lucky to get just a glancing bump from a lithe and nimble young jogger, but it might be a Puffing Billy or a Gasping Gussie.

These red-faced gents will usually be clad in what looks like old football togs they dug out of the hot press, who have decided in their middle years to try to regain the once-youthful figure of their fond imagination. Unfortunately they may not have lost many kilos at the time of your encounter.

If the perils of the park become too much, you may have to search further afield. The beach can offer wide-open walking space provided the tide is out – but not everybody lives near a beach. So in your desperate quest for safe perambulation you have to go exploring further afield.

A field! The very thing! The football fields everywhere are empty now, so you’ll have the place to yourself. Just you and a few hundred other people. But there is room for all. You find yourself doing something very odd – walking in straight lines. Strangers are even smiling at each other, so far as you can tell behind their masks.

Alas, it didn’t last.

Everything was going swimmingly until the rain started. It rained non-stop in every one of the long nights after Samhain. Soon the football fields had become quagmires. As the remaining negotiable walking surfaces contracted, territorial strategies had to be planned lest one find oneself involved in what legendary sports commentator Mícheál O’Hehir would have called “a shemozzle in the goalmouth”.

But don't let all these obstacles stop you. Determined walkers will always find a way. To misquote the Liverpool anthem popularised by the late Gerry Marsden – walk on, mask on, with hope in your heart . . . but you'll never walk alone.