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For more than a year, we were advised to distance ourselves from the world due to COVID-19. But what if, during that year of solitude, we kept exploring? What if, when everyone else was growing apart, we grew closer to our community?

That was the choice Gregg Lind made. Lind, a Minneapolis ultramarathoner, spent the pandemic year carving out regular racing courses in admittedly unconventional settings.

Lind ran throughout south Minneapolis, specifically throughout a quadrant of the city that spanned east from the Chain of Lakes to Interstate 35W and from Lake Street to 62nd Street. But not on the streets.

He ran through alleys.

"People have their chicken coops …, their garages with basketball hoops and kids back there on trampolines and all weird garbage to be taken," said Lind, 42, who works in climate technology.

"You know, it feels like there's this whole separate universe."

He saw everything from a Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine in Uptown to an inflatable Santa Claus waving at him throughout the year. He saw weird plants, paintings and murals.

"All of the scenic backdrops that you want for pictures," Lind said, "you can do it in the alleys."

Lind started running in 2015 as a way to cope after his mother's death. Early in his running career, he became interested in ultra distance running, which is any race extending beyond a traditional marathon's 26.2 miles.

Since the pandemic started, Lind stopped training for races and started running in back alleyways. His goal was to entertain himself, he said. Stumbling upon "strange and unexpected things" helped him do exactly that.

He compared his new terrain to his familiar trail-running routes, as the alleys also feature "lumpy" and "weird" conditions.

"This is a fantastic way to get to know parts of the city that are hiding in plain sight — that's what I love about it," Lind said.

Lind admitted that if it weren't for the pandemic, he never would have thought of running in alleys because the traffic would have made it too dangerous. But his desire to explore led him to find a "whole new world" behind his neighbors' backyards.

As the pandemic fads transitioned from bread baking to spring cleaning, Lind turned his neighbors' trash into personal treasure, collecting discarded housewares, bats and balls, a Razor scooter, fanny packs and, most notably, his 8-year-old son's bike.

"That was totally delightful," he said. "Superfun stuff."

His only rule was that the collectibles had to be found within a few blocks of home and small enough to carry by himself. He did, however, make an exception for his son's bike, which he rode home.

"It took me a minute to realize I could ride it," he said. "It just was very small."

Lind viewed his alleyway runs as a constant way of connecting with people in a new context, and he loved it.

One memorable conversation occurred shortly after George Floyd was killed a year ago last May. Someone interrupted his run to ask how he was doing. Lind responded with a reassuring "fine" before quickly turning around.

"Actually," he said, "I am doing terribly. Actually, I am super upset by all of this," he said.

"I don't think we even exchanged names," he said. "It was just one of those random stranger interactions where you share a real thing, and then you move on with your life," he said.

"I debated whether to send a card thanking the person for being there on that day. Part of what I think is really freeing about running is getting to carry those emotions and getting to express that stuff," Lind said.

"Giving myself permission to feel terrible is actually why I like to do it, to feel however I'm feeling."

Running throughout the pandemic by exploring south Minneapolis alleyways also made him into a stronger runner, he said. The runs helped him remove distractions, focus on parts of the sport that he really enjoys and listen to his body.

"The front door is for the public and the delivery drivers," Lind said.

"The alleys are the secret trail where the work of living happens. Trash bins, backyard chickens, distanced gatherings, birthday parties and garbage murals. You can see it all running through the alleys."

Mary Ellen Ritter is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.