‘We’re showing we’re alive’: the older Ukrainians running daily as war rages (2023)

On Monday, as the world watched the war in Ukraine intensify, Nikolai Plyuyko did something extraordinary. He went for an 11-kilometer run through the streets of Kyiv.

Plyuyko has participated in 48 marathons in his lifetime. Before retiring, he worked as an engineer and served in the Soviet army. Today, Plyuyko is 75 years old and lives alone in what he describes as “a sleepy part of Kyiv”. Since war broke out, Plyuyko has maintained his schedule of daily outdoor runs, running around 150km in the past two weeks.

He laughs when I ask him if he’s scared of running outside. “During my run, I often hear more than 10 explosions which are within a 20km distance,” he says stoically. “What’s the point of worrying? I’ve lived most of my life anyway.”

‘We’re showing we’re alive’: the older Ukrainians running daily as war rages (1)

The only two days that he didn’t go for a run were when Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, asked everyone to stay at home. “I want to show that we are a brave nation and that we aren’t afraid,” he says. “We want to be strong, not just with our minds, but with our bodies too.” Plyuyko has been greeting every person he sees on his run, trying to lift people’s spirits. “I wish them good health, hope and trust in the fight with the enemy. I tell them that we will win, that we just need to get through it.”

As Russian forces continue to destroy Ukrainian cities, break ceasefire rules and kill civilians, Ukrainians are terrified. In Kyiv, most people stay at home or in shelters overnight and keep outdoor trips to a minimum. At the time of writing, the centre of Kyiv has experienced a slightly more stable period than the first few days of the war, when Russian airstrikes colored the city’s skyline. Still, sounds of heavy fighting reverberate around the city’s historic buildings. During the daytime, the atmosphere is suppressed but hopeful, with people going outside to the pharmacy, to get food in shops and markets or for a quick walk to move their bodies. Yet, against all odds, and potentially their own safety, a small group of older runners are still heading out every day in Kyiv, sometimes running as Russian bombs fall around them.

Plyuyko runs in Natalka, a manicured public park that runs alongside the River Dnieper. In the last few days, he has even started going for a cold-water dip in the freezing temperatures of the river’s lagoon during his run. “I want to train myself to control my thermoregulation and find energy in my body.”

The daily exercise has been helping him process the absurdity of an unexpected war on his doorstep. “I think about many things during the run,” he explains. “I think about everything I’ve lived through.”

In the past week or so, Plyuyko has not only been running laps, but he has been running errands and getting groceries for people less mobile than him in his apartment complex. “I’ve been getting in line at the shop for them and running it to their homes. This is a sign of friendship during these hard times.” Locals have been happy to see him too; they call him “Uncle Kolya” and wave at him or sing him praise each time he passes them.

According to Plyuyko, most of the people who have stayed behind are either the “lonely elderly” or those who are choosing to protect their towns and other people’s lives. He is one of Kyiv’s residents who has decided to stay in Ukraine to see the war through to the end. Just across town is Volodimir Shymko, a 67-year-old who has also been running to fill the city’s empty streets. “So many people have left Kyiv. I can tell which of our neighbours have stayed behind judging by whether their lights are on, and there are very few people who have stayed,” he tells me solemnly over the phone.

Shymko, too, hopes that his running raises people’s morale. “I can’t go to fight at my age, there is an army for that, but we will see how the situation continues – maybe everyone will be forced to fight.”

Konstantin Bondarev, 61, is based in the south of the city with his wife and two other friends who have come to shelter in his house. He has been running long-distance since 1983. “Now that there has been war, I’ve been running non-stop; it makes things feel a lot easier during such turbulent times,” he tells me. Since 24 February, he has clocked 73km in running distance. “Right now, thoughts of war keep going round and round in my head; from the moment you wake up, you start ringing all your friends, asking if everyone is alive and well over the messaging app Viber. When there are always attacks, you wonder if anyone has been bombed.”

‘We’re showing we’re alive’: the older Ukrainians running daily as war rages (2)

This, of course, has affected his nervous system, so the run has been helping him deal with the stress of the war. “When I run, I can put all that aside – at least for a moment.”

In Ukraine, men between the ages of 18-60 have been banned from leaving the country in case they have to fight in the war, even if they have no military experience. “It’s important for people to show that we are alive and strong. This is our expression of the fight.”

Shymko’s daughter and his grandson have fled to a part of the country that has now turned into a hotspot for Russian attacks. “They want to get out, but they can’t right now. I’m really worried about them; it’s a very grave situation.”

‘We’re showing we’re alive’: the older Ukrainians running daily as war rages (3)

Still, Shymko continues to run, in the past week, he has mustered 32km. The trained engineer, who is now a pensioner, has been a keen athlete since the 1970s. “I’ve run 40 marathons, and I’ve been in Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, Poland, Belgium, all around Ukraine.” And what would stop him? “Only if someone was to shoot at me multiple times,” he says macabrely.

The Guardian discovered Plyuyko and Shymko’s routes on Strava – a fitness-oriented social network that uses GPS data to track movement and allows users to share it publicly. The collected data is also used to create heatmaps, which shows trails left behind by the app’s users, so much so, Strava accidentally uncovered numerous unmapped military bases in 2018.

Calling the interviewees on Viber, the lines often went crackly, and Plyuyko, in particular, had trouble getting the app to work. “Can you hear me?” he would shout into the phone before hanging up multiple times. Eventually, we managed to set things up.

I spoke to everyone in Russian, as it was the only language we had in common, and I later translated the interviews to English. Listening back through the recordings, I could hear how much the men I spoke to really wanted to tell the stories of their lives and their runs. With a real possibility of Russian occupation, they were worried that their histories would be overwritten. When I asked for photos, they sent me dozens of images, some taken now and some taken when they are looking much younger. A horrible thought occurred; did they think this might be one of the last chances to be heard and to be seen by the rest of the world?

“It’s only natural to be scared when you’re running, and bombs are going off in the distance, going ‘boom’,” says Bondarev. “That does take the joy out of it.” On the day I spoke to him, he went on a run that started well but ended quite ominously. “When I ran out, nothing was going on initially, but then a military plane flew by and then by the end of my run, I saw smoke billowing out of something in the distance. I ran home and took a photo.”

He says he’s begun to feel a little paranoid, being wary of the people he sees in the street, especially if he can’t recognise them. “Now you can’t help but wonder: ‘Who is this? Where are they from?’”

However, his anxieties are temporarily assuaged when checking his Strava feed to see if his friends outside Kyiv are still running. This has become another source of confirmation that they are still there alive and well during turbulent times. “Strava has become an additional source of information for me – at this time, the data is the ultimate knowledge about someone’s wellbeing,” he says. Though internet connection and signal may be temperamental in Ukraine right now, knowing that his friends are still running is hugely affirming. “I will see that they have logged a workout and immediately I feel relief; though I do have a friend in Kharkiv who hasn’t posted about running online for a little while – it’s worrying.”

I ask Bondarev whether he thinks he will continue to run even if things get worse. “I feel like if someone doesn’t want to run, they will find any excuse, but if they do want to run, they will find a way. I think I will keep running. I’m not put off by adversity. I need to keep moving.”


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