On a Tuesday morning just after 9 a.m., J.C. Lippold waited for runners in a hallway at the Mall of America. Several arrived, and more were expected, even though it only was 12 degrees outside. He checked his phone to see how close the others were to arriving. They were here for what Lippold calls "5K Everyday Conversations."

"Last April, I ran a mini-version of this," he said. "Each day I would host a 5K where our first goal was to have a conversation, and the second goal was to move. Because 95 % of people will say, 'I'm not a runner.' And think about how irrational a statement that is. We're all capable of the act of running, just like we're capable of sitting and walking."

Every day in April, Lippold posted on Facebook where the run would start. Some days, one person showed up. Other days, 25 did. One day a woman came who had just ended a long relationship. She ran and talked with another woman who'd proposed to her partner. Another day a choir teacher came and one of her former students randomly showed up. The two ran and reconnected.

"We had strollers and dogs and grandparents and people who, literally, their first 5K was showing up to have a conversation. And they're like, 'I've never moved 3.1 miles in my life!' " Lippold said. "But there hasn't been one moment when people have gone, 'Wow, I don't have anything to talk about,' which says a lot in a world where more and more people are feeling separated."

The April project went so well that he decided to expand it for a full year, and so 5K Everyday Conversations 2020 was born.

We headed out of the mall into the cold. The sun was bright. The sidewalks were mostly dry. Despite the cold, it was a gorgeous day. There were nine of us. After introductions, people chatted about running, about how they heard of 5K Everyday Conversations, about their lives.

Some of the runners have known Lippold for a decade. Some were students at Maple Grove High school when he was the theater director. Others heard about it on Facebook from a friend of a friend of a friend.

"I think it's a good way to get outside in the winter," said Gail Fraser. Her friend, Kristin Grimes, added: "It's a great way to meet people who want to 'do the thing,' as J.C. says."

Lippold described himself in a variety of ways: yoga facilitator, voice coach, theater director, consultant for businesses that want to "find their cultural grounding." To describe what he does, he uses phrases like "creating safe spaces for people to move and connect in," and "putting out positive energy opportunities."

There is, apparently, a hunger for those.

"It's so fantastic," said Emi Uelmen. "Every single time I run with J.C., I meet the full-time runner. I meet the first-time runners. I meet the walkers. It's movement. I come home every day afterward with a new view. Somebody taught me something. I just love that."

'Sense of belonging'

Uelmen is the race director for the Eau Claire Marathon. But you don't have to be a serious runner to enjoy to benefits of groups like 5K Everyday Conversations. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of "The Joy of Movement," says all you have to be human.

"We know that people who are more active are less lonely," McGonigal said. "They report better social relationships, they feel more sense of belonging. On days people exercise, they have more positive social interactions with people later that day. So I think the social component is a huge part of exercise, because of how important belonging and connection are to our mental health and our happiness. And movement can facilitate that."

In her new book, McGonigal lists many of the benefits of exercise — reduced stress and anxiety, more openness to joy. But one of the surprising effects is that it makes people more open to social connection, because of the production of endocannabinoids. These neurotransmitters produce the "runners high" but also play a role in social bonding. And, she stressed, a person doesn't have to run a 5K to get these perks — just move yourself (however you can) with moderate effort for 20 minutes. And if you can do it with someone else, so much the better.

"When you walk with a stranger, whether you have a conversation or are just sharing the experience," said McGonigal in an interview, "that will make you feel more similar to them. It will make you like them more. And it will make you trust them more. When you're moving with someone, facing in the same direction, in sync or in stride, it allows you to say things you might not say otherwise."

Back at the run, someone yelled "Ice!"

"It's solid but slippery," Lippold chimed in. "I'd recommend going into the bike path at the stop here."

After about 15 minutes the group hit the halfway mark, then turned around. By the time it returned to the mall, something strange has happened. For some reason, the other runners seemed like people I've known for a long time. I felt oddly warm toward them, even though I'd just met them.

In the mall, we went our separate ways, all feeling a little better, a little more connected. With one more run down, Lippold looked ahead to an ever-growing number of positive energy opportunities.

"Every day another two or three or four, people join the Facebook group," he said. "It's not far-fetched to think that on Dec. 31 we'll have a few hundred people, if not more, running."

Frank Bures edited a new anthology of Minneapolis writing, "Under Purple Skies." He lives in Minneapolis.