(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
December 1999. As winters go, those in my home state of Oregon are benign. That is, if you don’t mind running wet.
Rain falls almost daily here at this time of year, December being our wettest month. But temperatures dip below freezing only about a half-dozen mornings each winter and snow appears an average of once a year.
A southern Californian once asked me, “What do you do up there on all those rainy days?” The reply: If Oregonians don’t run in the rain, they don’t run.
By habit of long standing I’m a morning runner. Winters and summers, weekdays and weekends, I leave home at seven o’clock. On days without runs I’m still out at the same time and for the same length of time, walking.
The seven A.M.s of winter are nothing like those of summer, or spring and fall for that matter. The sun is well into its climb before my July runs start, then in December I’m finished before the day is fully light. At no other hour is the gentle shifting of the seasons more visible to me, and I wouldn’t want to miss this daily light show. It’s ever-changing.
If home were still Iowa where my winter running began, I might not speak so fondly of winter mornings. But a question from a new runner living in Michigan still struck me as sad.
“I can’t run in the winter here,” she wrote. “What should I do in its place so I won’t lose too much fitness.”
I told her to get out whenever she could (and a surprising number days allow an outdoor run, even in the upper Midwest). By staying indoors, she denied herself more than fitness.
Here in Eugene there’s little excuse not to get out. Yet even in the land of the rainsuit, hat and soggy shoes I see a surprising falloff in the number of runners, summer to winter. Some choose to stay indoors on the best days, not out of laziness but an exaggerated fear of the season.
A regular route of mine passes along a creekside path. On one side is a botanical garden, on the other a fitness center.
Side-by-side treadmills look out, through a floor-to-ceiling window, on the creek and garden. Both treadmills are always occupied at the time I run past their window to the outside world.
Their users might be more fit than I am (and surely are younger, better dressed and better looking). But I think while looking in on them that there’s far more to running than fitness, and they’re missing almost everything but the training.
The run that touched off this column came on an autumn morning. The chilly air carried warnings of winter, but the day’s dawning came early enough now to let me see what I passed through and not just sense it was here by sound and smell. Flowers still bloomed, grass was still green, birds still sang.
Treadmillers miss most of this. The climate and light inside their club never change. They hear the grinding of their machines, or the background sound of music and news. They smell only themselves, each other and the deodorizers that mask the aromas of human effort.
I applaud the treadmillers for their effort, which probably is greater than mine. But I wish they would step through the plate-glass window and experience the wider world of running outside.
Exercising indoors, and in place, is like watching the natural world pass by through a car window. You see it but don’t feel it. You’re apart from it, not really a part of it.
In the gym every day is much like every other. Outdoors, no day is quite like any other.
The natives of this land have a saying: “You can’t step in the same stream twice.” It’s the same with running days. You never pass through the same one again, and they never exactly clone themselves.
Conditions of weather, qualities of light, varieties of sight and sound are forever remixing into something new. Without stepping outside, you can’t know exactly what freshness the day holds.
2018 Update. While coaching runners in Eugene since 2005, snow has canceled a team run just once. We’ll see if that good luck continues when the new year of winter training begins soon.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]