Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Winter Wanderland


(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.]





Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rain on Our Parade


December 1997 (retitled in the magazine). Here in the Pacific Northwest, where I live and run, we don’t dream of a white Christmas but expect a wet one. Rain falls regularly and often heavily here from shortly after Labor Day to almost the Fourth of July.

So while we know less than most of you about dressing for the cold and snow, we know what to wear – and not wear – on rainy days. If you don’t run in rain here, you don’t run for half the year.

At one recent marathon that I attended, a storm rolled through on race eve. This panicked one man, who checked out of his hotel at two o’clock in the morning and later mailed back his race number, demanding a refund because officials couldn’t guarantee him a dry run.

In fact, race day was dry. But even the slight possibility of rain caused another runner to wear the high-priced rainsuit he’d bought the day before. He soon overheated and handed the suit to a stranger beside the course – and later demanded that officials retrieve it for him.

I visited another marathon that had enjoyed a streak of dry years. Now rain was forecast, and a main topic of discussion at the Saturday expo was, “What should I wear?” The office was showered with calls asking, “Will the race be canceled if it rains?”

The rain blew in overnight and stayed through marathon Sunday. It truly was a bad day – for standing and watching. Officials who honored their commitment, and spectators without a good excuse to stay home, looked miserable.

But it wasn’t a bad day for running. Temperatures were mild, winds gentle, rains light. No one would freeze or melt.

Runners who weren’t at home in these conditions started the race in the garbage bags they’d worn to the start. One man wrapped his head and neck, one knee and both feet in clear plastic bags.

Many runners reacted as if they were about to sail with the fishing fleet into a typhoon. Some wore coats, pants and gloves. They later looked like human clotheslines as they draped stripped-off items from their waists and necks. Or they littered the roadside with enough clothing to stock a Goodwill store.

They forgot some truisms of running: (1) If you feel comfortable while standing at the starting line, you’ll soon be too warm; (2) The apparent temperature warms up by 20 degrees during a run; (3) Better to underdress than overdress.

Before leaving our hotel for this race, I had told my wife Barbara, “This would be the day of my dreams if I were running a marathon.” Most of my best road-race times have come on days like this, when nature’s air-conditioning is set at “ideal.”

This day I ran half a marathon, and at a pace that wouldn’t build up much steam. Yet I wore only the usual shorts and short-sleeved shirt. The one concession to the rain was a cap to keep the drops off my glasses.

Take it from a longtime moss-backed, wet-footed runner: The widespread fear of rain is exaggerated and the contempt for it misplaced. Rain seldom spoils anything about a race except how you look in the finish-line photo.

2018 Update. I can’t convince runners to love our extended rainy season. But in 14 years of team training, rain has never canceled a run of ours.

Hazardous air quality did stop us once last year. The return of rains doused the wildfires and scrubbed the air. What’s not to love about that?


[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.]