“The words are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Several years ago, I made a promise to myself, and a few others, that I would do a training run on the river trails every Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m., unless out of town or beset by injury or illness. I have kept that promise consistently. As I sit in my car at 6:58 a.m. in the river trail parking lot this morning, Feb 20, I am questioning the wisdom of that pledge.
Outside, what could best be described as a thunder-sleet/freezing rain-storm is taking place. Through these past several years I have run in some pretty nasty weather; bitterly cold and windy Tuesday mornings this winter along with the omnipresent heat and humidity of Summer, but this seemed to take the proverbial cake. The second part of Newton’s first law - an object at rest wanting to remain at rest- was making a strong bid for consideration. But jump starting my inertia, I talked myself into ‘testing the elements’ and seeing if I could “learn what they had to teach”. Donning a few base layers and wind jacket, along with stocking hat and gloves, I set out.
The trails, while a bit slick in spots, were actually in great running shape. Cold enough so they weren’t sloppy at all, yet a bit springy, with a light covering of ice pellets creating a white ribbon through the woods. Having several turn-a-round options on the trail I decided to dial it back a bit, focus on the run, and use ‘the force’ to determine the distance. Entering the lower trails along the river the ice pellets were tapping off of my wind jacket, bouncing off the trees, and peppering the surface of the Kansas River. I stopped and listened. This was natural music, and I fell into the rhythm of what the trails were offering this day; solitude, attentiveness, and a bit of discomfort. The first 15 minutes brought the hardest precipitation, in multiple forms, along with some epic thunder. I felt relatively safe, down low in the trees, and continued on past the 5k cut-off. I have always enjoyed the sound of thunder, reminding me at once of the wildness and unpredictable-ness of our world. Just as when camping out hearing coyotes yelping in the distance, so thunder is a great reminder of our place in the world. It was easy to stay tuned to the moment as the elements held all the trump cards and I ran past the race loop turnaround, committing to a few more miles. Near the 3 mile mark, as the trail loops into a large wooded area, several deer scattered on my approach startling me. My mind had wandered in that brief distance, as it is wont to do, into some dark corner of thought and had taken hold. The scattering deer had brought me back to the present, and the task at hand.
I have come to appreciate those times on solo runs; the occurences that draws one back to where one is. While teaching 8th grade Earth Science, the first day of every new school year I would have a quote on my board,
“Be Where You Are.”
This was a reminder to my students, and myself, that we can choose where our attention lies and to be fully present to where we are. I remember well, one year, a student challenging me that first day and saying,
“Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying ‘pay attention’?”, with a sneer that only an 8th grade boy can deliver. I thought to myself, “Ok, here we go, day 1,” yet quickly realized this was a great question and an even greater opportunity.
“No,” I replied (calmly, I might add), “it really isn’t.”
I went on to describe how one can be ‘forced’ to a certain extent, to ‘pay attention’, but only you yourself can choose to be present. I’m sure there are many people, perhaps some among those reading right now, who have been physically present in a class or at a meeting, but were nowhere near that place in mind or spirit. It is the difference between trying to motivate rather than inspire, or forcing ourselves to focus versus a natural mindfulness. Too often we resort to external techniques to motivate, to coerce, but I realized that what the quote said, and what I was after, was something very different. I have no idea if that made any impression at all on that student or others, but I know it helped me. If I ever see him again, I will have to thank him.
I ran by the last cut-off not even considering taking it, and was into the Mud Creek loop. The trails were still in good shape for running, the thunder had stopped but the wind had picked up a bit. As I turned to the west at the end of the trails to head back, I realized the wind and ice pellets in my face were going to keep me plenty ‘mindful’. I usually run miles 6,7, and 8 as a progression run; reaching a bit deeper each mile and running it a bit faster. Today I would do the same, but did not bother with my watch and went solely on effort. The Cedar trees were bending low over the trail, laden with ice, and as I crashed through one I realized that this was not your usual Cedar tree, it almost knocking me off my feet. A thick sheen of ice covered the barren trees and the limbs made that unusual, creaking sound - that is difficult to describe but easily recognized - when bending in the wind. The several short, steep slopes one after another about mile 6 had me short-stepping/sliding down, and scrambling like a cartoon character up, as the trails were getting icier. I ended up timing mile 8, which I usually try and run under 7:00/mile, yet this day could only muster a 7:43. Rationalizations leapt into my mind, as they easily do; poor footing, stiff headwind, icy trees, distractions, but I paused to consider. There was more to this run than the workout. I was here, and perhaps that was enough.
I entered the parking area, now a slushy mess, and was glad it was over. Yet, it was one of the best runs I had experienced in quite awhile. And, at the end of the day, who is to say what a good training run is? If we only get out and run on the days we deem ‘best’, perhaps we miss a different ‘best’. Those things that nature offers us unawares, revealing itself only to those who consistently look.
And who is to say whether promises kept are only to oneself? For in a very real sense, I felt I had made a promise to the trails as well.
Following are 5 thoughts on Winter Running. You may not need them this year any more but, who knows, you might get lucky!
GET OUT THE DOOR!
Don’t let winter send you to the gym or the treadmill. This can be some of your best running, for different reasons. Take to heart the poet’s admonition,
“Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.”
So, GET OUT THE DOOR! And once you’ve decided to get out that door,
Proper clothing layers are essential. Wicking base layer, insulating layer (thickness depends on temp), wind/weather layer (again, depending on conditions). NO COTTON!!
Don’t overdress. If you’re warm and toasty outside before you start running, you’re overdressed.
Protect skin areas on face with balaclava or neck gaiter you can pull up, or a zip up hooded layer. Stocking hat, gloves or mittens. Wool blend socks are a great choice.
Set these things out in your home. Organize them. Treat them as old friends, which they are. Let them speak to you in hushed tones.
OK, you’re prepped and outside running. Let’s be safe.......
Footing: use shorter, confident strides and anticipate icy areas. It’s easy to tweak hip flexors and other muscles if you over-reach and slip and try and catch yourself. Walk dangerous areas as needed. Yaktrax are great for icy, slick snow conditions.
Pick a safe route! Trails maybe good, maybe not. Stay off busy streets; cars in bad weather can easily go out of control, much more easily than you. Low traveled, country, gravel roads are my favorite. Cross Country/grass courses can be good as well.
Once you’ve got your route......
FOCUS ON FREQUENCY
Cut back volume and intensity, but keep up your frequency. Winter’s a good time to recover and cut back a bit (depending on your race schedule), but maintain your frequency, the # times you run/week. It’ll keep you moving, in the mode, and in the mood.
As Aristotle said,
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
FIND YOUR PERFECT RUN
This will be different for everyone, but devilishly hard to find if you stay inside.
Mine come in the winter. A gentle falling snow in the evening is the best time, just as the light begins to dim but before total darkness; the cusp time, the in between time, the ‘thin place’ where the magic happens. A lonely country gravel road with some rolling hills and views. A few inches of snow; the cushioning is great, the silence overwhelms. Find that perfect run and, as the Kansas poet William Stafford says,
“You discover where music begins before it makes any sound,
… still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow.”
Hope to catch ya outside, looking for that place.