Friday, February 26, 2010

The best of running, the worst of running

This past week, to borrow an opening from Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of running, it was the worst of running.

My sense of elocution tells me that a more correct way to phrase that would be “It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs,” but I can’t get away from a distasteful image behind the phrase “worst of runs” (not to mention “best of runs”!), and besides, it reminds me of my 7-year-old’s expression for her new favorite breakfast of a soft-boiled egg: “Mommy, can you make me an egg with a runny nose?”

Last Saturday, I ran five miles, and it was the best kind of running. With temperatures in the high 30’s, the air was cool and raw. There was no precipitation but enough moisture in the atmosphere to feel like a salve on my lungs as I breathed in and out. Layers of fleece kept me plenty warm enough, and a varied playlist of podcasts from NPR, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review kept me mentally occupied for a solid 50 minutes. Traffic wasn’t a problem on a weekend morning as I ran through the Town Center, out toward Concord, across Russell and School Streets toward home. Friends drove by, and I ran past the houses of more friends. It was running at its best, and so satisfying to be covering some decent distance after several weeks of really short running distances.

Midweek this week was, conversely, the worst kind of running. I’ve often quoted Amby Burfoot’s comment that “There is no bad weather for running. Well, if there is any bad weather for running, maybe it is 34 degrees and raining.” The past three days have been high 30’s and raining, and it’s been dreary. Deep slushy puddles populate our long dirt driveway, and my feet get soaked within minutes of leaving the house. I spend the run dreaming of soaking my bare feet in a very hot bath. The dog, who likes running but doesn’t like rain, stops to shake herself hard every ten seconds or so, forcing me to dodge her to avoid stumbling. Mud splashes up over my ankles and I’m just glad to get fifteen minutes or so done, to clock just a little more than my daily minimum mile, and be done for the day, returning with soaking wet hat, jacket, gloves and shoes.

But daily runners know all about the best and worst of running. If we didn’t commit to running every single day, we could avoid the worsts. We could stay in on days like yesterday (or the day before, or the day before that). We could exercise via treadmill. With 930 days of consecutive outdoor daily running under my belt as of today, though, I can only say that being out in that kind of weather is part of the experience.

When my son Tim was a daily runner along with me, we often commented on how miserable weather is just something you make yourself get through, and the opposite, the kind of day I had last Saturday when I did my five-miler, is the reward for getting yourself out in the sleet and slush on the bad days. Though the metaphor may not be subtle, it was a useful lesson for Tim when he was 9 and 10 years old and it continues to be a useful reminder to me at four times that age. Some days are better than others. Some days the air feels pure and fresh in your lungs and you glide along for nearly an hour just happy to be out enjoying the scenery; other days you slog for fifteen minutes and feel grateful as soon as it’s over. But you never regret having gone out, no matter what the weather. And no matter how trivial the pursuit of daily running, you still always reap the rewards of knowing you succeeded at the simple goal of getting out for a mile that day.

When the weather is dreary, I spend a lot of the run thinking about how glad I’ll be to get home. Running every day despite the weather reinforces my innate gratitude for a warm house to which I can return when the run is over. Knowing I choose to be out in the cold rain and can take a hot shower when I’m done makes me think about the earthquake survivors in Haiti who will be living unprotected on the streets as the heavy rains come later this spring, and of course I don’t need to reach that far geographically to find people to sympathize with; there are men and women just 20 miles away on the streets of Cambridge and Boston who don’t have the luxury of retreating into a warm house when the 15 minutes of outdoor exposure are over.

So I’ll be grateful for both: the joyful five-mile gliding run on a cool clear late-winter morning, and the miserable one-mile out-and-back in the sleet and mud. No matter how obvious the metaphor, it’s always good to be reminded of the contrasts life holds, and how the most important lessons to take from the cold and miserable days are that better days lie both behind you and ahead of you, and that as long as shelter and a hot shower await, there’s really no reason not to push yourself out into the cold.

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