Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A midwinter distance run reassures

Over the weekend I was able to go running both Saturday and Sunday in Portland, Maine, where the temperatures were frigid and the wind biting but, unlike Carlisle, the bike path was cleared to bare asphalt, other than the many patches of ice scattered intermittently across it wherever the sun did not hit long enough.

This meant that I was finally able to do the kind of mileage run I’ve been missing all winter. Ever since our first major storm of the season on December 26, our footpaths have been buried, and I firmly believe it’s just too dangerous to run on the road when the snowbanks make it impossible to jump out of the way of an oncoming car. (Admittedly, I’ve broken this rule once or twice when the craving for a longer run was irresistible. But for the most part, I avoid the roadways when the snowbanks are higher than knee level, and as a driver I wish other runners would do the same.)

Being able to finish a four-mile, 45-minute run on Saturday reassured me that I still have the ability to do that kind of distance, even though I begin to doubt myself after eight weeks of putting in just enough time and distance – 13 to 18 minutes, 1.2 to 1.8 miles – to be sure I’m clearing the one-mile daily minimum required to maintain my standing on the U.S. Running Streak Association registry.

Even before I was a “streak runner,” though, I’d doubt my abilities by the end of the winter. I used to cease running altogether once the temperature regularly fell below about 40 degrees, and at some point in mid-February I’d always start wondering whether I was in fact still a runner. What if when spring finally came, I was a beginner again, unable to complete ten minutes without my aerobic capacity failing me?

What I always forgot at those times, though, was that there was another equally powerful force working against the possible lapse in fitness level: the craving to get back out on the road. I have friends who say the first day of warm air and snow melting in the early spring makes them want to buy new spring clothes or go for a bike ride; in my case it makes me want to put on running tights and a sweatshirt and hit the pavement. Now that I run daily throughout the winter, it’s different: my body doesn’t develop that same craving to run, since I never stop running, but there’s still a craving for distance, for the tired muscle ache I get after 40 or 45 minutes, for the awareness as I start out that I have enough time ahead as I run to empty my mind of other thoughts.

And it’s the same now. I’ve done such short daily runs all winter, I can’t help wondering what my abilities will be when the snowbanks finally recede. But this past weekend reassured me: a four-miler in the frigid harborside wind, having to dodge ice patches, confirmed that I can still do it. Although intellectually I believe it’s possible to get really out of shape and lose the facility for distance running, my body has proven otherwise time and again. I’m glad I had the chance to test myself over this past weekend, and I’m looking forward to regular runs of that length once spring arrives.

I would say “It’s like riding a bike,” but Tim has persuaded me that that’s a meaningless expression: as he sees it, everything is like riding a bike. He logically points out that you never forget how to swim, read or pitch a baseball, just as you never forget how to balance on a bike. And it’s not that I think I’ll forget how to run; I just think I’ll lose the ability to stay with it for any duration.

But I never do. Spring comes around year after year, and I’m able to start doing my four- and five- and six-milers again. It will happen again this year, just as it always does. The running of this past weekend tided me over, giving me reassurance and making me look with anticipation toward warmer days.

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