Where Runners Fear to Tread


I saw Eskimos at the warming station.

Lame. Try again.

Uhhh….the South Polar Station sent blankets to us.

Meh. Give me something really wild.

It was so cold out that Jeff did his run today on a treadmill.

Wow. Now that’s cold.

Yes, I really did have to wear this at the office today.
Yes, I really did have to wear this at the office today.

I’m no stranger to running in the cold, or even in the snow, but with Tuesday’s wind chill well below zero, a run outside just wasn’t gonna happen. Heck, it was so cold out I had to wear gloves and two sweaters just to stay comfortable in my office. So I sucked it up and headed over to the Saline Rec Center.

Today’s assignment was interval training. After a one mile warmup, run a 400m sprint at a 6:00 per mile pace, followed by 400m at an easy pace. Repeat for a total of seven intervals, then one mile cooldown. It was actually a workout well suited for a treadmill, so that helped.

So, you may ask, what’s so bad about treadmill running? It’s in a temperature-controlled environment, no hills unless you want to create some, you know your pace and distance at all times, and there’s a TV to distract you. Which is all precisely the problem. Treadmill running at a gym is artificial, a continuation of our temperature-controlled, machine-dominated lives. One of the reasons I run is to get away from all that.

Call me primitive, but I much prefer the variety of the outdoors, especially in our four-season state. The different temperatures, humidity levels, and wind speeds all have specific strategies and challenges for running, which keeps things interesting and makes me more adaptable. Differences in terrain and grade mean adjusting pace and speed, as opposed to the tedium of a constant pace on the treadmill. And there’s a lot more to see; last year’s Run for Art took us to artworks I never would have otherwise known about.

Real runners do it outside!
Real runners do it outside!

Some people like to go even further. In the January/February issue of Running Times, Boff Whalley encourages us to get off the roads altogether. He prefers to “dash toward the wilderness…parks, riverbanks, canals, woods, fields, anything green, muddy, wet, natural, and alive.” In an excerpt from his book Run Wild, he argues that:

[R]unning…claustrophobic, smog-fast paved city streets achieves little [in the way of] health, fitness and well-being. It dislocates us from our natural link to both the earth and to why we run…[J]ust beyond the roads is an enriched and enhanced version of running. Space and time to think, to breathe? Be alone on a hilltop, beside a river, in the dense heart of a forest…Try it! Run wild!

Happy Trail Runners
Trail runners are such happy people!

While I don’t live in a city with “smog-fast streets,” I find myself coming around to his view. Even with good form and adequately padded running shoes (more thoughts on that later), my body feels the effects of a long run on hard roads. Trail running has become one of my favorite ways both to train and to race. I felt better after last year’s 50K trail race than after either of my road marathons. My long race this year – a 50-mile ultra – will be on the trails, with mud, roots, rocks, and horse nuggets all a part of it. Until then, however, there are other races to run and train for, and the treadmill is there if I need it. I hope Boff will understand.

One thought on “Where Runners Fear to Tread

  1. I remember training in aikido at the Eastern Michigan University club. The space they used was a wrestling room with a rubber wrestling mat as the floor. In winter it froze and was as hard as a rock.

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