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Friday, October 8, 2010

Running in Circles

I live close--like, across the street close--to a spur of the Montour Trail, a lovely bit of once-private real estate that has been reclaimed for public use. Once the site of a railroad line, the land is now maintained by volunteers as a "linear park". I discovered this trail system back in the 90's when my best friend and I used a paved section a few miles south of here for inline skating, and I fell deeply in love with the trails when another friend introduced me to trail biking a few years later.

*happy sigh*
The freedom of my youth that I reminisce about? Is 40 mile trail rides along the Youghiogheny (that's YOCK-uh-GEN-ee, for non-locals) River every Saturday. K and I would meet at 5:30 AM, hit the trail around 6:00, and our brains would finally be sufficiently warmed up to actually attempt some small talk by our first rest stop at around the 10 mile mark. Man, those were the days.

Seriously; this is the view from our first resting area.
Tell me you don't want to spend every weekend here.
Nowadays my life isn't particularly conducive to such all-day indulgences, and after many years of intending to do exercise videos but largely ignoring them (or being too distracted by the demands of small and needy people to even bother), I've settled on running as my double-duty mode of exercise and Time Alone To Recharge. I'm sure Ive mentioned that I had never run in my life until about 2 years ago when I tried the Couch to 5K challenge and actually finished it. And then kept going.

Naturally, I prefer to run on the trail. Not only is it right-out-my-door convenient, but it's largely quiet, free of traffic, mostly shady, and pretty. The crushed limestone surface is more joint-friendly than pavement and there's something charming about the "good morning!" smile-and-wave between neighbors.

the spur near our house. That's C, zoomin' on the training wheels. ;)
But I'm first and foremost a mom. Which means that unless my Beloved Partner is available to supervise the kiddies for a while during daylight hours, my run usually gets squeezed in after dinner. Or after work, on those nights when *I* head out to earn a few bucks. In the summer months, I usually have enough daylight left to just about make it. Once the days start getting shorter, though, I have to look for other venues.

The high school track is an option, or so I've been told. In reality, I've found that either there's a game or practice going on (in which case the public is forbidden from using the track), or it's just plain locked up. Rats.

I've run a time or two at the half-mile racetrack at the county fairgrounds, but despite the giant floodlights that illuminate the field in the center, I've found that the far end of the track is both disturbingly deep in shadows and kind of rutted. I'm always convinced that I'm going to take a spill on the uneven ground and then the Boogeyman will get me. So I don't go there very often.

Something tells me that road running after dark would just be suicide. I live in a municipality with very few sidewalks, and even fewer shoulders at the sides of the roads. Mine is not a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood at all. So really, road running at any time is just not something I do. And my aging knees are okay with that.

Which leaves indoor running. We own a treadmill but it's currently in a state of disrepair. No worries; we have a Community Center (free! My favorite!) nearby. With an indoor running track. It's where I did most of my initial training. It's where I do most of my midweek runs. It's dry, well-lit, and climate controlled. Awesome.

But it's also inside a building. Which means it's small. One twelfth of a mile per lap.

That's a lot of little circles. Enough to make you bored. Or crazy. Maybe even a little dizzy. But definitely bored. So it helps to play little games with myself, while I'm trying to keep track of my laps. I listen to my iPod (so worth the investment)...sometimes music, sometimes audiobooks. I focus on the middle distance to reduce the vertigo and claustrophobia (yes really. Come on, I'm running inside a box. You should see me on the treadmill; I go cross-eyed and get wobbly.) I mess around with my stride and speed. This is actually pretty fun on a short track, because it's a small investment. One lap is over in no time, so it's not so intimidating to go all-out for a brief burst. Mostly, though, I people-watch.

There are "regulars" with whom I share the track quite a bit. The skinny senior lady who wears sandals with socks all year 'round. The couple who walks together, then individually, then together again. The chatty girlfriends who seem genuinely startled every time they realize someone wants to pass them. On such a small track, it's hard not to notice the other folks. It's not like out in the real world where you encounter someone, either do the quick head-nod acknowledgment or avert your gaze because you're all badass in your "zone", and then go on your way and don't see them again. Indoors, you're lapping other people (or being lapped BY them) every minute or so. The "hi" thing doesn't work, because then you're in an infinite loop of awkward social graces. Do you have to acknowledge them every time? If you smile once and then ignore them, is that rude? What Do You Do!?!

Then there's the double-edged sword of playing games with the people. It can be a fun challenge to try to lap the walkers when you're running. Or to keep up with other runners. But it can also be a recipe for defeatism if you don't measure up. I don't run to be the fastest. I don't even know what my own times are. I run to run. I'd hate to fall into the trap of pushing myself too hard to "beat" someone when--for me, anyway--it's not about competing.

But, ya know. It can also be kind of fun.

I actually don't usually see other runners late at night. I run between 8-9 p.m., and the building closes at 9:00. Later in the evening, people seem to just want to walk. But every once in a while there is another runner. On a recent visit, there was a guy who was making me feel like about the slowest thing on two legs. It was good, though...I certainly wasn't going to "phone it in" in front of him. My strides got a little longer, as did my intervals. I wasn't going to catch him, but by Jove, I wasn't going to (completely) embarrass myself either! I was very conscious of his presence, so that I knew when to move out of the passing lane lest I break his stride. (Trust me, when you're running in a zillion little circles, constantly dodging around slower people can really get annoying.)

And then...I could tell he was approaching. I moved into the center lane.

He didn't pass.

I ran another lap.

He didn't pass.

OMG why wasn't he passing me? I knew he was back there!!

We ran a few more laps and I went into a cooldown walk, forcing him to pass me at last. On his next lap, he reached out toward me. WTF? I looked up and he smiled, looked back over his shoulder and motioned "come on".

Was he challenging me?

I laughed. No way, buddy. I am pretty out of shape right now and babying a bum knee that seems to just not want to behave itself. I had already run 1/2 mile more than I'd aimed for, and I was done.

Next lap, same thing. No words, just a beckon. Come on. Oh, now I understood. He thought I was giving up, not cooling down. He was cheering me on! Nevertheless, I demurred again.

On the next lap, I joined him. Then he walked a lap and retired to the corner to stretch. I walked a final quarter mile (that's three circles for those who are counting), and then walked another lap for good measure because he was stretching in the corner where I'd stashed my jacket and keys, and in a rapidly-emptying building it just seemed a little weird and too chummy to go do my own stretching right next to him. ("We made eye contact! We're besties now, right?")

By the time I reached The Stretching Place, he was walking away. He smiled and waved. I said, "that was fun!" (der.) He gave me an inquisitive look. Okay, idiot, you just acknowledged another person, now own up to it. "It was fun trying to keep up with you!"

And he said, "Hey, I was using you as a pacer during those last laps!"

Oh. That's why he didn't pass me.

And even though I knew, and he knew that I knew, that I was so not in his running league, I felt pretty freaking awesome about myself for a moment there.


  1. and yes, Kelly. Your recent post with running pictures inspired this. ;)

  2. I read the whole thing. Just thought you'd feel good about that. :D


  3. other runners definitely intimidate me a bit. I don't have anywhere inside to run. But I am lucky, because there are bike paths EVERYWHERE here- and I live in an area that actually has very limited CAR access (which I LOVE). I am ALWAYS running in the dark. It was spooky at first, but now I kinda like it. I should post pictures of my new running route sometime.

    Go Heather! You are still my inspiration!