The (d)Evolution of a Runner

madison-outlineI’m going to speculate that when I first started running regularly, I did what most people have done for decades: run the same route at the same pace over and over again.  This might be an insultingly narrow view of the human mind, grossly underestimating our creativity.  But at the same time I like to think the majority of us are cautious creatures.  In those first months of trepidation, we didn’t know how far we could go, so we stayed in the nurturing embrace of a nearby circuit.  Eventually we found our comfort zone, where we could run without constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure we were within shouting distance of our front door, and gave it the nebulous term “pace run.”  After that, some of us decided to stay there to maintain our fitness.  Others chose to dial up either the speed or the distance, depending on what goals we had in mind.

Fast forward a few years and we’ve added different routines to the schedule, adding a smorgasbord of exercises to the runner’s simple, reliable pace run.  There’s the explosive interval, the hard effort tempo, the grueling mile repeats, the exhausting threshold run, the gradual progressive buildup, ladder/pyramid drills, hills, sprints – and that’s to say nothing of cross training and weight lifting.  Organizing the run schedule for the week now resembles putting together a 6-piece jigsaw puzzle with 20 different possible pieces.  At the very least, this adds a lot of variety to the act of training for a race and keeps it from ever getting stale.  It also keeps us from getting stuck in our comfort zones.  It happens all too often that we build walls around certain numbers, like a 9-minute pace or a 16-mile run, seeing anything faster or farther as a sure sign of instant fatigue or physical collapse.  Changing the run, the style and the goal can make it so we break through these barriers without the intimidation of crashing through them head-on.

While I don’t have any intention of chronicling my training in this blog, I decided to write about a very noteworthy week in my experience as a runner.  I’ve been talking about how we go from simple runs to more complex routines, targeting specific muscles and abilities in order to maximize our efforts on race day.  In a way, it’s like evolution.  We start off as single-celled organisms who just want to make it to the next distance milestone, and eventually – those of us with a little OCD – develop into meticulous planners with multi-tab color-coded running logs complete with a litany of graphs, historical averages and conditional projections.  When we first started, the only gear we had were shoes (and while they were probably not the right fit or kind for our stride, we had no idea).  Eventually, just getting ready to go running became an ordeal as we covered ourselves in gadgets, arm warmers, wicking socks, fuel belts, and gels.

So what made this week special?   In some ways, it was an example of the ever-growing bag of tricks available to every runner.  But more importantly, this week was a prime example of the exact opposite concept: devolution.

1. The Dreadmill

treadmillFor the last few weeks, the wolves of winter have descended on Chicago with their icy jaws.  While I am always game for running when it’s cold, I draw the line at 20 degrees and these days, that number is cause for a pool party.  So I’ve been knocking out a lot of my weekly miles on a treadmill.  This week in particular, I managed to log 22 of them through a mix of a ladder run, a consistent pace run and a progressive run.  I was very hesitant to admit it, but I actually enjoyed all three of these sessions.  Prior to this winter, my relationship with treadmills was acrimonious at best, but now I’ve grown to appreciate how useful they can be.

A fellow blogger wrote a short ode to the treadmill and it certainly helped in mending the ills between me and the moving belt.  After all, the entire run is under your control.  You shape the universe, how fast it moves, how high it slopes and how many butlers are running alongside you with water, sports drinks, towels, even a TV with classic Seinfeld and Family Guy episodes to keep you entertained.  Best of all, you live in a world where it’s always a comfortable 70 degrees with a ceiling fan to spread your musk throughout the room and impress others.  I soon fell under its seductive spell.  With all the wonders of modern technology at my fingertips, doing all my runs on this machine was almost irresistible.

But my more primal side wouldn’t have it.

2. The Long Slog

I’m three weeks out from my next marathon, which means it’s time for the bread, butter and knife of all training programs: the long run.  As I walked my dogs Saturday morning, snow fell on the three of us in tiny crystals, their movement barely interrupted by wind.  Though walking slowly, I wasn’t cold, which was a good sign that I was in for a great run.  A few hours later, my cold weather outfit and hydration pack were hugging my body, ready to make some fresh tracks.  It would be a traditional long run, with only water and a watch to accompany me.


I hadn’t reached mile 2 when I seriously contemplated turning around and cozying up with the treadmill.  It was like someone had opened a door in south Chicago and had created an enormous draft pushing against me.  The snow on my face felt like sand, my fingers were slowly icing despite being locked in tight fists and my knees were already pink.  Though I own a pair of running tights, I never use them for long runs because they give me crazy saddle burn (and when your legs are doing most of the work, they’ll warm up on their own).  In fact, a better name for this blog could be “Pantsless Runner.”  But to make matters worse, I had completely neglected to buy an insulating cover for the water hose on my hydration pack.  In other words, my water supply was blocked by a tube of ice by mile 3.

There was no way I was running long without water.  I could deal with cold knees and squinting through the snowstorm but dehydration is not something you want to risk.  By this point I was at the tip of Navy Pier, having finished my third mile.  How willing was I to turn around now and do the rest of it on a treadmill?  Oh, comfort, you vile temptress!

The short answer was, not at all.  So I decided to improvise.  My gym has several locations in Chicago, one just across the street from my apartment, another about three miles north of where I was in a neighborhood called Old Town.  So in the absence of a reliable source of water, I’d have to use that gym as my next and only aid station.  By the time I reached it, my phone had frozen and had stopped working.  I also didn’t bring a wallet or credit card with me, so even if I wanted to stop running, I had no way of paying for a cab and no way to use public transportation.  I therefore convinced myself that I had no choice but to see this run through.


I had managed to store enough heat to endure the teeth-cracking winds when I stepped back outside.  For the next ten miles I remembered what it was like when I first started running.  I didn’t want to venture too far away from the gym because I knew I’d need a water fountain soon, much like how I never ran too far from my apartment for fear of not having enough energy to return.  On the way, I crossed paths with my friend Marla, who managed to tell me through a frozen mouth, “I’m in hell right now.”  I told her at least she was running downwind, which did little to brighten her day.  I was still running north, straight into the wind, much like I had been for the last 90 minutes, developing a crusty ice beard along the way.  My face was locked in a permanent grimace and I must have looked like I was trailing something with a truly acrid smell.  It hadn’t been an awful run, but it was certainly testing my patience.

But all of that changed when I turned around.  As if I had hit mute on my surroundings, the white noise hitting my ears was gone, replaced by the soft landing of shoes on soft pavement.  The snow was now falling at the same speed that I was running, as if the world itself were a giant treadmill moving underneath me.  It was pure serenity and well worth the arduous journey.  I was ushered by this calming yet enthusiastic wind back to the gym for another water stop, then back to my apartment to round out a successful 22-miler.

3. Into the Wild

Though I had to rely on others for my water, my long run was still very much in a planned environment.  I followed running paths used by several other runners (only one of whom, by the way, was also wearing shorts) and kept a very consistent pace on uniform, comfortable terrain.  In other words, it did little to prepare me for the two big trail races for which Otter and I have registered this year: the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country 50-Mile Run.  For that, I would have to ditch the convenience of the Lakefront Trail for the unpredictable terrain of the Palos Forest Reserve (on a recommendation from ultrarunner Jeff) just 20 minutes outside of the city.


Otter and I arrived at the turnaround by Bullfrog Lake at 7 AM.  The snow was coming down in large, deliberate clumps, covering everything in sight.  It was much colder than the day before, but the absence of winds made it just barely tolerable.  I put on a brand new pair of Saucony Kinvara TRs and began running in circles to warm up.  My left knee was aching a little from the previous day’s long run but it didn’t take long before it realized I was running this show.  I had donned some black CW-X tights, which practically choke your legs into position and layered my upper body with two shirts and a windbreaker.  Topping off the ensemble was a black balaclava, meaning my entire body was being squeezed by some sort of compression garment.

saucony-kinvara-trWith nothing but a cursory understanding of the trail map and a desire to officially start the ultra training season, we hopped on a path and ran wherever it chose to take us.

Two miles later we were in a clearing with four different paths.  While this may sound like the perfect place to quote a Robert Frost poem, it seemed like all four paths were decidedly un-trodden.  The snow was so thick that not once did we ever know if we were running on crushed limestone, gravel, or dirt.  We could have been running on paths made of laminated currency.  There was no way of knowing.  Even the paths themselves were hard to discern.  After a few minutes of looking back and forth, we chose one at random and ran over branches, logs and a few stepped descents until we reached a different trail.  We would later learn that we hadn’t chosen a path at all and had instead just run blindly through the woods.

We finished our run in about an hour, covering exactly 10K through a variety of terrain.  We ran on open trails, narrow single-track sections where we had to keep an eye for branches above and below us, over lop-sided terrain and under lots of leafless canopy.  The only signs of civilization were the occasional walker and a few ice fishermen walking over frozen lakes.  It was a very scenic run, which was not lost on either of us.  Thrilled with our first official trail exercise, Otter and I left the reserve and headed back to the city with very high hopes for the grueling regimen we will have for the next seven months.

Otter contemplates which trail to take

Otter contemplates which trail to take

“It’s the irony of trail running,” I said as we entered what looked like a picnic area, “that you’re always surrounded by beautiful scenery but you spend the entire time looking down to make sure you don’t kill yourself.”



And that, I think, rounds out my so-called “devolution.”  In one week I went from running in a controlled, almost sterile environment where I was in charge of every last detail, to covering miles on unpredictable trails where every footstep could mean a hidden rock or devious root.  I went from lording high over my workout to being at the mercy of the elements.  My point is perhaps more accurately described as a convergence between my evolution as a runner and how I’ve embraced the different terrains available to us, and my reliance on always having everything on me.  Regardless, it was a very fun week, where no two runs were the same.

This is a pattern that I will likely follow for a while in hopes of preparing myself for the intimidating challenges ahead.  I won’t make it a habit to write at length about it but I felt it was important to officially mark the week where ultra-training began.  I’m glad we were able to make it happen on a day where the mercury hit single-digits.  My reasoning is that if we can knock out a trail run with layers of snow quickly building up on us, then surely we can handle the spring.

It’s the summer that worries me.  But more on that later.