Strangers In Our Midst

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Courtesy of Marathon and Beyond Magazine
By Don Kardong, November, 2007

On a February morning two years ago, I headed out for an easy five-mile run. Snow was in the forecast and a few flakes had already fallen, but not enough to cover the ground. The temperature was a degree or two below freezing. There was no wind. In short, conditions were about as mild as they get in winter here in the Inland Northwest. No slipping, no stumbling, no frozen face. Within five minutes I was comfortably warm and moving with ease. After months of struggling to regain fitness following double knee surgery, things were falling into place. Even the weather was cooperating.

As I trotted through my morning rounds, I checked my watch at a few checkpoints along the way. I was running faster than I had two weeks, even a week earlier, and it felt effortless. I wasnít quite experiencing the proverbial runnerís high, but it was still an uplifting morningócomfortable, light-footed, and with weather that was trending toward spring. I donít typically smile when I run, but it was tough not to. Then, in the final mile, I passed a woman who was stepping gingerly toward the front of an office building. She looked up, watched me pass, and blurted out her surprise. ďYouíve got to be kidding me,Ē she proclaimed, and hurried on toward the door.

Kidding? It took me a few seconds to put it all together, but it finally registered. The woman considered running on this particular morning a bizarre kind of behavior. In the world she inhabited, I was acting very strange. Was I? In the past four decades, running for fitness has become so commonplace that those of us who run sometimes fail to fathom the perceptions of the rest of society about what we do. As we run, people stare at us from cozy living rooms, temperature-controlled automobiles, or comfort-optimized office buildings and consider usÖwhat? Heroes? Idiots? Freaks?

We are still a minority, thatís for sure, no matter how much our numbers have grown. But when simply exercising outdoors on a mild winter day is considered extreme behavior, I can only conclude that the vast majority of citizens have lost their compasses that point in the direction of the bizarre. Are these really the descendants of hard-edged pioneers? Is bipedal outdoor travel on a February morning in the twenty-first century now the definition of ridiculous?

Iíve done a few things in my four decades of running that could fairly be called extreme, like a rim-to-rim-and-back journey in the Grand Canyon or a circumnavigation of Mt. St. Helens. Going outside for 40 minutes of easy running, though, shouldnít be on anyoneís list of daunting or wacko endeavors.

But if winter running is nutty behavior in most Americansí reckoning, I think turnabout is fair play. I was visiting a running club in North Georgia a while back, and my host was explaining, rather sheepishly I thought, that certain citizens of her community liked to reenact Civil War battles on the outskirts of town. Imagine her surprise when I told her we had a similar group in Spokane, a locale further removed than France from the carnage of the War Between the States. In the 1860s, the Inland Northwest belonged to Native Americans, missionaries and the occasional fur trapper. And yet there they were in the middle of one of our running routes one Sunday morning, hundreds of Yankees and Rebels in full regalia, happily firing blanks at each other. This was what, the Battle of Riverside State Park? And Iím goofy because I run when itís cold outside?

Another anecdote: At the Lilac Bloomsday Run, the 12-kilometer race I direct in Spokane every spring, weíve worked hard the past few years to put various forms of entertainment along the course. Having rock bands, drummers, cheereaders, belly dancers and an Elvis accordionist along the route doesnít seem at all outlandish any more, but this year we received a query from a local Renaissance revival group that wanted to do some jousting next to the runners. On actual horses. We put our hooves down on that one. No jousting on the race course. Incidentally, there are about 30,000 members of the Society for Creative Anachronism worldwide. The SCA is ďan international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. I donít think our Renaissance group was affiliated with the SCA, but in case youíre wondering, Spokane is in the Kingdom of An Tir.

Iím not putting anyone down, trust me. Whatever musters your musket is fine with me. Iím just wondering, again, given the way some people spend their time, if trotting around in tights and a Gore-Tex jacket in February really warrants a turn of the head and a derogatory or dismissive comment.

There are peopleónormal people, letís call themówho spend their waking hours collecting things: string, aluminum foil, snow globes, matchbooks, Beanie Babies, porcelain elves, pet rocks, memorabilia of Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Meanwhile, we runners collect miles, and are considered strange.

Yes, I collect miles. And along with miles, I also collect wildlife, or at least wildlife sightings. In a given year and without really trying, Iíve seen deer, elk, coyotes, foxes, osprey and the occasional pileated woodpecker, to name a few. Now and then Iíve collected a moose.

Every spring I collect wildflower sightings. Spring begins with buttercups, then widow lillies, then bright yellow spashes of arrowleaf balsamroot, followed by lupine, Indian paintbrush, purple vetch, fireweed, fleabane, and an ongoing parade of species, in every color of the rainbow, more varieties than you can shake a ten-foot lance at.

Even in winter, when fauna is scare and flora mostly dormant, there is plenty of nature to collect. In winter the river is noisy and swift, and the sky flashes purple, pink, and gold at sunrise. All very collectible.

Iíve been known to run ten miles well after dark, with only the enigmatic twinkling of a few distant constellations to keep me company. I collect those too. And scarce or not, I enjoyed the best bald eagle sighting of my life one snowy morning, when one of the elusive raptors watched my running buddy and me from the branch of a pine tree no more than 20 feet away. He beamed a malevolent eye at us for about ten seconds, then gave two powerful pumps of his wings and was off down the river. Go ahead and tell me I must be kidding to be outside in winter, able to collect sighting like this. Iím a collector, and proud of it.

Running, though, is more than a chance to collect the natural world in vision and memory. Itís also one of the healthiest activities on the planet. Running strengthens the heart, cleans the arteries, improves blood cholesterol, burns excess calories, enhances the disposition and bonds friendships.

In spite of all this, there are people who are just aching for us to see the light, see how foolish our activity is, and do something else.

Like the guy at the bike shop. Donít get me wrong, I think cycling is a hoot, and Iím a regular rider. I typically manage three days of riding each week along with my four days of running, and the combination is a winner. Cross training helps keep the injury banshees away, and 40 minutes on the bike is a smooth, swift and enjoyable way to start the day. I just donít want to hear that itís ďbetter than running.Ē Yes, biking is easier on the legs, and for anyone who needs an activity that gives a modest boost to the cardiovascular system without challenging the joints and muscles, cycling is wonderful. ďLots of guys I know who used to be runners like biking a lot better,Ē says the guy at the bike shop.

I hold my tongue, but what I want to say is, ďYes, and a lot of guys who used to bike like sitting in front of the TV a lot better. For the same reason: itís easier.Ē Yes, I know, those Tour de France studs train really, really hard, even when theyíre not juiced on steroids. You can get a hell of a workout on a bike, assuming youíre pedalling uphill at an altitude of around 7,000 feet. Other than that, the heartrate elevates only slightly for a rider in decent shape.

For a lot of people, that ease of motion makes biking ďbetter than running,Ē but in truth itís the opposite. Running is better, because it puts more demands on the cardiovascular system and burns more calories. You can get a roughly equivalent workout on the bike, it just takes three times as long. I made this point once to a world-class triathlete, and after chewing on it for a few seconds he agreed. ďYouíre right,Ē he enthused. ďI can really thrash myself with 30 minutes of running.Ē Now thatís what Iím talking about! Thereís no coasting in running; itís wall-to-wall workout. My muscles may be shakey and my knees achey, I may be sweating like Joe Frazier in the 15th round and feeling just as abused, but, by Thorís hammer, I enjoy a world-class effort when I run. Even when I run slowly.

So please, bike shop guy, donít try to use biking as a wedge to pry me away from running, especially since my biking in winter is stationary, indoors, and damned tedious. Let me stay with my trusted friend, two-legged travel, whatever the weather. All right, maybe Iím just a bit testy these days, and the comment from the guy at the bike shop hits a little close to home. Itís been three years since they wheeled me into the hospital operating room with faulty menisci, and I still havenít recovered enough from arthroscopic knee surgery to be able to run with ease.

Let me rephrase that. Actually, Iíve recovered a bunch of times since the surgery. Once, I recovered and retrained well enough to notch a couple of eighteen-mile runs. A return to marathoning seemed eminent. And then the floor collapsed and I was back to square two.

Since then, Iíve had a half dozen other rebuildings, followed by a half dozen other collapses. Sometimes itís a serious ache in one knee or the other. Sometimes itís a calf or hamstring tweak. Either way, when the running collpases Iím cycling full-time, with the words of the guy at the bike shop echoing in my skull.

As I write this, Iím in yet another rebuilding phase. About three months ago, running in the state park with two buddies and feeling great, I suddenly felt a sharp pain just above my right knee where the tendon attaches. I walked for a few steps and, hoping the pain would be one of those mysterious transitory ailments that evaporates as quickly as it appears, started jogging again. No dice. I had to walk most of the way home, until one of my running buddies could return in his car to pick me up.

A week after that episode I felt fine again, ran a full twelve miles, and decided I was back in business. Sadly, that was self-deception. Since then, Iíve had four more ďblowoutsĒ in the middle of a workout or race, and each time Iíve had to walk home. After the last incident, I took five weeks off and tried a stretching routine recommended by my physical therapist. Now Iím back to running four days a week, and I canít tell you how great it feels, no matter how slowly Iím covering the territory. Oh yes, and Iím cycling three days a week, which is just the right number.

So letís think again about how foolish it is to run in winter. Hereís one more anecdote: About a week after that February morning when I was told that I had to be kidding to be running outside, the temperature plunged into single digits. There was very little wind, though, so I decided that a run on a very cold, sunny morning was still reasonable. A bit dicey, to be sure, but no trek to the South Pole. As it turned out it was actually quite pleasant, and I nodded solidarity to other runners as I chugged through my five miles. I was in almost exactly the same spot I had been a week earlier when a different woman, on her way to take the trash out, looked up in surprise. ďThatís just crazy,Ē she announced, and scrambled back toward her door.

Well, craziness can be defined as holding beliefs or pursuing activities that are inconsistent with the beliefs and activities of the world around us. So go ahead, call me nuts. Just let me continue to be able to runówinter, spring, summer or fallóand youíre welcome to call me any name you like. As long as itís not ďcyclist.Ē

GC Cross Country