Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From Texas to Boston: Running in the Cold

Apparently the start of December, and winter, in Massachusetts was incredibly mild this year.  That all came to an end just before I flew from my cool but temperate central TX to my parents' home in the Boston area.  I arrived on Christmas eve, in the afternoon, and had packed and prepared for morning runs every day of my visit.  After all, what is a vacation without regular running?  While the Mass air felt very chill to me as I left Logan airport, I put it out of my mind, taking solace in the knowledge that I had packed tights, long sleeved wicking shirts, gloves and a running hat.

Christmas morning arrived with grey skies and very cold temperatures.  I woke up and checked the thermometer outside the bathroom window, which registered between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  I briefly contemplated returning to bed, given that I had not tackled such temperatures in nearly a year.  However, the thought of doing so was shameful enough that I instead pulled on my tights, two layers of long sleeved tech shirts, gloves and a hat.  Before I could sink into a small and cold puddle, I put on my Garmin and headed out the front door.  The cold air sent a chill through me immediately, and because the Garmin had not located satellites, I was forced to continue standing, very still, for about 2 minutes.

Shortly after I started running, my muscles and extremities felt much more comfortable and I could feel blood circulating throughout my body.  My face still felt cold and raw and there is an unpleasant feeling that settles in your throat from continually sucking in chilly air.  Nonetheless, the simple act of running brought my body temperature into balance.  That is, unless I found myself stopped at an intersection.  A lack of motion meant the immediate return of frigidity.

Toward the end of my run, the wind had picked up and the tips of my fingers and toes were permanently and uncomfortably chilled.  This was especially surprising because I was wearing fleece mittens.  I cannot remember another time that they were not sufficient to keep me warm.  When I finished the run (a hearty 8.43 miles), I took a very nice and deserved hot shower and drank some hot tea to return my body temperature to normal.  The rest of my family still lives in Mass, and therefore this weather was not out of the ordinary.  I, however, was very pleased by my fortitude.

The three days following Christmas have brought considerably milder weather and with it easier and more comfortable running conditions.  On the 26th, I headed out with a hat and gloves, but quickly shed the gloves at the trail head where I was running, and retrieved them before heading home.  On the 27th, I went into Boston and ran along the Emerald Necklace.  The weather was in the high 30s, warm enough for me to go sans hat and gloves!  And while the trend continued this morning, the weather has now changed again, with temperatures in the 20s tomorrow and a very heavy wind chill to accompany it.

Getting out of a warm bed for the prospect of a run in the cold air is not often appealing to a groggy runner.  What I have learned over the years though is that more often than not, with the proper dress and a consistent pace, one will be warm enough.  So tomorrow, and the rest of the time I am here in Massachusetts, I will remind myself that the chilly conditions are nothing that a little running can't cure.

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Art of Running in the Dark

Daylight savings in autumn is a pretty exciting day for perpetually tired students like me, because it means a glorious, extra hour of sleep.  After that, though, all the excitement is gone and you are left with longer and longer periods of darkness.  For most of us this time of year (in the northern hemisphere) this means periods of running in the dark, whether it is pre-dawn or post-dusk.  My running is no exception to that, and I have been logging quite a few miles in the dark of late.  As I was (yet again) running in the dark this week, I came to the realization that there are quite a few tricks that I feel are important to making this a satisfying and successful experience.

Embrace it.  If you are going to spend a significant amount of your runs in the dark, you really ought to enjoy it, which I think one can do by actively focusing on the nice things about it.  I enjoy running in the dark because it feels so much quieter.  This in turn makes it easier for me to meditate and mull things over.  Furthermore, I find that traffic is often less in the early mornings or late at night.  If you time it right, one can also enjoy a sunrise or sunset during the run.  This time of year, one can also enjoy the holiday lights better in the darkness.  Sometimes I pick a running route that takes me through a particularly well decorated neighborhood and it makes me feel festive.

Gear up.  A few adjustments to your normal running attire can make a dark run much more enjoyable and safe.  First, swap a dark colored shirt for a bright/light colored shirt.  Any gear with built in reflective elements is a plus, but certainly throwing on a white shirt is extremely easy to do, so no excuses! You can also clip a cheap, flashing bike light on your clothing.  This makes you easy to spot for any cars.  If the area you are running in is not well lit or has particularly bad footing, consider using a head lamp or hand held flashlight.   Alternatively, you can pick a route that you know is well-lit and has smooth terrain.  That is what I usually do; I avoid off-road paths anytime I know I am running when it is dark out.

Know thy enemy.  My primary concern while running in the dark is cars.  This is particularly problematic in Austin, where many roads (1) lack sidewalks and (2) lack street lights.  This means I am often forced to run in unlit streets.  The good news is that Austin is pretty cycling friendly, so most of the roads have shoulders.  First, I always run against traffic.  This is strongly recommended for runners, because it supposedly allows cars to see you sooner.  I usually take a defensive approach with cars, though, and assume that I need to take safety into my own hands.  I like running against traffic, because it makes it easier for me to know when a car is approaching.  As they get closer, I can gauge whether they are moving away from me and giving me plenty of passing space and if not, I will jump onto the curb.  My secondary concern is vulnerability and isolation.  As a female runner, I never want to put myself in a situation where someone could hurt me and I would be unable to get help.  While I enjoy running in remote and natural places, I skip this at night because it is so much harder to avoid danger.  I stick to well lit/populated areas with a decent amount of traffic.  If traffic is a problem, one can also choose residential neighborhoods with lots of houses and people in those houses.

Perfect the Art.  A major problem I experience while running in the dark is temporary blindness from the oncoming traffic's bright lights.  This makes me somewhat uncomfortable, because many of the roads I run in have potholes or other contour aspects.  In this case, I do my best to look at a distance where I can make out the road surface.  Additionally, I tend to press my feet into the pavement with confidence.  I also use this technique when running on slick or icy surfaces.  Literally, I apply a little extra pressure when my foot hits the pavement.  This should increase the friction between my shoe and the road, and help keep me upright.  It might all be in my head, but I can assure you that I have never fallen using this approach, and I have taken my fair share of face plants while running.  Usually these falls occur during the calmest of weather on smooth, flat road in full daylight, much to my embarrassment. 

Right now in Austin, the sun sets around 5:30pm.  I set out for a run at 5pm and selected a route that looped south along the Shoal Creek trail and then back along roads and through UT's campus.  Because the second half of the run would be in the dark, I intentionally ran the trail section first and was well onto paved road before it was too dark to see.  It was a grey, cloudy and drizzly day, preceded by an entire weekend of rain.  The weather was cool, in the low 50s and wet.  It reminds me of New England, and I love it!  After the hottest summer on record in Austin, I am finally in my element.  And for that, I don't mind logging a few miles in the dark :)