February 25, 2009

You're Going Out in That?

Written by Dena Evans

Unless you are nursing a lengthy consecutive day streak, there is probably a limit to the type of weather you will endure to complete or at least attempt your scheduled run.   This line is probably very personal decision point, honed over time and perhaps drawn at a different place than when you first began running.


In northern California, this topic is a non-issue during daylight hours for most of the year.  A short sleeved shirt or less on top, shorts, and you are good to go.  Perhaps that is why when we actually have to consider the question of whether the conditions will prevent us from heading out, we have a much more difficult time than those for whom the question is a constant concern.   In other words, we can be wimps.

But then, that’s why we live here isn’t it?  The other fifty weeks of the year.

Growing up in the Seattle area, we never had much thunder and lightning, and even the threat of snow was sometimes enough to get us out of school, but I remember a specific 33 degrees and rainy weather pattern that tormented us year after year on the rock hard, crowned Astroturf soccer fields on which we used to play.  Not the lush, second generation Fieldturf of today, but the kind where a five yard side of the foot pass turned into a skidding ball of thigh welt-maker hurtling across the tundra.  For a special touch, there might be some wind, or perhaps some midweek, late fall evening darkness to serve as the absolute coup de gras for an unbearably slow post-game thaw.  One thing that never came into consideration was whether or not the game would actually be played.

In high school track, I distinctly remember standing in an absolute downpour of sideways rain waiting for the baton in the 4x200 meter relay in a dual meet. Tights? No.  T-shirt under the singlet?  No.  Cancellation for weather?  Not in a million years.

My first term in college, I scoffed at people who claimed the first sprinkles of the quarter were not worth venturing out into for the sake of class.  I snapped up my rain jacket, tied a plastic bag around my bike seat and off I went.  Almost immediately, though, cracks began to appear in this façade of tough-girl superiority.  By the end of that first quarter I could barely contain my disgust for the same weather that had greeted me every winter for the first seventeen years of my life when I returned home with a sheet of prescribed workouts for Christmas break.

By my sophomore year, when the Brutus Hamilton meet at Cal was canceled for rain right as the women’s 1500 meter field was taking final strides on the track, it was out and out relief I felt to just get the heck out of there and on the bus.  Fifteen years later when my kids’ soccer games and practices are canceled for a ten minute downpour, I am the first one in the car.

This is not to say that I still will not run in bad conditions.   I certainly have and will again in terrible weather (as I write this, rain is beating down on my roof ).  With the agency afforded by adulthood and retrospect, and the purposely blurred distinction between a daily run and a target race, here is where I draw the line.

1.    I’ll run for a team in almost any weather
I have only run in three USATF Club Cross Country Championships, but two of them were doozies.  Last December’s USATF Club Cross Country Championships in Spokane featured wind chill in the single digits and 40 mile per hour winds. Days later, my fingers and toes still tingled from the cold.  The 1997 edition of the same meet at Blue Lake Park in Portland, Oregon featured a vicious version of that Pacific Northwest mix of freezing rain in which I used to play soccer, this time including gale force winds whipping off the Columbia River.   This was the kind of day where you are so soaked/ frozen, muddy, and cold, you aren’t sure if you can muster the energy to take off your clothes and put on warm ones, your fingers aren’t functioning well enough to even think about taking off your spikes, and you are secretly hoping that your body heat will at some point begin to make your clothes function like a wetsuit once you get indoors or in the car. This is probably the hypothermia setting in.

Both of these were epic days that live in infamy for anyone who was present, but promise of a score was too great, and there we were: wrapped up in idiosyncratic layering methods and running more slowly (almost in place at some points due to the wind in both cases) than we would have dreamed in our worst case scenario.  The exact same piece of human nature that got you and your friends into trouble in high school because nobody wanted to be the first one to wimp out from a far fetched and potentially dangerous plan was at play here.  Some things never change.

2.    I’ll run if I’ve already paid for it
One Monday morning in April a couple years ago, I sat in a makeshift hut formed by my three dollar plastic parka under the steadily dripping eaves of a high school gym, expectantly waiting for the opportunity to spend another forty five minutes walking down a road with thousands of other similarly attired individuals in the pouring rain with a man yelling at us through speakers on telephone poles, only to then discard my primary protective garment and run twenty six and a quarter miles with the wind blowing me sideways and my shirt soaked from the start with cold rain.  Why, you ask? Well because it’s the Boston Marathon, of course, and gosh darn it, I’d paid for the entry, the flight, the hotel, not to mention the time spent training.  If they had canceled it (which had actually been discussed due to the Nor’easter) I probably would have run in protest and I wouldn’t have been alone.  This last impulse is why people who don’t run think we are strange, and furthermore, why they are probably on to something.

3.    I’ll run to convince others they can do it
In 2003, I was coaching my first NCAA meet as a head coach and was pretty wound up the morning of the race.  A recently graduated Lauren Fleshman and I set out on a run through Waterloo, Iowa. Lauren and I both love a little exploration, and I particularly pride myself on not getting lost.  Well, about 70 minutes later, having returned down deserted train tracks in the blowing snow to get back from wherever I had led us in my adrenalin infused cloud, I stretched out on the hotel room floor only to find hives appearing all over the front of my body from the cold.  Big red lumps, literal windburn from the conditions that had permeated my layers to the skin.

Knock knock knock.

Hey Dena, how is it out there?

Oh, fine!  Just fine.  Not that bad, actually – you’ll be fine!

See, if I hadn’t gone out there, I wouldn’t have known to add that extra layer of cheerfulness to my conversations that morning to distract from the truth of the situation.  At least that is what I told myself justified the welts.  In any case, we won the meet.

4.    I’ll avoid the pre-dawn dark at all costs
This is where I part company with many members of Focus-N-Fly.   I can’t help but marvel at the early birds every time I am out there with the Palo Alto group.  I’ve had years where I had to do most of my running in the early morning before dawn, and precisely because I have paid those dues I refuse to do it unless I absolutely have to.  I consider the darkness to be a weather condition in and of itself, and count down the days until daylight savings (as of this writing, less than two weeks)!  For some reason, the darkness just saps my enjoyment the way that rain, snow or even extreme heat doesn’t.  Perhaps it is because I now do things like write articles about running in the dark too late in the evening to get enough sleep, but while I will endure many things in daylight, even the slightest sprinkle in darkness leads me to press snooze.

My lines in the sand may appear indiscriminately drawn, as yours probably are as well. No one can erase that one bad or good experience that shapes your future view on what is an acceptable set of weather conditions to continue as planned.  As for me, I’m hoping the rain stops by the time I finish this so I can go back to thinking about something else besides whether or not the trails in Huddart are just passable enough.