To Be A Runner: Weather or Not

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(By Martin Dugard, excerpted from "To Be a Runner")

Just last week I was in New York, where the temperature was below freezing and the raw windchill made it feel twenty degrees colder. I knew that if I stepped out of the hotel for a run, I'd be miserable for about three blocks, but by the time I got to Central Park I'd actually be sweating. I also knew that I had all the right gear for foul-weather running: gloves, stocking cap, tights, and a thick sweatshirt that would make me feel downright cozy. I knew that if I ran just twenty minutes, it would alter my mood for the better, buoying me the rest of the day. If I ran longer--maybe forty minutes or even an hour--I would know the stiff backbone of having overcome Mother Nature. Throughout the day I would think back to my run and feel that little burst of sunshine in my heart for overcoming my doubts.

But I didn't. I headed down to the hotel fitness center, where I got bored on the treadmill after just three minutes. A couple of pushups, a few situps, and all too soon I was back in my room polishing off a second cup of coffee while poring over USA Today.

And then came that inevitable moment of confrontation with my wimpiness. As I left the hotel for a meeting on Fifth Avenue, I cut through the park. Not only was it a brisk but gorgeous day for running, with a layer of snow turning the landscape into someplace new and exciting, but it was packed with runners. Hats on their heads, gloves on their hands, those hardy souls were out in force.

That's the thing about weather. More than any other excuse, it seems a viable reason for not running. And if the run actually takes place, I'd put the odds at better than eighty percent that it's a survival run that feels more like obligation than the sort of uplifting workout that makes the rest of the day lighter.

Therein lies the question: When is the run an obligation instead of a joy? When are weather conditions truly prohibitive, and when are they a convenient excuse? It's one of the great inner debates in endurance sports, as my runners have learned. We all have a personal limit, a redline that we cross at our peril. Running two hours in one-hundred-degree heat is too much for me, but for a Hawaiian Ironman it's no big deal. To me, running in a blizzard is stupid, but I've done it. Running in the rain is uplifting or miserable, depending upon the size of the drops and the force of the wind. Warm rain on a tropical island is refreshing. A cold, driving rain on a January afternoon as the sun sets, five miles from home, is miserable.

And yet, if I am wearing a hat, running in that January rain can be fortifying. A hat keeps the rain out of my eyes and off my head and my core temperature elevated, preventing hypothermia.

Somehow, even when my hands are numb and my chest soaked, having that little island of comfort atop my hair is quite nice indeed. One of my favorite running memories began during half-time of an NFL play-off game a few years back. I flipped off the TV and popped out for a couple of quick miles. The rain set in long after I'd stretched beyond two miles to something that would eventually become eight. At the furthest possible point from home, the sky turned black and the rain pounded down. But I had my hat. All seemed right with the world. The day felt just a little more epic for the rain and the wind, as if I was having some sort of Frozen Tundra play-off experience of my own. I jacked up the pace so I could make it home for the fourth quarter. When I remember that run, I think of stepping back in the house just as Brett Favre threw a touchdown pass. I think of cold, hard rain lashing my torso. I think of the baseball cap that kept my mood upbeat and my head toasty. And I think of the marvelously hot shower that turned my skin lobster-red as it restored circulation to my extremities.

I find it curious that people who live in California run on treadmills inside climate-controlled gyms far more than people back east. When I am in London, I often marvel at the sheer number of runners chugging through Hyde Park, no matter the conditions. These people inspire me and make me question my motivation when I am wont to take the day off on account of weather. When I was in New York last week, for instance, it's not like I spent that blustery day cooped up inside my hotel. No. There was work to be done. I walked across town, walked back, went out to dinner. In fact, I walked back to my hotel in a freezing rain. So why couldn't I have endured that same weather for the sake of the run? Simple: I used the weather as an excuse.

It goes back to my premise about why we run in the first place. The act of running is a decision to be the best possible version of ourselves. It is a striving to be more than mediocre, if only for that burst of time we're out there getting it done. Most days the act of stepping outside the door is made more difficult by worry, bills, time constraints, and other everyday issues of life. So to make that decision even more difficult by adding weather as an obstacle seems almost unfair. But the choice to run despite the weather is fortifying. I think about the faces of the Hyde Park runners and how they seemed so unafraid. You don't earn that look by taking the day off on account of weather.

Reprinted from TO BE A RUNNER by Martin Dugard. Copyright (c) 2011 by Martin Dugard. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.

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