Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The runner and the dog

In the early afternoon on Sunday, I planned a long running route. Warrenville to Herrick to Butterfield to Leask, with a stop-off at the barn, and back to Warrenville. It went all the way around Danada, all the way around Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. With the stop at the barn, the route was 9.5 miles long.

It terrified me.

Not the length. Not quite the fact that I would be running the entire route along roads—some well-traveled, some not so much. No, it was the weather. It was sunny and clear, 7 degrees Fahrenheit with a -5 wind chill. Really, it wasn’t bad if you were properly dressed.

But the weekend prior I had gone on a shorter run in similar weather along a similar route—west on Warrenville—and two miles into the run I realized that my arms were numb. I had gripped them and the shock of my own touch had almost hurt. I rubbed my arms through my sleeves with my gloved hands but they remained cold. I peeled back my sleeves to look at the skin and it was bright red. Instinctively, I knew I was seeing the fetal stages of frostbite. Not wanting to cut my run short and head home, I re-routed out of the headwind. In the end, my run was cut down from a hoped-for 8 miles to 6.6 miles but my arms were much happier out of the biting wind, which had somehow gone through layers of wicking fabric to my skin.

This time I was determined to go on a route that would take me much further away from home. If I had problems with the cold, well, what would I do? I pushed the thought out of my head and added an extra layer on top and bottom. I covered my face below my eyes with a polyfleece face wrap. Last week’s snot still stained the nasal area of the wrap but I didn’t care. I had nasty sinus issues and I knew I would be snottier than ever on the 9.5-mile run.

(When I run, my nose does, too—year round! I’ve mastered the art of blowing built-up snot onto the ground two feet in front of me, mid-stride, without touching my nose. If I’m running on a sunny, lovely day with many other people out and about then I do my best to wait until I’m relatively alone before clearing my nose.)

I was also a little worried about the road shoulders. They had been quite iced-over the week prior but I was thinking, hoping, they would be clearer after the few hours the temps went above freezing earlier in the week (imagine that!). Either way, I planned to run on the left side of the road, facing oncoming traffic. It is particularly important for someone who can’t hear. If a car swerves towards my back then, well, I would never know it until I find myself impaled into an icy snow bank, head-first, limbs mangled and bloody. If I am facing traffic when a car swerves towards me (and who would do that, anyway?) then at least I’ll have the chance to jump away and impale myself into a snow bank, minus mangled and bloody limbs.

And so, layered-up, hydrated, tummy full of banana, nerves twanging in my gut, I set off. The day was beautiful and bright and I wished for a visor to keep the sun out of my eyes. My eyes watered over in the stinging cold and I wiped the tears away, feeling them instantly freeze on my lashes. But as expected, my eyes soon became used to the cold and stopped tearing up. I was visible so I expected cars to see me and stay out of my way, and they did. But I was ever watchful.

One mile into the run, my hearing aid began issuing the much-dreaded warning beep of a dying battery. Only I can hear the beep, which is fortunate for you. It is like any other warning beep—a smoke detector, an alarm clock—but much more shrill and erratic in timing. I can hear one beep then not hear another one for several hours. I can hear one beep then hear another right after it and POOF, just like that, dead battery! On this occasion, it was more like the latter. My hearing aid beeped once, then twice, waited a few beats, gave another weak beep and then, like a flicked switch, total silence.

I couldn’t hear a single thing—not my feet touching the asphalt, not the cars whizzing by, not my breathing. I considered turning back to get a fresh battery—I was only two miles away by now, after all—but I decided not to. I’ve had my hearing aid battery completely die on me during runs before but this was the first time it had happened while I was running on the side of a road. More than ever, it was important for me to stay on the left side, facing traffic.

They say you run better when you listen to fast-paced music, that you have more encouragement to keep on going, more determination. What does that say about me? Here I am, on mile two of 9.5, and everything is stone silent. Does it slow me down? Do I get bored?

Not in the least. Instead, my brain’s focus switches totally over to the two senses that matter the most to me right now—sensation and sight. I am suddenly listening to my body. Every fiber of my being sings out as I stride over the asphalt. I listen to my feet within my Asics—I note how my mid-foot lands smoothly. I note how my foot rolls within the shoe—just a little bit. I note how the shoe moves on my foot (it is not 100% ideal but, for training, will do). I listen to the asphalt resonating through my ankles, up through my calves and shins, into my knees, up my thighs and through my glutes. I listen to my back and abs, my upper body, my shoulders and arms and hands. I note my breathing—steady and deep. I note my heart. Everything feels great; my body is working like the well-oiled machine it is. The voice of my body hypnotizes me.

At the same time, I am more observant. I note the deer, rabbit, and canine tracks in the snow to my left. I note the clouds in the sky, as well as chimney smoke. I watch the ground for patches of ice and large pebbles. I sense rather than see cars driving by. If I am wary about a car I look through the windshield and into the driver’s eyes and make sure he or she sees me. They gape at me.

Look at that crazy woman! their eyes say.

I am running along; I am deep within mile four. The high sun is to my left, to my back. I was a little cold on Warrenville, going into the headwind, but I am warmer now that I am going north. I am peaceful and content within the total auditory silence. Really, it’s a beautiful day.

I sense the shadow before I see it. It comes up on my right, on the road, and I—normally easily startled—am not at all surprised to see it. It is a small shadow and when I twist my torso to see its owner, I note it belongs to a small poodle-like black dog of the same color as its shadow. Black but not night-black; more gray-black. Of course the dog is barking at me and of course I cannot hear it—not at all. It runs and barks, runs and barks. I stop and face the dog and run a few strides towards it. Guessing the dog came from a house I had just passed on the left, I point back at the house.

“Go home!”

This was a bad idea, the dog says. I shouldn’t have chased this person. Bad, bad idea. It’s tail tucks between it’s legs and it barks again. I am afraid it will get hit by a car so once again I run two steps towards it and point at the house. It gets the message and runs for home as fast as it’s little legs can carry it.

I turn again and am surprised to see a minivan stopped on the road, patiently awaiting the conclusion of the runner/dog drama occurring before them. I am grateful; if the dog, brave and funny and annoying all at once, had gotten hit by a car I would have felt bad even though it wasn’t my fault.

I run on. On Butterfield road there is a lot of traffic returning from the Danada Square shops. Car after car after car whooshes by; the road is a conveyor belt of cars. Drivers stare, flabbergasted, cozy within their down parkas and heated interiors. I stop at the intersection of Naperville and Butterfield. I wait and walk back and forth, back and forth, on the edge of the right turn lane. Just another vehicle.

I stop at the barn, get a quick drink, look at Limerick (she has just been brought in from turnout and is eating her supper—she looks up at me, hay in mouth, eyes wide—Hey, what are you doing here?).

I run the remaining mile and a half home. My I listen to my feet, to my legs. They are strong and good, ready to run on. I am proud of myself; I feel accomplished. I have faced the weather and not only did I beat it but I thoroughly and fully enjoyed the process of beating it. It’s not as good as my 7-mile jaunt over rocky, icy, hilly single-wide dirt trails in Pennsylvania but it comes very, very close!

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