Towards the end of January, on a blistering cold Saturday morning, my alarm went off at 8am. I was planning on meeting a friend, and running across the 59th st. bridge to meet up with other members of our running team for an inaugural Queens run. I checked the temperature on my phone, 13 Fahrenheit (-10 celsius). The sounds of an enormous gust of wind hitting my window left little room for doubt that the wind chill might also be a factor. My phone buzzed, it was a text from my friend who I was meet on the Manhattan side of the bridge:
Friend: 15F what do you think?
Me: Can you tell if it’s windy? [this is either denial or false hope]
Friend: 14 mph
At this point I was just a few iPhone type-pad keys away from freedom, the snooze button and my warm, warm bed. It was the week after my half marathon, and I had been so proud of how I’d kept up my mileage through the winter so far. I’d always wanted to run on Roosevelt island, and it would be fun to do it with the group.
At 8.16 am I typed back:
I think I’ll still go. I want to run…. I’ll completely understand if you want to bail.
Friend: On my way!
Me: Proud of us!!!!!
This story should have a happy ending, but it does not. This should be the example of how training through all conditions, in all weather, and showing true commitment makes you a better athlete. Instead, it is an example of one of the hardest lessons of a sport that is mostly based on mental toughness: it is important to be tough and push yourself, except those times when you shouldn’t. And how do you tell those apart? Perhaps it is because I’ve only been an runner for a year, but my only answer to this question is, “in hindsight.”
But, let’s head back to our freezing day in January. We met at my fancy gym (my friend getting a temporary pass), changed, and waved at the desk attendant as we ran out, with the smirks of people doing something crazy and wild, but who secretly feel that this may make them a better person– one they are quite happy to be noticed being. The first problem (identified in hindsight) was that because the bridge was right outside the gym, we weren’t warmed up when hitting the incline and the subsequent descent (plus my legs were still tight from the half). The run along the bridge was surprisingly pleasant. The wind was at our backs, however, and since that made it warmer than I’d expected, I started sweating heavily, but did not stop to lose a layer (you guessed it, second mistake). We ran to our teammate’s apartment and waited, cooling rapidly as other people began to arrive.
After the group was assembled, I removed the offending layer (something I would regret in.. well, you know), and we headed out again. Into the wind– the very strong, very cold, cold wind. The plan was to get to Roosevelt Island together, at a pace that we all could run. But, as it happens when this is the plan, the pace ended up being just a bit too fast to be wise, but not too fast to be unmanageable (mistake number four). As we turned onto the bridge onto Roosevelt island, I saw that one of our running compatriots now had a snowy white mustache, as his breath and sweat had completely coated his normally dark black hair with a layer of Santa Claus worthy white. I suspected that the same had happened to the layer of sweat I had accumulated on the run over, but I wasn’t shedding any layers to find out.
As we ran around Roosevelt island and got to one end, one of our friends decided to run to the tip, by the abandoned hospital. This really was very cool, and the absolute highlight of the trip, but as I started out on the gravel, my knee already hurting, I knew that running along the unstable surface would be a bad idea (at this point I won’t even say anything). And then, as we turned out from the fenced in area and started running again around the island, something happened for the first time that would become a recurring event during all my future runs, right up to the present day: My knee hurt; it hurt a bit more; then a lot more; then I had to stop.
For the next two months, during every run longer than 4 miles (and recently less) the threat of this would follow me: my personal running raven, flitting along at my shoulder; reminding me of his presence with a dull knee pain, and waiting to land and surprise me with the stab that would end each run. Ok, I am being dramatic, but it hasn’t been fun. So this week, as the temperatures were high and the sky clear, and people who had been running indoors all winter appeared on the trails, pale, slightly undertrained, and wearing way too many layers, I trudged forlornly to the gym.
What did I do wrong that I should not do again? Obviously the big unspoken mistake was keeping up my mileage for two months with recurring knee pain, as it gradually got worse. But was it a mistake to decide to run that cold morning; would the “weak” option of texting “too cold, let’s bail” have saved me months of pain? I will never know. But, for the sake of all the other morning runs in tortuous conditions that are still ahead of me, I will say, no. It was not that run, or the numerous (I lost count) mistakes I made during it, but just a fact of training hard, in a repetitive sport that is hard on the body. Soon I will be back to running, just in time for hot, humid summer days, and I will resist the urge to hit the snooze button, heading out instead onto the hot summer streets- proud and raven free.
Picture is of a pigeon couple, enjoying a courtship on the spring night.