Week ten: running hot and cold

The world’s best place to run is around the Silver Lake Reservoir.

The world’s best time to run is to begin pre-dawn, 5:45 a.m., and proceed into the day, ending just before 7 a.m.

My conclusions are not scientific. In my two-plus months of marathon training I have run in exactly five places, three of them in LA (Griffith Park, the track at the Glendale Recreation Center, and the reservoir) and two in and near Chicago (the boulevards of Humboldt Park and the concrete loop around the fabricated pond near my dad’s house in the Northwest suburb of Buffalo Grove). During my training I have run at exactly five times of day (pre-dawn, late morning, early afternoon, pre-dusk and after dark).

But just as supermarket checkout magazines anoint some random celebrity the most beautiful man or woman in the world (with zero regard for the doe-eyed waiter at Say Cheese, or the ineffably exquisite bartender at Edendale Grill), I declare these universal truths, based solely on what I know.

My Griffith Park runs are weekly sojourns with my official pace group, organized by AIDS Project Los Angeles. These are often long runs, lasting two hours or more, and while the social aspect is invariably delightful, by the time we’re done the day is hot, sweaty and complicated. My runs around the track in Glendale are purely utilitarian. My son gains soccer skills and I run. It’s tedious and monotonous.

The reservoir, on the other hand, is a near-perfect place to run. Before dawn it is quiet, sparsely trafficked, dark but well-lit and cool but not cold. The reservoir offers a comfortable running surface (at turns gravel and asphalt) and a varied terrain: a few curves, several hills, a water feature and an active wildlife scene. I’ve witnessed a crane swooping overhead, seen a raccoon family foraging for breakfast and heard a chorus of waterfowl caws. The only imperfection is the portion of track that pushes foot traffic onto the street and into the blinding, speeding traffic that regards that particular stretch as a sort of mini-Autobahn (a protected path is scheduled to open in ’09). I avoid that part. It is only when running around the reservoir, in that pre-dawn moment that takes away only from sleep and not some other thousand obligations, a time that is not dependent upon anyone or anything, that I fully submerge in the experience.

I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend in Chicago, which provided me my first attempt to run “away.” I was curious to see how running in the dreaded cold and grey of late fall Chicago would compare. I didn’t expect to duplicate my home running experience in Chicago, and I was more than a little tempted to forego all physical exertion and succumb to a tryptophan stupor. But I knew I couldn’t skip running on all those days, or I’d lose ground with my training. My biggest concern was the cold.

I was born and raised in Chicago. I know about waiting for the bus, helpless against a stabbing lake wind. I know about the hollow chill that traps itself inside your ears and stays there half the day, and about snow that insinuates its icy, wet way into in every exposure.

The extremes of LA are far more forgiving. In LA, you can avoid the heat by running in the dark. In Chicago, when it’s cold, it’s cold all the time. And so you run in the cold.

The temperature for my first run was in the high 30’s. I hit the streets of Humboldt Park in borrowed, lined running pants and an insulated pastel blue shirt. Chicago and LA are different urban animals, so I can’t offer an exact equivalent of the Humboldt Park neighborhood. It’s European ethnic turned Puerto Rican turned ever so slightly gentrified (two of my sisters live there with their families), but mostly not. East LA might be an approximation.

It was late afternoon, just beginning to get dark, and the temperature was falling. People were focused on getting home. No one was milling about, no one was strolling, no one was engaged in recreational jogging – in a shirt that looked like an Easter egg, no less. I got some curious looks and a couple of mildly hostile ones. I was traversing a route suggested by my sister Amy, a major boulevard that would presumably steer me clear of any unsavory types who might consider me an easy target. The sidewalks were wide and mainly empty, which was lovely, as were the massive old churches and the big brick houses with ample porches set back from the street. But the traffic was loud, so loud that I couldn’t hear the chirping of my pace-keeping watch. And I was really cold.

When a body is cold it wants to move to generate warmth. I was running much faster than usual and tiring much more quickly. I was also overcome by a familiar fear that I was lost, or would be soon (I get lost easily). The run was short, quick, loud and mildly panicked. Not the meditative, methodical experience to which I’d grown accustomed.

I ran twice more while in Chicago, both times in the suburban development where my dad lives, in the suburb of Buffalo Grove. Of course there are no buffalo there, but the neighborhood does boast a large population of geese, who were on the move to warmer climes, as well as a significant number of Russians, who seemed completely unbothered by the cold.

During my runs, the Russians were the only people I saw who were not in cars. They would bundle up, in long, dark coats and heavy hats, and walk purposefully in groups of two or three or four, talking in serious tones. Mostly they ignored me, but occasionally I would get a look that suggested they considered theirs a reasonable activity -- walking and talking, while appropriately attired against the elements – and mine, running and freezing in tights and mittens, as just plain silly.

I could see their point.

9:45 AM Thursday, December 4 2008 • Link •  
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