Sunday, December 6, 2009

The meaning of early morning running

There are many tales of those who get up at the crack of dawn and open their day with a run. I was never amongst those. On Saturdays and Sundays when we were living in Italy, I would get up and meet Francesco (my running partner) at Pian del Lago. Pian del Lago is a huge expanse of green just outside of Siena, with the old Francigena way running through it - this was the road the pilgrims would take from Rome, on their way to Compostela in Spain. Pian del Lago is home to many horse riding clubs, and agritourismo ventures, but more importantly, it is the meeting point for all runners from Siena. This is where everyone meets up and go off on their long runs. Running in Siena itself is unusual. Given the long narrow streets it would seem perfect, but it would be inappropriate - the only area 'designated' for running inside the city, would be the Fortezza Medicea (as I mentioned in a previous post).

I would meet up with Francesco, but before 9am. Siena lies quite low to the sea, so in winter there was always thick fog which never really lifted before 11am. I used to have quite mixed feelings about these runs as I was always quite sleepy, and because improvements were slow to come, I always set off with a feeling of dread.
Perhaps at this point I can finally be honest and talk about what the real issues were.   I was quite friendly with someone called Leonardo, who used to own a sports shop in Siena, aimed mainly at runners ("Il Maratoneta" kind of gives it away), but he also used to sell swim stuff. At the time I was learning to swim and used to buy my stuff there. Soon, I started buying a magazine from the shop called 'Correre' which is the Italian equivalent to Runner's World, and there I read about Paavo Nurmi. And that is how I started running.
I used to run at Pian del Lago and was approached by a few clubs to become a member, but I resisted. When I started doing speed workouts at the track, people still used to approach me, and in the end I joined a club, which unfortunately had some very fast people. In an effort to keep up and score points for the club in the regional table, I would run a lot, but skipped out on the fartlek and speed work. Since I did not acquire a 'base' of miles, running suddenly became hard work and I no longer enjoyed it. I continued though since I could not let the club down, but I had long stopped enjoying it. This went on for years, and when we left Siena, I stopped running. And almost 8 years later, to the day, I started running again.
During my final year of PhD at Oxford, my room was right next door to the University Parks, alongside the Cherwell River. With such a stunning view, I could not resist, and went out for a walk one day, and the next and the next.

Soon, I started running, very short, very slow runs, with lots of walking in between.  I could not believe how unfit I had become and even worse, that I could no longer 'run'.  However, the University Parks consist of 70 acres of beautiful woodlands...from carefully tended gardens, to the most breathtaking cultivated wilderness.  Most of the 'proper' runners used to run either early morning or early evening, so I tended to avoid those times, and would go out shortly before lunch.  Those runs seemed to go on forever, and yet, I was not doing any great distances.  I did not time myself, I had no idea of distances, I merely went (photos Celia Sawyer)
out and ran.  It took a long time and I spent many hours thinking about why I wanted to run, and why I

was running.  I also had mixed feelings about my running time in Siena.  Although it had been stressful, I had enjoyed it in a funny sort of a way.  I enjoyed running with Francesco through the Tuscan hills, both in summer and winter.  I enjoyed the competitions, and most of all, I enjoyed the social activities and the schwag from our sponsors.
Funny thing is, here in the US you get a race t-shirt, energy drinks, shot bloks etc, and sometimes even a medal for your troubles.  In Italy you seldom get a t-shirt or medal (I do not know if that has changed now), but you do get a box of goodies containing pasta, Chianti wine, snacks, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and other goodies in that vein.  So those were the things I missed, and the
(photo Simon Ho, Linacre College)   

genuine cameraderie, but I did not miss the stress of accumulating points for the club, doing badly in a race and thereby letting the club down.  During the remainder of my time at Oxford, I could think of no good reason why I should run, so I put it out of my mind and just ran.
When I went back home to Geneva, I continued running outdoors, around Lake Geneva.  Indeed, I would go out at night.  Ah yes, I had forgotten about that!  Yes, I have run in the night.  Geneva is an extremely safe city, and I had no issues running at night - reason being, that there were no other runners out at 9pm! I still had no reason why I was  running, but felt that I wanted to recapture something of that running feeling that I had experienced in Siena.  I had not quite thought it through yet, when we moved to Boston.
Boston, the perfect city for runners.  I was excited and overwhelmed by the number of runners here, but it seemed that no matter what time of the day or night, there were always people running!  For 7 months I ran indoors on a treadmill, and then finally on World Run Day in 2008, I ran outside, and the sky did not fall on my head.  Although I had run alone previously, it was always 'alone' - there were very few other runners about.  Running alone here was challenging, because I hate running slow.  I could not accept that of myself in Siena, and I think that was what I was struggling with here.  Francesco was a strong runner and he would set a good pace that I would force myself to keep to - I had no Francesco here, and to be quite honest, I do not want that kind of stress again (well not just yet).  I am not a particularly fast runner, but on good days I can hold my own.  However, I cannot run to a blistering pace without a little help, but what to do without Francesco?
Then it finally dawned on me, why I run: for myself.  I run to please myself.  No one else but myself.  I know it sounds a little weird and totally obvious, but it was not obvious to me.  There was a delicious freedom in discovering that, and suddenly running became a complete joy, not just that partial one that I had previously experienced.  That said, I think my true test came this week past, when I went running at 6:30am - yes, with all the other runners.  It was delightful, and I am looking forward to this week.
I have mentioned what a delight it is to run here in the US, and I truly feel that 2010 is going to be the year of my Great Leap Forward, so stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. The pictures in your post are beautiful and your writing style is peaceful. I'm not sure if I know why I run. Yes, it is for weight management and stress management but it is something I feel I am. I am a runner and its my passion.