Seasons of a Runner

There’s evidence that some ancient cultures marked the year in three seasons instead of four – summer, winter, spring.

The three-season concept mirrors my experience as a runner. My runs have three distinct “seasons” – the slow, plodding winter of the warmup, the first stirrings of energy in spring, and the fulfillment of summer.

It’s not possible to rush Nature – the seasons begin and end in their own time. They may arrive a bit earlier or later, but always the pattern is the same: winter, spring, summer.

I invariably have trouble if I try to “rush the seasons.” Usually, that happens when I’m over-eager to get to summer – trying to run too fast, too soon, influenced by a early heat waves of emotion.

When I adjust to the seasons gracefully, like a farmer, I’m more likely to enjoy the run.

On a recent run, the changing of the seasons was especially clear. Mary Ellen and I had moved to a new apartment. Normally, we could count on friends to help, but the opportunity to move came suddenly, and I carried the entire Mt. Everest of our possessions (aka “crap”) down 16 stairs, loaded it on a truck, and humped it up 16 stairs to our new place. It was more than enough exercise for the week.

The first run in 10 days started sluggishly – winter was a sleeping, snow-covered field.

I’m often impatient during the warmup, wondering whether my body will ever wake up and announce its readiness to go fast. But this time, I was patient – I got a huge amount of exercise during the move, and felt no urge to rush Nature. I would let my body take its time.

After 40 minutes, I sped up to beat the traffic at a crossing and my legs felt loose and flexible, a sign that spring was near. A few tentative accelerations told me that spring’s warmth hadn’t fully penetrated my frosty bones; yet a slightly higher pace felt comfortable and natural.

I swung into the hills for 30 minutes, and emerged on a winding, tree-lined boulevard that fairly invites a runner to up-shift to tempo pace. As the heart monitor rose to 85%…87%…90% of max, it felt effortless. Yet the initial hill forced me to accept reality – my breathing was a bit labored, my body resistant. It was only a spring hot spell – Indian Summer, not the real thing.

I stopped and ate a Clif Gel and pondered what to do. I didn’t want to back off, so I compromised, pushing the pace to 90% for 16 minutes, though it was mildly uncomfortable.

I had done a decent job of managing two seasons: in winter I “buttoned up my overcoat” and proceeded with appropriate care. For most of spring I ran at a cautious, hopeful pace. But I got tempted and rushed toward summer, removing layers of clothing prematurely, in expectation of sunny days that didn’t come.

To tell the truth, it wasn’t a bad run. I always know when I’ve trained badly – after the run, there’s an unhappy feeling in my heart, a flat mood, and possibly some irritation. But I felt pretty good; I was enjoying the reward for running right most of the “year.” Driving home, I was cheerful, energized, and happy.

Yet I suspect it could have been better. I’m sure that if I had accelerated gradually, instead of blasting away as summer approached, the run would have been more fulfilling. Picking up the pace too quickly, my body and mind and heart felt out of sync. Nature abhors sudden change.

That’s a wonderful thing about running – it can teach us about life: for example, the importance of unruffled patience, and why it’s important to adjust ourselves to external realities, instead of immaturely expecting them to accommodate our desires.

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