Achievement unlocked: Winter running habit

Every year I try and fail to establish a winter running habit. This year I managed, and learned a bit about why I usually fail.

In my imagination, the key has always been to keep running through the fall. As it gradually gets chilly and then cold I’ll gradually adapt.

That never works.

The main reason it never works is that seasons don’t work like that. One gets frequent warm days in early fall, then infrequent warm days in late fall, and then at some point—identifiable only in retrospect—there’s a last warm day, which is then followed by months of winter weather.

But it’s even worse than that, perhaps especially so for people like me who don’t have a regular job. Since I have pretty complete control over my schedule, I’m able to get out for my runs whenever the weather is optimal. In the summer I can run in the morning or evening when it’s not too hot. In the fall I can gradually shift my runs toward mid-afternoon when it’s not too cold.

The upshot of that is that I’m never confronted by gradually cooler temperatures when I go out for my runs. Rather, I get to run when the conditions are perfect right up to the last day of perfect conditions. Of course, there are days when conditions are imperfect all day, but I can adapt by just shifting my run to the next day or the day after—a strategy which works fine right up until late fall, when all of a sudden conditions are imperfect every day.

This fall as usual I failed to establish a running habit. I ran into mid-September, and then quit running for two months. But somehow I managed to get started again in mid-November, and proceeded to get in 24 runs from then until April Fools Day. Why this year and not other years? The answer comes out of looking at the reasons why I don’t run in the winter: Cold, dark, and ice.

For ice I have to chalk this success up largely to luck. We had an ordinary amount of snow this year, but the size of each snowstorm and the timing of warm and sunny bits after snowstorms meant that it was rarely more than a week or so before the sidewalks were clear enough that I could get out for a run. (In my running log I only spot five weeks with no running, and only one spot where two of those weeks are consecutive.)

For dark the credit goes back to my not having a regular job. There’s no boss expecting me to spend my daylight hours sitting at a desk. I can run whenever I want.

So it comes down largely to cold.

I have always been of the opinion that dealing with cold is just a matter of having the right gear, and I had some of it—a pair of very warm tights, a half-zip capilene top, some sweat pants, some mock-Ts, some sweatshirts, a silk baselayer, and a bright-red buff with reflecty bits.

To this I gradually added a machine-washable merino wool hat in high-viz yellow, a pair of high-viz yellow gloves, and a pair of lighter-weight tights suitable for wearing in moderate cold.

That little burst of consumerism turned out to be highly effective. First, it meant that I had the right clothes for the conditions, from pretty cold up to just barely too cold for shorts and a t-shirt. Second, because I wanted to give my new gear a try, I got out for at least three (probably more like six) runs that I’d otherwise have skipped, just because I wanted to wear my new tights or my new hat.

And so, for the first time since 2004 I have come into spring with a running base that prepares me for serious training right off the bat. I can comfortably run 10k, so I could compete in any 5k or 10k race this spring. I could easily be in shape for the 7.1-mile Lake Mingo Trail Race in early June. I’m probably within striking distance of being in shape for a half-marathon (although not the Illinois Marathon half-marathon in less than three weeks).

Mainly though, I’m in shape to just keep running on through the spring and summer. And maybe, just maybe, next fall.

Behold a gallery of running-related images from the winter, most of which were shared to my twitter feed sometime along the way:

Non-minimalist boots

Jackie and I went for a nice walk yesterday, through the prairie and woods next to Winfield Village. We walked about four miles altogether.

Toward the end of the walk I paused to retie a boot, and found that my back was really tight. Bending down caused pain in my sacroiliac joints.

It was odd because it was a familiar sensation, but an old familiar sensation. I used to feel that pretty often on a long walk, but I hadn’t felt it lately. Without really thinking about it, I had attributed the change to general improvements in fitness and flexibility. But here after a fairly short walk that old pain was back again.

I was briefly puzzled, but realized right away what had happened: Because the walk was going to be wet and muddy, I’d worn my old heavily lugged goretex hiking boots.

These used to be my main boots; they’re the ones I wore on my 33-mile Kal-Haven Trail hike. I’ve kept them because I haven’t found a satisfactory pair of waterproof minimal boots, and I’ve worn them right along over the three or four years I’ve been transitioning to minimalist footwear, whenever I needed waterproofness or a heavily lugged sole. But they have the big downsides of non-minimalists shoes: Their thicker heel jacks up my posture, and their rigid sole keeps my feet from adapting to the terrain.

It might not be just the footwear. The trail was muddy enough that every step was a bit of an adventure—my foot would sink into the ground, but it would sink a different amount each step, making it hard to establish and maintain a consistent gait. I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t play into making my back feel a bit wonky after a couple of miles.

But clearly it’s time to retire these old boots and find some waterproof minimalist boots with sufficiently lugged soles to handle some short, steep hills on a muddy trail.

If you’ve got any suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them. Comment below, or send me email! (Email address on my contact page.)

Walking to Mordor

A few years ago Jackie and I undertook to walk to Rivendell, replicating (the mileage of) Bilbo’s journey. We started, but we found that tracking the mileage in a notebook or spreadsheet didn’t really suit, and our venture rather petered out. (We got plenty of walking in that year. We just quit tracking it against Bilbo’s journey.)

Recently our friend Ashley Price started a walk to Mordor, replicating the mileage of Frodo’s journey from The Lord of the Rings, and it turns out that now there’s an app for that. You enter your mileage for each leg, and it tells you as you reach each milestone along the way. It also has a mechanism for “friends,” so you can see as they reach their milestones.

So Jackie and I are taking another stab at it. I installed the app, and for several days now have been entering our daily mileage.

If you want to join us, feel free to install the Walk to Mordor app yourself and friend me! (I’m in there as Philip Brewer, although perhaps I should have had some hobbitish name.)

Today we walked some in the University arboretum.

Unfortunately we got started just as the weather turned awful, so we haven’t been making very many miles per day so far. But as soon as it gets a little nicer, I’m sure we’ll start racking up miles as fast as our little hobbit feet can move us along.

Edited to add: We are also re-reading the Lord of the Rings. We meant to read along with our walk, but so far we’re reading quite a bit faster than we can walk. Maybe we’ll catch up at Rivendell where there’s a bit of a pause in the walking, but the prose carries on.

The vitamin D window opens in 4 hours!

From 11:56 AM until 12:12 PM today, the sun will be high enough in the sky that its powerful actinic rays will reach the earth with enough energy for exposed skin to produce vitamin D.

Of course, the temperature around noon will be about 12℉, so I’m not expecting to have much exposed skin, but it is still nice to know that vitamin D production will be possible.

There might be an unseasonably warm and sunny day at any time this month or next, giving me a chance to make some vitamin D. And soon enough spring will come.

(Ephemeris data valid for where I live. The opening of the vitamin D window will likely be different for you.)

Red bridge detention area

Jackie and I went for a hike at Lake of the Woods yesterday. One thing I particularly wanted to do was get a new photo of the red bridge in the Japanese garden area, and use it to illustrate an Esperanto-language haiku.

We parked outside the Museum of the Grand Prairie, and walked around back, through the botanical garden, to where the Japanese garden was, only to find that it is currently being renovated. The red bridge is there, but seems to be under detention for some reason:

Red Bridge Detention Area

And it wasn’t the only thing in detention. There was another big detention area seemingly devoted to landscaping elements of various sorts. I didn’t get pictures of all of them, but among them were these rocks:

Landscaping rock detention are

We escaped the detention area without being detained ourselves and walked a ways along the bike path, only to come upon the red bridge’s big brother:

I’m suspecting plans underway to mount a prison break, but you didn’t hear it from me.

At about this point Jackie checked out the map for the Lake of the Woods, which suggested that, aside from the bike path (which is paved), there aren’t very many paths on that side of the forest preserve. And reminded me that she particularly wanted to walk on some non-paved paths that day.

So we turned around, spent a few minutes walking on the (unpaved) path in the Rayburn-Purnell Woods, then crossed the road to walk in the Buffalo Trace Prairie. It has lots of (unpaved) paths, with signage suggesting ways to arrange your walk to add up to a variety of distances, up to 5 miles. We just hiked the main loop around the perimeter of the prairie, to cover 2.6 miles.

One the trail we met a cute li’l pupper who was momentarily standoffish, but when we and the owner paused to converse for a minute, the dog decided we must be okay, and trotted up for pets from me and then from Jackie.

The image at the top is of a circle of standing stones at the edge of the botanical garden. While admitting that I did not check, I do not think they are sun-aligned.

Bone broth (or, as we call it, broth)

I have been amused to see “bone broth” trending of late, as I can’t remember the last time our household cooked anything with a bone in it and then failed to make broth out of it. It has been decades, at least.

(If something just has a bit of bone, like a serving of ribs or a bone-in steak or chop, we put the bone in the freezer and then throw it in with the next carcass we boil down for broth.)

Still, with broth showing up so much in the media lately, I keep wanting more of it (due merely to the power of suggestion), and although we eat plenty of meat, our roasting of carcasses hasn’t quite kept up with our broth needs.

So Thursday I swung by the butcher and got something over 4 pounds of frozen chicken necks. (They freeze them in a big trough-shaped container from which they can saw off a block of about three inches high by 4 inches deep by as long as someone wants.)

I put the block in a roasting pan and put it in the oven at 325℉ until it started being possible to pull off individual necks. Then I turned it up to 400℉ so I could get a bit of browning of the skin and pick up some nice roasty flavor. Once I had the necks a little bit roasted, I divided them between two big soup pots, added a little cider vinegar, a roughly quartered onion, some celery tops, and water. Then I boiled them for 3 or 4 hours, which wasn’t as long as would be ideal, but thawing the big block had taken longer than I’d expected and it was getting on to bedtime. Yield: about 12 cups of broth.

The butcher also sells cow femurs to use for broth, but that’s crazy. The good stuff in broth comes at least as much from the associated connective tissue as it does from the bones themselves. What you want is something like a tail or a back or a neck—something with lots of cartilage, ligaments, and tendons along with the bones. Skin is nice too.

Today I used three cups of my fresh broth and three cups of frozen broth from a recent smoked chicken carcass to make some lentil soup (with red lentils and red carrots, but foolishly not red onions or red potatoes, even though I had some of each).

It came out a little neutral in flavor—it had some dried red pepper as well, but turned out not to be as spicy as I’d expected. I added extra salt and black pepper and vinegar at the table, and it was yummy. I figure slightly neutral will be great for leftovers, as we can mix up the spices however we want.

Winter running, maybe

I have never been a winter runner. Most years I start running in the spring, ramp up the length of my long runs during the summer, make a plan to keep running through the fall, and then abandon it at the first sign of cold.

I’d like to run over the winter. Exercise helps as much as anything else I’ve tried to stave off SAD. Besides that, there are any number of spring running events that I’d enjoy participating in that I can never do because I’m not in shape until later in the year.

And so, demonstrating my unwillingness to learn from experience, I’m trying yet again to run over the winter.

Me in my high-viz gear

To help get myself started, I’ve embarked on a consumer binge. First I bought a high-viz hat. (I already had the high-viz running vest and the red buff with reflecty stripes.)

The hat got me out for a run or two.

Another garment that I didn’t really have was running tights. Having a pair of running tights, I figured, would eliminate one more excuse for skipping a run in the cold. Plus I was able to find a pair marked down from $80 to $20.

I wore the tights for a 5-mile Thanksgiving Day run. (See map at top.) That’s my longest run in a couple of years, and I felt great right along—no sore ankles, and no sore knees (the places that tend to hurt when I push the distance up too fast).

I did wake up this morning with sore feet—classic plantar fasciitis pain. My feet only hurt for a few minutes in the morning, which is typical with minor plantar fasciitis. I expect it will resolve itself in just a day or two, but even if it does, it’s a pretty strong indication that 5 miles is as far as I should run for a while. (I’d had no foot pain after my previous long run of 4 miles.)

To give my sore feet a break I didn’t run today, opting instead for a 3.2-mile hike at Homer Lake. The trails there are pretty flat and level, but there are some places with lots of tree roots right at the surface, which make for a nice complex surface to walk over, giving one a chance to mobilize the foot joints, highly beneficial for preventing plantar fasciitis.

I’ll post further winter running updates, if I manage to get the habit established this year.

Big chicken

Jackie and I went to the University of Illinois Meat Sales Room, aka the Meat Lab, to buy eggs. On the way in, I noticed a sign on the window saying that they had fresh chickens available for $1.75/lb.

I had just been saying on twitter that, with USDA changing the rules to allow chicken to be shipped to China to be cut up into pieces and then shipped back to the U.S. and sold as “Product of USA” with no further inspection, it was perhaps time to just switch to only eating local chickens. These chickens, produced by the university’s agriculture department as part of their educational mission, certainly qualify—the Poultry Research Farm is only about 2 miles away from our house.

So, once we got in line with our eggs, I told the woman at the fresh case that I wanted one chicken. And I got one.

It weighs 8.26 lbs.

Basically, it’s the size of a small turkey.

I have never seen a chicken this size. It outweighs the next biggest chicken I’ve ever bought by a solid 50%.

Jackie has undertaken to cook this enormous chicken, which will no doubt provide leftovers for days.

My Stetson and Tilley hats

Years ago I had a panama hat that was great for hot sunny days. I think I still have it, but after a few years the straw cracked in the crown and I had to retire it from regular use.

For years I made do with felt hats, which are also great, but not ideal for hot, sunny days. So last summer I went to the local Rumours Hat Shoppe to look for a replacement panama hat, and found this hat—a panama hat as re-imagined by Stetson:

Me at Bryce Canyon

It’s a great hat, but it turns out not to be the right hat for hiking in the desert. (It’s more for sitting on the veranda and looking out over my plantation.)

In particular, the Stetson panama hat doesn’t have a cord to keep it on in the wind.

So, after a blustery day at Zion Canyon made me concerned about losing my hat, I visited an outfitters shop in Springdale and purchased a Tilley hat:

Imperfect camouflage

I’m simply delighted with this hat, which does have a cord, arranged so that it can go both behind the head and under the chin, but which can be easily tucked away inside the hat when it’s not windy.

Hopefully I am now all hatted up for years to come.