I’ve praised the game Zombie’s, Run! several times over the past couple of years. It’s great fun. It’s gotten me out several times to run in weather cold enough that I’d have otherwise just stayed inside. It’s kept me company on several treadmill runs that I’d otherwise not have finished. But I haven’t played it in quite a while, because more and more I find that I want to be fully present in my runs.

This isn’t a big change. I’ve never been much on listening to music or the radio or audio books while walking or running, and not just because of the various dangers, from traffic or muggers or stray dogs or whatever. (Those dangers are real, both from having your ears covered and from being distracted, but I think they’re pretty small, and pretty easy to ameliorate through simple things like looking carefully at road crossings.)

The main reason I didn’t listen to things while running was that I enjoyed running, and didn’t want miss the experience. (And of course, mindful exercise is more effective than distracted exercise.)

Maybe it’s a pretty good compromise to distract myself from my unpleasant workouts—trudging through the cold, running on the treadmill—and maybe I’ll do that again next winter. But lately I’d had no inclination to distract myself.

I feel sorry for the people who find exercise so unpleasant that they need to be distracted from what they’re actually doing. I enjoy my runs too much to want to miss them by being immersed in a fictional world—even a fictional world as much fun as Zombies, Run!

Doesn’t mean I don’t miss my zombies.

I went for a treadmill run with “Zombies, Run!” this morning. Despite it seeming like a particularly ineffective way to flee the zombies, it was by a wide margin the easiest 30-minute treadmill run I’ve ever had. I can usually just barely get myself to run 20 minutes on a treadmill.

I’ve gotten in the habit of setting any treadmill to an incline of 1%, because I find that matches my speed on the treadmill with my perceived level of effort. (That is, when I’m running at a 10-minute pace on the treadmill, it feels about like running at a 10-minute pace outdoors, if the treadmill is set at a 1% incline.)

This particular run came out at just over 31 minutes and just over 2.5 miles. I had turned off the GPS on the game and told it to use the accelerometer instead. At the default setting, it suggested that I’d gone 2.31 miles, so I bumped up the stride length by about 8%. Next run I’ll see if the treadmill distance and accelerometer distance aren’t just about the same.

I’ve been playing the game with the zombie chases turned off. That was mainly with the thought that it would increase replayability—I figured once I finished all the missions, I could go back and play them all again with zombie chases turned on for a fresh experience. Since I’m currently in no danger of running out of missions, I might turn them on for treadmill runs, to add a bit more variety.

I have a pair of problems, that I’m hoping to turn into solutions for one another.

The first is that I hate running on treadmills. I’ve tried all manner of things to distract myself from the fact that I’m running on a treadmill—music, audiobooks, podcasts, TV. Any of these can work, but none of them has worked reliably.

The other is that I’ve found it hard to expand my meditation practice from the modest group practice that happens in tai chi.

A while ago, it occurred to me that these might be solutions for one another: Perhaps, instead of trying to distract myself from my treadmill running, I could pay attention to my treadmill running.

There are a lot of different ideas about what meditation actually is, but my current take on it is that meditation is paying attention to what’s actually happening. Many forms of meditation suggest a finer focus—paying attention to your breathing or to a repeated mantra or to an ordered relaxation of body parts—but I view all these as tools for helping you pay attention to what’s actually happening (rather than thinking or planning or worrying or all the other things that are not meditation).

Today was my first attempt at this, and it went okay. I just ran for 10 minutes, which is not much of a test—I’ve always been able to tolerate 10 minutes on the treadmill; it was just when I tried to push beyond 20 or so that I found it intolerable. But 10 minutes is about as long as I ever meditate, so I thought I’d start there and expand gradually. Also, this was my first run since I hurt my ankle back in late September, so I didn’t want to run further until I verified that my ankle could handle a short run without hurting the next day.

If I can work up to 20 minutes or so, and feel like the time counts as both running and meditation, I’ll be very pleased. If I can do it three times a week (or nearly), I’ll both maintain an adequate fitness base to get back to running quickly in the spring and substantially expand my meditation practice.

Oh, and a side benefit: my attempts to run on the treadmill without paying attention have always seemed a little dangerous. I’ve known several people who’ve had treadmill accidents resulting in broken collarbones and broken teeth. Paying attention felt a lot safer.

I hate running on treadmills. I also dislike running outdoors in the cold. The result has been that, while I may get into pretty good shape in the summer, I always lose that fitness over the winter, because I don’t run.

This year, I’m trying again to run on the treadmill. This year, I’m trying with podcasts.

I don’t listen to my iPod when I run outdoors. Running outdoors is wonderful, and I want to experience it full. Running on a treadmill is awful, and I want to pretend it isn’t happening.

I’ve had to make a second change to make this work: I’m going to the fitness center by myself.

Before, I tried to fit my workouts into the joint visit to the fitness center that I make with Jackie to do our lifting. That didn’t work. Jackie was willing to walk on her treadmill while I ran on mine, but she wanted us to be walking together. Since I was trying to pretend that I had slipped into some sort of lacuna in the space-time continuum, I was an unsatisfactory companion. Jackie was also willing to carry on with her workout while I ran, but there’s no reasonable way for her to stretch her workout to last 20 minutes longer, which is only barely enough time for me to get a reasonable run in.

So far, the scheme is working okay. For three weeks now, at least twice a week, we’ve gone to the fitness center for our lifting, then gone to taiji, after which I’ve gone back to the fitness center to run on the treadmill. The first couple of runs were kind of shaky, but I’d gotten them up over 2 miles last week, and today I ran 3 miles.

That’s long enough, I think. My long runs outdoors had gotten up over 5 miles, but my plan for the winter isn’t to boost my endurance, it’s just to preserve it. If I can run 5–7 miles a week, I think I can accomplish that. A single 3-mile run each week, combined with one or two 2-mile runs, will do the trick.

The podcast thing is working. My plan had been fiction, and I’ve listened to an Escape Pod story and to one on the Small Beer Press podcast. The problem with fiction is that it takes a while to get wrapped up in the story, and every instant that I’m not immersed in the story is an eternity of actually experiencing the fact that I’m running on a treadmill. Music works okay. News podcasts are okay, too.

Once, when Jackie and I were heading into the fitness center, back before we’d given up on treadmill exercise together, I asked her on our way in the door, “Are you ready to face the satanic mills?”

“At least they aren’t dark,” Jackie replied.

“It’s true,” I admitted. “They are well-lit.”

They’re still well-lit. They’re still satanic. But they’re pretty tolerable, if you’ve got a story to listen to.