Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)

Prairie burn

They burned the prairie behind Winfield Village this afternoon. While I was out for a run, I got some pictures:


Running with the hawks

All last year I ran less than in recent years. Initially it was simply because of all the walking to prepare for our big hike. A very long walk takes a very long time, so it was harder to fit in runs. Plus, I learned the hard way that after a very long walk I’m prone to injure myself if I try to run too soon.

I didn’t want to quit running. I enjoy running, and I want to be able to run, both of which seem like good reasons to run. So what I did was drop most of my short and medium runs in favor of walks, but keep the (ideally) weekly long run.

Over the winter I haven’t been getting my long runs in weekly. I’ve just been running when the weather made it seem like it would be fun, which has worked out to just a couple of times a month.

Yesterday was one of those times.

Fairly often I see wildlife when I’m out running in the woods and prairie near Winfield Village. Unless it’s a turtle, I don’t usually manage to get a picture, but yesterday there was a hawk on a branch directly over the trail, and he sat there long enough that I did mange to get a photo (at the top of the post).

Of course, it’s almost pointless to take a picture of a bird unless you have a very long lens, but here’s the photo anyway—zoomed in enough that you can tell that I actually did see a hawk.

zoomed hawk

Barefoot walking (and a little running)

A couple of years ago, I switched to “barefoot” running—with those quote marks there because I was not actually running with bare feet. Rather, I changed my stride, trying to match the stride of someone who was barefoot, landing on the forefoot rather than the heel.

I bought two pairs of minimalist running shoes (Road Glove and Trail Glove, both by Merrell), both featuring thin, flexible soles with zero drop (that is, the sole was the same thickness from the heel to the toe).

The changed stride demanded a lot more strength and endurance in my calf muscles, which took most of the summer to develop, but it felt natural right from the start. In my third summer of “barefoot” running, I’ve had no hint of running injuries, while hitting distance benchmarks that I haven’t hit in years.

However, my ongoing explorations of natural movement have convinced me that walking and running with actually bare feet probably offer some advantages.

The interwebs are full of advocates of barefoot walking and barefoot running, and frankly they’re kind of scary. They tend to be hugely invested in the idea that everybody who wears shoes is totally missing the boat. Their articles on the subject are full of references to the number of bones in your feet (26) and the number of joints (33), with the point being that there are extensive structures in your foot to deal with the challenges of walking on uneven surfaces. Wear shoes all the time, and those structures lose that capacity. The joints adapt to scarcely bending, the small muscles in the foot adapt to the tiny range of motion available inside a shoe. These things are arguably bad, even if the tone of the barefoot advocates sometimes seems a bit overwrought.

I started walking outside with bare feet some time in the late spring. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember going easy on the barefoot walking in the couple of weeks leading up to our big hike, so we must have already been doing it by early June. (My concern was that even a very minor injury—stepping on a thorn, bruising my foot on a rock, stubbing my toe—might be enough to keep me from being able to walk 33 miles.)

Once the big hike was over, I resumed my program of gradually increasing my barefoot walking, first just around the block that includes our townhouse, then more broadly in Winfield Village, then to nearby parks and natural areas.

And somewhere along the way, I started to understand the fervor of those barefoot advocates. Walking barefoot is a transformative experience, in a way that’s hard to make sense of if you only walk in shoes.

First of all, it brought back memories of being a little boy. I spent as much time as possible barefoot as a boy, and (because my parents thought that was fine) that ended up being a whole lot of time. Crossing the parking lots here in Winfield Village—walking on the small bits of grit and gravel that accumulate anywhere cars drive—hurt my feet in exactly the same way they hurt each spring the first few times I crossed Huron Street at the beginning of barefoot season when I was a boy. Crossing blacktop that’s been baking under a hot sun is another pain that’s as fresh in memory as it is distant in years. So is stepping on a thistle. Those things—and the wonderful feeling of stepping from hot asphalt into cool grass—were all things I’d not thought of in 40 years.

Second, the adaptations to walking barefoot are different than I’d imagined them being. Somehow I had the idea that I’d “toughen up” the soles of my feet, and that would protect them from pointy rocks and such. That is happening, but it turns out to be the least important part of adapting. Much more important is recovering enough range of motion in those 33 joints to allow the foot to conform to an uneven surface. Experiencing that process—feeling joints in my feet move in ways that they haven’t moved in decades—has been fascinating.

Third, paying some extra attention to my feet has made me notice that I don’t have nearly as much control over my feet (and especially my toes) as I ought to. For example, although I can raise or lower my big toe independent of the other four, I can only just barely move the other four as anything other than a group. My toes don’t bend back far enough for me to be able to transition from a deep knee bend to kneeling. (This is something that was noticed by instructors a couple of different times when I was studying a martial art of the sort that involve kicking, but the observation never came with a plan for how to improve my toe flexibility.) They’re also quite inflexible bending forward.

Bare feet on the concrete weir in the ditch behind Winfield Village.

Fourth, bare feet are more stable. I mentioned in an earlier post that crossing the weir behind Winfield Village was challenging. I’ve been practicing, and have gotten pretty good at it in both hiking boots and in my minimalist running shoes, but it sure is easier in bare feet.

The adaptations to barefoot walking are taking longer than I remember them taking when I was a boy—or maybe they aren’t. I mean, it probably took me two or three years to go from crawling to being a toddler, to running around the yard barefoot, to being able to walk across the street barefoot. Perhaps now, after 40 years of virtually never going outdoors with barefeet, I should not be surprised if it ends up taking two or three years once again.

Finally, today, three years after switching to “barefoot” running, I actually tried barefoot running. I didn’t run very fast or very far—I spent 33 minutes to go about a mile. I walked parts of the path, as well as stopping to take pictures, and to exercise my squats briefly on the other side of the weir. Even with the caveats: barefoot running.

Oh—I also saw a Great blue heron, and got some nice pictures of the prairie. Here’s one:

our prairie 2

Views from a run

I used to feel that it was very important to maintain a steady effort during a run. (I would always note in my log if I’d had to walk for a bit.) I’ve completely gotten over that idea. I no longer hesitate to walk or stop for any number of reasons.

Partly it’s that I rarely have to slow to a walk because I’m out of breath—something that was a common occurrence when I was so out of shape. Now I slow down or stop for other reasons—if I step wrong and get a twinge in an ankle or a knee, to traverse a challenging bit of trail with care, to hack an Ingress portal. Or, as I did at several points today, to take a photo.

The run I’ve taken most often since I moved to Winfield Village makes three passes through this prairie:

Prairie Sunflowers on the middle path at the Lake Park Prairie Restoration
Prairie Sunflowers on the middle path at the Lake Park Prairie Restoration

Just a few yards from where I took that picture, I saw this handsome zothie:


After that I cross the ditch that separates Winfield Village from the subdivisions south of us, and run in the Lake Park forest. Today, just after crossing the weir, I saw this little snapping turtle:

snapping turtle
Snapping turtle just south of the weir over the ditch just south of Winfield Village

At the southeast corner of the forest, there’s a patch of thistle. I tried to get a picture of a thistle flower, without much success. This picture of the patch as a whole does a pretty good job of capturing the purple flowers and the reddish grass that was growing with them:

thistle patch in forest
Thistle patch at the southeast corner of the Lake Park forest

So, there you go—views from a run.

It’s a bit over three miles (including a second pass through the prairie after the out-and-back in the forest). With the picture-taking, it took just shy of an hour, giving me an average pace of 18:26. A pretty slow run, but speedy enough picture-taking, and a whole lot of fun.

Eating at the dining table

For various reasons, having to do with trivialities like the layout of our old apartment, Jackie and I had gotten into the habit of dining in the living room, often in front of the TV.

At each of the places we’ve lived since then, the layout was more conducive to dining at the table. Our summer place had a kitchen table in the kitchen, and we took nearly all of our meals there. In our winter palace, we put our dining table in the area of the living room that was obviously intended to be the dining area—closest to the kitchen, with a lamp over the spot for the table—and continued to eat at the table (even though much of the space was occupied by boxes).

tie-dye-tableclothHere at Winfield Village, we have very nearly a full-fledged dining room, complete with a sliding glass door to the patio.

Although we’ve pressed a good bit of it into service as a pantry, there’s plenty of room for our little dining table, and we’ve continued to eat at the table.

Our old tablecloths had held up pretty well because they got little use, but now that we were using them all the time, Jackie wanted some new ones. She made one from a lovely piece of batik cloth that I’d brought home from a business trip to Singapore, which I declared probably the best tablecloth in the western hemisphere—until Jackie took some heavy muslin (that we’d previously used as a dropcloth to protect furniture against the depredations of the cat at our sublet), cut it to size, and dyed it some lovely spring colors.

After years of lazy, uncouth behavior, we are feeling very civilized.

Achievement unlocked: Marathon distance

Over the past three years, Jackie and I have done a lot of walks where the distance came in at around 20 miles, but we’d never actually reached 26.2. Yesterday we did.

In many ways, this was just another training walk for our planned Kal-Haven trail walk—which is why we hadn’t hit this distance before: We’re much more concerned with not hurting ourselves before the big walk than we are with hitting any arbitrary distance in advance.

Still, I’m glad to have finally walked 26.2 miles, because now I don’t have to feel like an imposter when I wear my rain jacket:

Me in my marathon rain jacket. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

I got this jacket long ago—at least 15 years ago, maybe longer. I remember finding a gore tex rain jacket in the Sierra Trading Post catalog at about an 80% discount. I think it was so cheap mostly because it doesn’t have a hood, which is a deficiency for a rain jacket, but the large marathon graphic on the back may also have put off some people who were not marathoners.

I snapped one up immediately. Only after I had secured mine did I share the catalog with a friend at work who I thought would also be pleased with a cheap gore tex jacket. (He bought one too. For years we were occasional twinsies on warm rainy days.)

All these years it has been my main rain jacket, and all that time I’ve been just a little uncomfortable wearing a jacket so prominently marked as being for marathoners. Now, finally, I can quit worrying about it.

We were walking rather than running, so we were on the road a long time—almost ten and a half hours. (The people who win marathons run them in a little over 2 hours; middle-of-the-pack runners tend to finish in 3–4 hours.)

It was a great walk, although we were feeling pretty tired the last few miles. We went up to our old neighborhood and walked around our old apartment complex. (It looks a bit more empty than when we were there.) We walked up the Greenbelt Bikeway, then headed east to our summer place. (It looks exactly the same as it did when we lived there last year.) Then we walked through the water amenities at Second Street, and onward to Busey Woods. Then down Race Street to Orchard Downs and across through the arboretum and the research park. We went north to Florida to cross the railroad tracks, then headed south along the Boulware Trail and on into Savoy. We went west just a bit to take the path along Prospect down to Curtis and thence to home, taking a slightly long route through Winfield Village (with a tiny diversion into our prairie) to be sure we hit the target mileage.

In the end we went 26.4 miles. Here’s the Endomondo data: