I’ve read enough science fiction to know that beings from heavy-gravity planets have it made once they land on Earth. They can rip the doors off bank vaults and throw 1,000 mile-an-hour fastballs without breaking a sweat.
Being raised in a challenging environment has its perks in the real world of running, too. The scorched, sprawling terrain of Mexico’s Copper Canyon has shaped the Tarahumara people into exceptional endurance athletes capable of running for days at a time.
So what super powers are forged in Canada’s unforgiving winters? We should be able to zip down icy trails at supersonic speeds without taking a tumble. That’s what I tell myself every winter, at least, right before I fall on my ass and realize if I don’t want to break anything important, I’m stuck running indoors for the next three months.
Some treadmill trivia: Most of the water the body loses while exercising on one isn’t secreted as sweat, but as tears of boredom. I can’t back that up, but it’s plausible.
There are simple ways to minimize the monotony of running on the spot, of course, like throwing a movie on the laptop or busting out a few Bowie albums. That’s pretty much the approach I took as a kid. My mom would make me eat whole-wheat bread, and I would drown it in ketchup.
But I’ve learned trying to cover over blandness isn’t all that helpful, particularly when preparing for a really long race.
For the past few months I’ve been training for my first 100-miler, the Sulphur Springs Trail Run in Ancaster, Ont., on May 24. It’s twice as long as anything I’ve run before, and the odds that I’ll complete the entire course aren’t all that great. If I do cross the finish line, I can expect to be on my feet for at least 24 hours.
I am in for some very long stretches of emptiness. Bowie could show up in the flesh as my running partner, serenading me as the new Star Wars movie is projected on his back, and I could still bank on experiencing plenty of boredom.
That’s why, as much as I’ve missed running outdoors these past few months, being tied to the treadmill hasn’t been such a bad thing. My environment hasn’t moulded me into the all-weather trail warrior I’d hoped to be, but it has laid bare the tedium of putting one foot in front of the other, which is going to help me in the long run.
Doing the same thing on the same spot for minutes or hours on end forces you to take a closer look at your experience. Movies and music may offer some immediate relief from the mundane, but they can also drown out some of the valuable subtleties of the running experience. In the absence of distraction, a clearer picture of what’s happening with the body begins to form. Attention is drawn to the breath, to posture, to stride. Being mindful of these can help tweak running technique and assist in charting progress over time.
Allowing yourself to be present for the monotony of treadmill running also encourages an investigation of thought. Mental training is as important to endurance race preparation as physical development.
The real training starts when boredom sets it.
When you’d planned to run, say, five miles, but your brain suddenly tells you to pack it in at three, it’s useful to consider where that’s coming from. If it’s because you just pulled a muscle or you might be late for work, then calling it a day might be a good idea. If it’s because you’re sick of running on this stupid, boring treadmill, perhaps caving in to the chatter in your cranium isn’t the wise approach.
Making that differentiation seems simple enough, but I’ve found noticing these kinds of thoughts arise can be tough, especially when I’m overwhelmed by beautiful surroundings or singing along to a Smiths album. Treadmill training, bland as it is, makes it easier to tune in to what’s really going on inside yourself.
In this way, running isn’t so terribly different from seated meditation. Steve Armstrong, who gave a dharma talk at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, Calif., earlier this month, put it like this:
“What happens when you do nothing new and exciting is that you finally take a look at what is so ordinary,” he said.
“Ninety per cent of our life – more – is routine, ordinary, mundane, boring familiar stuff. The challenge for us in practice is to get really interested in the mundane, ordinary, boring stuff. And what do we see when we do that? … We get into actually experiencing the physical, mental, emotional terrain of the heart.”
Meditation and treadmill running have other, more superficial similarities. Both activities keep you anchored to one spot, and much of the time you’re just staring at a wall. Do either long enough, and your legs go numb.
After spending three months indoors, I’m looking forward to my training and meditation having a little less in common, once all this ice melts and I can stretch my legs down the open trail.
But I’m grateful, too, that this winter’s brutal weather made it too risky to run outside. It’s made an exploration of the inner terrain that much more accessible.