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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

Falling Into Place

Springtime is supposed to be the season that symbolizes youth, but for many runners, it's the autumn that makes us feel young again. As temperatures fall along with the leaves, we find the "spring" returning to our legs after months of struggling through oppressive summer weather.

You know you're really a runner when the weather forecast calls for Memorial Day to be clear and sunny with a high of 85 and you groan with despair. You're non-running friends are delighted at the prospect of a full day of glorious warmth and potent tanning rays, but all you can think of is struggling through your local 5k and losing a quarter of your body weight in sweat in the process. (Oh yes; realizing that weight reduction through fluid loss is a bad thing is another way we're different from non-runners, but I digress...)

Being a runner means spending your summer hoping that a freak cold front will sweep in from Canada and create cool, overcast conditions just in time for the weekend. 60 degrees with a light rain for the fourth of July? Hooray!

Summer weather makes it tough on runners. Scorching heat and high humidity make every run feel harder than you think it ought to be. Lap times on the track and race times on the road often get longer even when you're training hard and putting in lots of quality miles. But worse than the physical difficulty is the effect this all has on the fragile runner's psyche. We tend to be an insecure lot and, even when we know that it's just tough weather conditions making us slow, deep down we suspect that we're just losing it. Every summer around July I become convinced that I've suddenly aged ten years and gotten old and slow. (OK, older and slower.) I know it's only the weather holding me back. I just don't believe it. Every time I check my watch after a lap of the track I come a little bit closer to giving up running and taking up something like shuffleboard or checkers instead. I haven't gone so far as to consider golf, but with my relentless slide into middle age and the progression of global warming, even that might be possible if present trends continue (and if I suffer a broken leg or something as well).

The heat started early this year, putting an end to my hopes of running a fast marathon at Boston. Sunny and in the 70s in April. My next attempt, the Vermont City Marathon in May, was even worse, with temperatures on the course getting into the 90s during the race. There was hardly any shade anywhere on the course. I remember running the long stretch on North Avenue where the right side of the road was in the shade...and the route kept all the runners on the far left. We obediently ran along the shoulder under the broiling rays of the sun, looking longingly at the shade; so near and yet so unreachable. Beautiful, desirable and unattainable. Kind of like a Playboy centerfold only without the staples.

Everyone knows how the rest of the summer went: it seemed to get extra hot just for the weekends. A cool snap on Wednesday would turn into a heat wave by Saturday. It was the year of the sweat-soaked P.W. (personal worst), in which every runner became a poster child for heat exhaustion.

But them came autumn and the magic of changing leaves and cool breezes. As the temperatures come down so do the race times. It's nature's own version of the performance-enhancing drug makes you go faster without having to expend any extra effort. It never fails to amaze me every year. I remember starting a five-mile race on September 25 and thinking, at the second mile, "This is a 5k pace! I'll never maintain this all the way to the end!" only to prove myself wrong and get myself a new personal record for the distance.

As I write these words, the fall is already starting to make the transition into winter. Half the trees seem to have shed their leaves and the rest will follow very shortly. But we're still in the prime of the season as far as racing is concerned. And the switch onto "daylight wasting time", however annoying when you get out of work during the week, makes for some fine early morning runs on the weekends. As long as there's no snow on the ground the conditions are right for going fast, so don't miss out on those November races, especially the glut of offerings on Thanksgiving day. (And even if there is a little snow, you can get ready for the winter race season that's just around the corner.)

Whatever you do though, don't let this time of year pass you by without getting in some good runs. Everything's falling into place.

Copyright © 1999 Mark Roberts

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