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January 19, 2009

Choose Wisely

Written by Dena Evans

While there are many things we cannot choose in life, the one choice we tend to spend the most time and energy on – our spouse or partner- is one where it often appears most individuals have left crucial criteria out of the equation.

We celebrate new beginnings in the New Year, perhaps excited about a budding relationship or the question has been popped outright.  However, all the hoopla over sparkly rings, a long bright future together, and the forging of two families into a new one fails to take into account a piece of information ignored at your peril: where people are going to run during all that forging.  Because one thing we know for sure, is that at least one person is going to run (that person being you).

No matter how visually appealing, talented, and attentive that special someone might be, runners, by which I actually mean Runners, would do themselves big favors if they remembered that when they wake up each and every morning, or perhaps when they are going to bed, they are at some point going to consider when, where, and for how long their next run is going to be.   If you have someone who has come this far with you, they know this fact is true already, so don’t even worry- they have probably already assimilated it into their own calculations.

Let’s face it.  Beyond your own neighborhood or locations where your everyday outings occur, the place you will most likely visit at least once a year, often during the extreme weather conditions of high summer or winter/ holiday time (especially when the kids arrive), and more regularly than any other location save perhaps your own parents’ family gathering spot, most certainly deserves a column on the pros and cons matrix.  So fire up the Excel spreadsheet and click on Insert/ Column.  It’s time to evaluate your in-laws’ neighborhood.

Once, I was a recent college graduate visiting my boyfriend in the summer at his parents’ house.  I was still trying to run middle distances and he was still trying to play football.  He grew up due east from Dulles airport across the Potomac in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is where his parents still live today.

Now, we’ve been married for ten years and expanded the unit by two kids.  No one is trying to run the 40-yard dash or the mile for time any longer (by a long shot).  However, both of us are out there most days and one of us has developed a bit of a marathoning habit (I can quit anytime, I swear I can!).    We’ve evolved and I am glad to say that my in-law’s neighborhood has aged like a fine wine as well.  I’m lucky.

I don’t want anyone else to leave this important element to chance, so I propose the following criteria for proper selection of your mate.  Can you survive without a perfect score on this list?  Sure, but be forewarned of a neighborhood without the majority of these elements.  There may be reasons enough not to look forward to these visits- I wouldn’t press your luck.

1.              Local All-Weather Track and/ or Adjacent Field

Even if you do not do a lot of track–based running or quality sessions, when others in the house (potentially extended family in town for a holiday, etc) want to come with you, the Runner, for a Jog, a great place to take them is the track.  They can do their pace, you can do yours, ideally looping in a nearby field or other grounds, and any stray kids can usually find semi-supervised safe activities for the odd half hour or whatever you can squeeze in.   And, if the weather goes south in a dangerous way and no treadmill appears, it could be a lifeline.

In my case, a high school track is almost a perfectly situated 1.75 miles from the house.   This was both good and bad when I used it often for workouts.  Good, in that it was very convenient and I could be self-sufficient there and back.  Bad, because the time period I used it included almost exclusively mediocre efforts at said track.  Oh well.

2.              Nearby People on Bicycles and/ or Horses

With the exception of my sister-in-law’s 1999 Marine Corps Marathon appearance, and her husband’s oft over glamorized 10 mile, jeans clad, encouragement effort alongside her and subsequent sacking by the bandit watchers at the finish line, there have not been too many folks besides myself looking for an 18 miler on soft surfaces from the house.  So for years, I had no idea the VERY FLAT, VERY LONG, and 100% dirt, C& O Canal was just a few miles east. In fact, I used to figure out ways to get dropped off down by Cabin John Parkway or in Georgetown to go running along a trail I had no idea traveled so close to the house.  I have also come to find that there is a huge state park and greenway trail system nearby, in addition to some sizable swaths of utility easements.

When I first started running from my in-laws house, I was Rambo-ing through tall grasses along the easements and running up and down pavement streets with mid-Atlantic humidity or icy conditions sweetening the deal.  Believe me, I like to explore, but I’ve gotten myself into a few tight spots, including several dog rendezvous featuring one evasive maneuver over the fence into a cemetery, and a lovely autumn visit to a part of the greenway system that doubles as a managed hunting area with (oh yes), real hunters with guns.  Whoops.

Once as a college coach, I did a home visit with a student-athlete who lived three streets down from my in-laws. She had good grades and a decent time in the mile, but my principle question of course was, “Hey, where do you guys run around here?”  Perhaps her description of the entirely street based cross country course and modest offerings of other options, matched with the sad look on my face was the interaction that precluded her matriculation west.  Probably should have worked on that line of questions a bit.

Thank goodness Brin and Page got their acts together and gave us Google Maps, because now all sorts of runners one standard deviation nerdier than you or I would admit to being have posted helpful trail maps and information on area running routes and we are all set.  This is true in a lot of places, and routes you can scout thanks to these resources can give you at least confidence enough to keep your steady relationship with that special someone.  However, you know you have found quality in-laws and that it is time to consider lifelong commitment when there are people riding bikes and/or horses around.

Why, you ask?  Well, who cares more about distance, hill grade, and traffic conditions than road cyclists.  That’s right, no one.   Who will blog every little log, hill, curve, porta potty installation, water fountain, or single track vs. wider path distinction?  You guessed it, mountain bikers.  If you hit the jackpot with a rural area or a town like Woodside or Portola Valley, places I consider to be running towns that have helpfully provided enough horsey people to keep the trails maintained for the runners, then you are set.  Even in an urban area, cyclists and equestrian types are the only subset of humans hungrier for good trails, safe roads, and soft ground than you are, often posting public transportation strategies, and helpful hints. Keep your eye out for significant others whose families gather within the general vicinity of these groups and you will most likely be golden.

3.              Fun Runs

It is time to be realistic.  Who wants to burn off the turkey with an eight-mile progression run or 5 miles at threshold, blah, blah, blah.  Exactly right again, no one.   Instead of freezing your tootsies off and being gone for 2 hours by yourself to drive a suitable location for a tempo run, the whole gang now gets to go and suit up for a Jingle Bell 5k, or a Fourth of July 4 miler, kiddie races included, strollers, or whatever.    And, you are forced to actually run a decent pace, with the time-honored equation of:

Holiday or wedding food and drink consumption + crap sleep + attempted race effort = probably more like tempo pace….at best.

So, you can check that workout off the sheet.  Better yet, you have a chance for some glory as the wringer who dusts the neighborhood charity walkers, as well as some brownie points when you feign modesty to the in-laws when really you were just trying not to let Uncle Bob who never runs come within five minutes of your time to make up for his cribbage victory the previous evening.

4.              Starbucks (or equivalent)

If you’re like me, there are a few things you take for granted at home that might not be as readily available when you venture to the in-laws or a holiday gathering spot:  wireless, a newspaper, a warm morning beverage of your choice, and a way to get there.  Perhaps you forget that you can’t just turn on your laptop and be reading your email and your thumbs are tired from the phone.  Or, you just are really jonesing for that ritual beverage but you don’t have a say over the car situation.

Chances are, someone else (most likely Generation X or younger) has found themselves caught out in the same fashion and will meet you there with the car at the end of your run.  Prearrange this, and you have your run, your coffee, and your paper (maybe not time for the wireless, but almost all needs met) and you’ll be back before anyone can complain about how you “spend the whole day out on a run,” which we know is a sentiment that all comes down to perception.  Bonus points if the neighborhood is dense enough to allow for the dignified conclusion of the run at the coffee shop, with a just a block or two to cover to get home, preferably with a surprise drink for your sweetie and his/ her mom.  Big bonus points.

5.              Bally’s (or equivalent) and a Pool

Sometime during the course of your time together, you are going to find yourself at your in laws, but not running. That is why it is crucial to plan ahead and scout out a cheap local gym for the odd time you need to cross train, get a little beauty lift, or run indoors.  Many of these places, if they are like the local Bally’s near my in-laws, can be entered for free by simply asking for a “1 week trial, “ or by saying, “Hey, I ‘m just visiting, can I check it out?”  This is even on repeat visits (and in the particular case of this Bally’s I am unsure how they are making money at all with the lax attitude, but who am I to judge).   I’m not saying break any rules, but a friendly local high school coach or town pool operator can ease the grump when you are sneaking in a little workout and it can’t be outside on the previously scouted trails.

While I am quite sure there are other extra credit your in-laws’ neighborhood can earn, the above should be able to sustain you for at least a week per year.    It is also probably wise to point out that anyone who would consider marrying a habitual distance runner probably has earned additional points in other ways that may mitigate complications with the neighborhood running opportunities.   That said, here’s to many holidays filled with family gatherings, fond memories, and no hunters on your favorite path.