On September 21 I began running back and forth to work as part of my daily commute. Being honest with myself, and having accumulated a lifetime of failed endeavors, I began this experiment with an open mind. I know from too much personal experience that no matter how good an idea seems at the start, I might abandon it at any time. Although many consider it a myth, I told myself if I at least tried to do this for 21 days then it might become a habit. Now that over six weeks have passed, here is a review.
Without trying to sound overly evangelical, I am, well, ecstatic. The experiment has been a massive success, I have gained insights, on both my running and life in general, that I could not have imagined in advance, and the icing on the cake is I have experienced a bit of a miracle, or at least a piece of magic.
First, the miracle. My traditional commute consisted of walking or driving to the Patco station (.65 miles), taking the train to 12th/13th and Locust, and then walking to Community College of Philadelphia at 17th and Spring Garden (a little over 1 mile). The one-way commute took me about an hour on average, and included a 20-minute brisk walk. My new commute consists of running from my house to the station, then getting off at various stops, and running various distances to work. Sometimes I take the train to the last stop at 16th and Locust, and run out to the Schuylkill Banks Trail, then up around the Art Museum before heading back to 17th and Spring Garden. Other times I get off in Camden and run over the Ben Franklin Bridge. I have also run all the way from work to home a couple of times (8.5 miles). To explain the miracle, or magic trick, most easily, I will break down a 40-mile week.
First, I have to mention, 40 miles may not be worth much bragging, but for a sprinter who has not logged significant road miles since giving up triathlons about four years ago, it is a really big deal.
To complete a 40-mile week, I run from home to the station (again, .65 miles) and then run from Camden City Hall to CCP (3.5 miles). A few hours later I run back on the same route. It takes me about 50 minutes to go one way, including waiting for and riding the train — total travel time from point A to B. Traditional commute: 1 hour. Running commute: 50 minutes. This means I am logging over 40 miles and not using any free time to do it. Technically, I am actually saving about 50 minutes of free time by running. For a married guy with a 3-year-old son and a 5-month-old daughter, this is truly groundbreaking. My running career is significantly enhanced by having a wife that also runs, and together we work very hard to help each other get our workouts in, but it is still a challenge to find the time. Instead of trying to “find the time” I have managed to simply convert time, from just commuting, to commuting and logging serious miles.
Now I ask, how many people say they would exercise more if they could just find the time?
So that is my run to work miracle, and I truly feel like I am somehow cheating the universe. As I run across the Ben Franklin Bridge on particularly windy days I hope the universe doesn’t try to get me back by sending me over the railing!
Now I will explain some of the insights.
I told myself at the outset of this experiment to run easy. Back in the summer I decided to follow the advice I give many of my high school track athletes and joined the GPTC cross country team. I previously had decided to make an honest effort at the 800 meters this year, and everything I have read implies that I need to start logging some mileage off the track. Even though I tend to agree with the philosophies that promote training at a fast pace, with my limited distance experience I decided it might be healthier to just do the miles. I am also a huge proponent avoiding injury, and Gradual Progress (see I Ching, the Chinese book of change) is an ingrained part of my running practice, so taking it easy, at least at first, seemed to make sense.
On most of my commute runs, I just begin at an easy warm up pace, and then allow myself to settle into whatever feels comfortable at that time. Some days I end up running quite fast, and other days I just bob along at a jog. More important, I am regularly reminding myself that I am simply commuting; I am running as a form of nothing more than transportation. This meditation has an interesting effect, as I can immediately sense that feel more centered, and then I relax, and sometimes I even go faster. I run in a way that I compare to hiking in the woods; swiftly enough to enjoy the activity, and maybe break a little sweat, but not so fast that the activity takes my focus from the bigger experience of simply being on a trail in the woods (or a city street). (I often stop running to take photographs. I know, any serious runner can just stop reading now!)
The biggest insight to come from running with this kind of mindset is that I enjoy road running more than I ever have at any time in my life, AND I am increasing my endurance and speed more rapidly than when I have made either one my focus of running. Oh, that sounds so quaint and hippy-like you might say, but I have also dropped my 5k pr by over one minute since beginning the experiment, and I am expecting to break 20 minutes for the first time in my life later this month.
Another insight is that I am more relaxed and focused at work than I have ever been, and I am enjoying my time on the train more than ever. I arrive at work with about 20 or 30 minutes to shower, change, and get a cup of coffee before my first class. I exchange my super minimal running shoes for a pair of super minimal dress shoes, and I float across campus in the state of mind that I used to only feel in my own living room after a good run. I have a lot of students that can really push my patience in various ways, and somehow they just don’t bother me all that much any more, at least not early in my work day.
I used to get on the train in the afternoon to come home and collapse into a seat, too tired to do anything useful. I would often play solitaire on my phone, and by the time I arrived at my station had sunken into an afternoon semi coma. For some reason, the brisk walk to the station did not counteract this tendency. As much as I enjoy walking, it never leaves me very revived. Now, when I get the station after a run, I open up my iPad and return to whatever book I am reading. Since September 21st when this experiment started, I have finished Born to Run (only took two years), and read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run (awesome by the way), Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of the Universe, and Alberto Salazar’s autobiography, Fourteen Minutes. I consider myself as much of a reader as I do a distance runner — always have the best intentions and wishes, rarely follow through. I never make New Year’s resolutions, but last year I said I wanted to read one book a month for all of 2012. By September I had read a few more pages of Born to Run (began in 2011) and a few chapters of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume I. Pathetic. But now I understand that when my brain felt like mush a lot of the time, reading was the last thing I wanted to do. Running back and forth to work has somehow made my brain less mushy.
If you would like to learn more about running to work, check out some of my earlier posts. There are a few logistical considerations, but also with a little creativity I think a lot of people could give it a shot. Having a locker room and showers at your place of employment is amazing, but if you live in the city, there might be a reasonably priced gym within walking distance of your work. I also recommend a running-specific back pack.