Ward Nicholson

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Making a new friend: the old, neglected running track

A locked-up track in the far corner of a public middle school’s grounds, going to waste. A fence-climbing 60-year-old runner who doesn’t realize his age. A long-overdue interval workout waiting to be performed, in need of just such an overlooked venue. Result: An affair between man and 400-meter oval.

It is winter in early February here on the windy Great Plains, and the last several weeks have been fierce, at least for running. Temperatures have turned unseasonably cold for long stretches, sprinkled with only a few warmer days to squeeze in key workouts — those either faster or longer.

To add to the difficulty, because of unfortunate coincidences recently, nearly two months have elapsed since my last track interval workout. Two consecutive respiratory colds of two weeks each, something that had never happened to me before, along with the harsh and unpredictable weather, have meant that for an entire month I have done only easy shorter or mid-distance runs for workouts while dealing with the sniffles, sneezing, congestion, and coughing.

Something that surprises most people is that continuing to run through respiratory sickness actually makes me feel better in most cases and weather things with less trouble. Still, beyond an easy pace and middling distance, it’s best to hold plenty in reserve and not risk overdoing during such periods.

A few times, energy level and lungs permitting, I’ve thrown in some 4 x 100m strides (that is, four very fast repeats of 100 meters each, just shy of a sprint) or 4 x 150m hill repeats here and there to try and keep the fires of speedier pace stoked a bit, but it hasn’t been much. Not enough to maintain the fitness level and more honed “edge” I seek, and that makes the training process as rewarding and enjoyable as it can and should be.

Into the flow of things again, with a bit of distress

After returning to normal health, my first key workout back was a long run, the workout type that for me suffers most when not done consistently. Prior to that, it had been five weeks since the previous long run.

Given the protracted spell without one, this long run actually went relatively well, though, and I felt decent aerobically throughout almost the entire run. Except that over the last few miles, my legs began to complain from the cumulative road impact of the nearly two-hour effort — something they’d previously gotten built up to handle more or less okay without too much soreness.

By the time I finished the run they were feeling more beat up than I like. My right hip flexor, usually an issue only when breaking into or increasing the amount of speedier work, was getting very overworked, which made things somewhat tough.

The next key workout back was a fast-paced 30-minute tempo run bracketed by a 30-minute easy warmup and 4 x 100m strides beforehand, and a 20-minute cooldown afterward. Also at about five weeks since the previous one, here I had lost some specific aerobic stamina and needed to slow my pace 10 seconds per mile to complete the workout at the usual effort level, so as not to pay the price of a post-workout hangover from overextending myself. Despite that, I still experienced a certain amount of difficulty recovering afterward and the next day.

First interval session back, but where to do it?

Finally, two days ago, the time came for the final key workout in my current rotation: a bread-and-butter track interval session of 4 x 1000m (four times one kilometer), the most recent previous such workout now almost two months in arrears.

A significant issue with interval workouts these days is where to run them. Schools with tracks have become more possessive and stingy than in the past about their use by anyone not connected with the organization, sometimes even the tracks at public schools paid for with everyone’s tax dollars. And this despite the fact fewer and fewer outsiders use running tracks nowadays anyway, because of the increasing sedentariness, obesity, and unhealthiness of the population.

So when the timing of my workout schedule allows, I prefer to “fly under the radar” by doing intervals on a Saturday or Sunday when schools are not in session. By doing so, odds are at those times no one much will be present on the grounds of the two closest high schools with professionally laid 400m tracks that I frequent — both private schools, where the track-use issue is typically more dicey.

The use of synthetic tracks by non-students, especially the first-rate ones at private schools like these, is something of a “gray area” in today’s world, if not an outright violation of the rules in some cases. Rather than ask permission and risk refusal from some top-heavy, overweight muck-a-muck who wouldn’t know the value of athletic fitness if it bit them in the butt, my policy is to ignore any such stupid rules, and ask for forgiveness later if it were to come to that.

Nonetheless, it’s wise to be circumspect about things whenever possible. Which, of course, is what underlies my preferred tactic of running track workouts during the weekend when fewer potentially unsympathetic or overzealous administrative busybodies might be around to observe and become provoked with disgruntlement.

Dodging this winter’s arctic temperatures

Complicating the choice of days I’ve been able to schedule key workouts this winter, however, is that the temperatures this time around the earth’s orbit of the sun have been exceedingly bitter. Due to climate change and the warming Arctic, the jet stream has become more chaotic and liable to shifting to lower latitudes, where it may take up residence for many days on end, sucking down sustained blasts of frigid air from the polar latitudes before shifting back north again.

The result has been numerous days this winter where the temperature in mid to late morning when I run has been pushed down to 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit or into the teens with little respite, with associated chill factors in the single digits or even below zero. Unless I want to wear a ski mask, something I dislike, to prevent frostnip (a pre-stage of frostbite my cheeks are prone to), this has sometimes meant running on the treadmill in our basement or swapping my usual workout and rest days at times.

So to run key workouts, which go better and are more enjoyable when not so bundled up, when lighter-weight tights and long-sleeve tops are possible, I have often been forced to wait for warmer days with temps at least in the mid-30s. All of this has made fitting in key workouts this winter more random, unpredictable, and infrequent — somewhat catch-as-catch-can style, while I bide time on more frigid days running easier when forced to wear heavier-weight running gear with less freedom of movement and/or the detested ski mask.

The locked-up, unused, but inviting backlot track

As it has turned out, the only upcoming day warm enough for my first track workout since the last one I did two months ago is a Thursday, when school will be in session. Since my two favored tracks are directly adjacent to the main school buildings and faculty parking — too close for comfort, to my mind, on a weekday when classes are being held — I have decided to try out another track I’ve never used before.

I had run by this track a number of times in the past, which lies within about 50 yards of a local rail-trail conversion path on which I train periodically, and also within a few hundred yards of a nearby street along which another of my running routes goes. An attractive dark maroon in color, I assume it must have been in use at certain times of the year during some periods, but I had never actually seen the track being used, no matter when I had run past it previously, day or night. I also had yet to get a look at it up close.

The track’s location — a good quarter-mile or so from the nearest associated school building, which is part of a middle school — was such that someone like myself using it during school hours would probably not be too terribly conspicuous. At such a distance, off by itself in a far corner of the school’s oversized property, it also had an aura of forlornness and desertion, which I found appealing. Only a couple of small portable bleachers on one side of the track were in evidence. Despite its inviting appearance from a distance to someone like me, the ambience spoke of a track that did not get the love it deserved. But for these reasons it attracted me.

The day of my track workout, I drive to a favored parking area along the rail-trail and begin by running a two-and-a-half to three-mile warmup along the trail to the track. But in passing by the running track before swinging back around on a double-track dirt road on the school grounds leading over to it, I realize in taking a closer look than I had before that there are no open gates. Getting onto the track will mean climbing a six-foot-tall chain-link fence. Having climbed numerous fences in the past like this meant to keep out people other than myself, though , I do not intend to let one stop me this time either.

There are two gates located at different points along the fence line but both are padlocked shut tight. In itself, this doesn’t present a particular problem since chain-link without barbed wire atop is easily climbable for anyone halfway athletic. The slight worry exists, though, that someone at the middle school a distant quarter-mile away might happen to glance out just as I am clambering over the fence: a more blatant type of “property-violating” activity than someone simply circling around a track. But that’s mostly just my mind talking.

On the positive side, usually tracks with gated fences padlocked shut like this have metal signs posted with notices to keep out unless one is a student or sanctioned group. The only signs present at these two gates, though, say “Health Zone, No Smoking,” and are colored blue rather than the typical unfriendly red.

Signs of age and disuse not previously apparent

I climb over the fence next to one of the gates, dropping down lightly to the other side, and walk up to the track. From a distance, with the track ringed by the chain-link fence, I had assumed that implied the track must be well taken care of. At the same time, it had seemed a bit strange that a public middle school would have as nice and full-fledged a track as the private high schools where I’d worked out, so there had been a bit of a disconnect all along. But go figure, as they say.

Now that I am inside the gate, I notice a couple of things that somehow hadn’t registered before from a distance. There is no obvious football or soccer field inside the track, as is typically the case. No artificial turf signifying a first-class facility or usage for regular league-organized competition. Just an abandoned-to-the-elements, unintentional polyculture of native grasses, though closely mowed, at least.

No football goalposts or soccer nets are present either. Assuming soccer is played at the school, the nets must be elsewhere. The typical metal framing for school soccer nets, with a rollable base, is heavy and typically left in place somewhere on the field or close by throughout the year. Their absence here indicates any real soccer activity must take place at some other location on the campus out of view from here.

Stepping onto the track and walking around it a bit, I look around at the surface while preparing to tick off a set of 4 x 100m strides to complete my warmup before the 4 x 1000m interval workout proper. It appears from the track’s condition that it has seen its best years probably a good decade or two in the past.

I can see there is some unevenness in coverage here and there in the layering of fine-grained, congealed rubber pellets that compose the track surface. Such indications point to a long accrual of weathering or wear, or both, over the years.

Something else I hadn’t noticed from a distance is that the track is completely unbanked. On the private school tracks I run on of more recent construction, both the curves and straightaways are ever-so-slightly banked inward to enable drainage toward a catchment system just inside the interior perimeter. Probably with the purpose of enabling track meets to be held even if rains have moved in, and perhaps to lengthen the track’s lifetime by quickly eliminating any potential standing water that might otherwise pool.

Cracks and creeping Bermuda grass

But the most obvious sign of neglect is that there are deep one-eighth to one-quarter-inch cracks or fissures in the synthetic rubberized surface, oriented crosswise to the track, at perhaps eight or ten different junctures around the oval’s inner edge. Anywhere from a foot or two to four or five feet in length, most of them are smaller and not enough to be dangerous. At least not when wearing training shoes like I’m wearing as opposed to spikes that might conceivably catch in them, though probably rarely. But the neglect is evident, with the track in need of a certain amount of repair, if not resurfacing, that has been put off by someone somewhere in the city’s public school administration.

In addition, small tufts and rhizomes of Bermuda grass — currently a bleached straw color and in their dormant winter phase — have taken up residence in the cracks. The sight of these provokes a twinge of sadness that gnaws at me a bit. Once established beyond a certain point, Bermuda grass can become tenacious and very destructive.

The growth I see here does not seem to be well established yet, though, so it could be it extends back only to the recent fall season, and will be pulled out come spring. Really, though, winter days would be the ideal time to do this, when its growth has stopped — taking advantage of intermittent warm stretches when the ground is not frozen — but no one has done so.

The cracks in the track are also not too terribly far along or advanced at this stage, but the Bermuda grass could quickly accelerate things if not rooted out regularly and promptly. Is the neglect the result of a specific administrator or cadre of them who care little for athletics and physical fitness or the service the track could also be put to for surrounding residents? Or is it just one among many signs of school budgets being slashed across our underfunded state educational system? Difficult to say. The possessiveness indicated by the locked gates combined with the opposing signs of neglect is disconcerting and incongruous.

Decline on the ground: a sign of the same in society at large

When I was young, teachers or coaches would have seen to it that at least regular maintenance like this anyone could perform was enforced, and likely we students would have been the ones to fulfill that task. To instill not just discipline, but a sense of appreciation and care as well. But kids today have so much more on their plates pulling them so many different ways than we ever did. It is hard to find fault.

In some ways this is no doubt just another in a long string of examples in microcosm of problems at the macrocosmic level in our society today: chronic overspending and overreach, and lack of any discipline or foresight about the costs of maintaining our country’s infrastructure, as can be seen just about everywhere in our deteriorating road systems, just as a start.

Nonetheless, the neglect of the running track does make one muse over the cause behind the lack of attention and appreciation in this specific case. Because physical and athletic fitness and healthy lifestyles and the things that help support them in our society today — like tracks and other exercise facilities — are things I care about. And a lack of which affects everything from our deteriorating public health and outlandish healthcare costs to our extreme car dependence and lack of outdoor activity or contact with nature. All of which lessens appreciation for the world around us to ultimately pave the way for environmental destruction, so that the tentacles of neglect spread out with unforeseen repercussions far and wide.

Another thing: The markings on the track are somewhat sparse compared to those on the two private school tracks I frequent. On those, it’s very clear where the main start/finish line is, as well as where other secondary start and finish lines are. Here, things are more ambiguous.

It’s apparent the middle school track has been re-marked at one point some years ago — faint outlines of previous markings are visible underneath fresher ones. But the lack of the usual clear start and finish line for the major one-lap and longer events (400m and above) seems a bit odd.

An inaugural workout on the old oval

I begin running my 4 x 100m strides down the white-lined, maroon-colored straightaways prior to the meat of the workout, and notice a marking right at the point where each straightaway transitions into the sweeping curves at either end of the track. Not a prominent line across the track that would be visible from the bleachers, but instead either a hash mark or a triangular chevron easily enough seen to use as my own start/finish line for full-lap and half-lap points. (1000m — the distance interval for this workout I do — is 2.5 laps of a standard 400m track.)

Despite or maybe even because of all this, and maybe it’s just me, for some reason I very much enjoy places like this track that appear to be mostly unnoticed and unsung. I don’t require or even desire first-rate facilities. They just need to be good enough.

I like it when they’re a little out of the way and not the center of attention, so they aren’t scrutinized as much by whomever constitutes the resident officialdom. The feel is more private, in this case more “backlot.” It’s always welcome when I have the track to myself. And if other people avoid certain tracks because they aren’t first-rate, all the better for someone like me. This one? It makes me feel good to give it some well-deserved use and attention.

Once finished with my final warmup of 4 x 100m strides, I walk back across the track to the starting point I’ve decided on, and begin the workout proper. With today’s 15 to 20mph wind, the intervals are tougher than usual, especially with the two-month hiatus since the last such workout.

Over the years, though, I’ve learned the wisdom of easing back into things after time away, and keeping even the hard workouts from hurting too much. So I cut myself the slack of backing off my previous benchmark pace for the workout by a couple of seconds or so per lap, and lengthen the rest interval between each repeat from 1.5 to 2 minutes. Still challenging with the amount of faster-paced fitness lost over the two-month “recess” due to sickness and bone-chilling weather, but with enough breathing room to be doable.

I put the emphasis on maintaining good form, and focusing on what “lift,” thrust, and push-off I can manage against the resistance of the south wind going up one straightaway without pushing too much into the “red.” Easing up on the throttle a bit and using the momentum of the wind going north on the opposite straightaway to try and find the right rhythmic flow.

Going with the wind never fully gives back what it takes away going against it, as studies have borne out. But there is still an art and skill to bearing into it going one direction and flowing back with it in the other to mitigate the deficit.

Back on track

Each repeat gets both harder and yet a bit easier in terms of handling the stress of exertion, due to a “greasing the wheels” effect that occurs with each repetition. The fatigue accumulates after each repeat, yet the muscles become increasingly primed and neurologically ramped-up as more fast-twitch fibers are activated (or perhaps activated further) with each interval performed, up to a certain point at least.

The final two work intervals go by a few seconds faster than the first two, with the final repeat two seconds faster even than the third, at little to no increase in effort, the usual pattern. My pesky right medial tibial muscle-and-tendon complex, which can flare up when doing faster work, is feeling stronger and holding up better than usual. The stick-to-itiveness of having persevered and maintained overall mileage as best I could while running easy through the back-to-back respiratory colds is paying dividends in a continued long-term trend of gradually toughening up my lower legs.

I seem to have reached a new, if modest, plateau in leg resilience in recent weeks, plus a slight speed-up of my “easy” pace with no additional effort, both of which have taken place in the midst of weathering the two recent respiratory colds. For these adaptations I am grateful. It is good to see my older body responding like this, even if incrementally. At 60, I still feel young — young at heart, if nothing else. The same joy is still present in running, perhaps more so with what I have learned over the years.

I like this track, and will be coming back again.

And… there is an added bonus here that the other two tracks at the private schools cannot offer. With its location just off the rail-trail, I can run the entire workout in an oasis of calm. Both warmup and cooldown portions can be run off the roads away from traffic on the rail-trail to and from the track, removed from the hubbub of the city streets, with the interval workout itself performed on the track in its sequestered, out-of-the-way location. Blessed peace: a rarity outdoors where we live, amidst the noisy city all around.

All in the doing

The interval workout completed, my body buzzing in high-exertional afterglow, I climb back over the fence and slip into a fluid, easy cooldown pace, padding back along the two-track dirt road leading around to a side path that connects with the rail-trail. The cooldown pace is nearly 25 seconds per mile faster than my earlier warmup pace but requires no more effort, due to the metabolic overdrive and extra neuromuscular activation following the 4 x 1000m repeats. I feel good, better than usual, even, after the set of intervals.

Turning onto the gravel trail to continue the rest of the cooldown, I’m greeted by a large, friendly dog who’s off-leash but being watched over by a woman taking him on a walk along the trail in the windy, warming day. He jumps up, wants to interact. I pet him briefly and he gets excited, perhaps a little too excited and unmanageable now.

The woman laughs and we smile at each other, enjoying the dog’s uninhibited enthusiasm. When younger, I would have worried an overexcited dog like this might bite me while out running (it has happened), but with age I’ve mellowed some. I love just about all animals, and understand their behavior better now. And I appreciate things more.

Just like the old track. The next workout I run here, I’ve decided I’ll be taking some extra time. I want to make a start pulling out some of that Bermuda grass from the cracks. A track of its age and condition but with additional years to offer deserves at least that much attention.

I know it may not prove of much ultimate use in the long-term. But it doesn’t matter. The action itself, the expression and attention to it in the moment, just as with the intervals run on the track, is what connects us to life.

As the saying goes: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

One Response to Making a new friend: the old, neglected running track

  1. Ah. Finally coming up for air. Good to see you blogging semiregularly. I just play the game of catch up and keep losing.

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