Treadmills or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road

So far this season, Northeast Pennsylvania seems hell-bent on compensating for last year’s mild and practically snowless winter. Two snowstorms the week of Christmas really put a damper on my running, as I barely cracked 35 miles that week. And even after the snowfall had subsided, the sidewalks were covered in snow and ice, and all the snow from the roads was plowed on to the shoulder of the road, leaving almost nowhere to run. Plus, trails were all but unrunnable.

An obvious solution to such a conundrum would be using a treadmill. It’s safe, inside, warm. No ice. No wind. No cold. Treadmills are just dandy, right? No. Not for me. And not for anyone who truly enjoys the call of the open road. Not for those who can tolerate, and perhaps even enjoy, the cold air in their lungs. Not for the runners who welcome the challenge, the ones who almost dare the slippery ice to bring them to the ground.

On Wednesday, frustrated with the alarming number of Scranton residents who didn’t bother to even touch their sidewalks, I ran on a treadmill. The first mile or two went by quickly enough. Somewhere in the middle of the run, however, time ground to a halt and all sense of progress disappeared. The only sense of distance I had was a little digital number that increased every so often. Every time I looked up, every time I looked out the window, the vista was always the same. It never changed. I wasn’t going anywhere.

To quote Christopher McCandless (of Into the Wild fame), “the joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” When running on a treadmill, how does your horizon change? You see the exact same thing with every second that passes. Out on the road, or the trail, or the sidewalk, with every single step you take, you propel yourself forward. Your landscape changes. You are somewhere new, somewhere you weren’t just a moment before.

Though each individual step may not seem like much, there is a sense of progress that can never be replicated on a treadmill. I do not mean to condemn treadmills entirely. Treadmills, with their adjustable paces, are good for tempos. But even still, where is that sense that you’ve actually gone somewhere? I love coming back to my house and thinking “I went to that park and that part of the city and then this other section and then this neighborhood and through downtown and then home.” It allows you to witness the power of your own two feet, and understand just how far they can take you.

Ice is dangerous and I always try to pay Mother Nature her proper respect. But in a certain sense, it’s almost like a challenge. To run in unfavorable conditions. To run on the side of the road, practically on top of the snow, as the cars whiz by and the drivers look at you, surely thinking “this guy is crazy to be running today.” It’s looks like those that keep me going. That fuel me. Just like every step that takes me somewhere new fuels me. Looking ahead, seeing landmarks coming closer and closer. Treadmills cannot compare.

Gyms are hot and stuffy. Often crowded. I sweat buckets when I go to the gym and use the treadmill. The road is cold. It’s windy. I have to wear multiple layers. Hats, gloves. And my hands still get cold. I can hardly move them when I come back inside. After my rendezvous with the treadmill, I ran outside on Thursday, the coldest day of the week. It, frankly, bordered on miserable. But it was only pain of the body. My mind, and my spirit, felt much more alive, more invigorated, than the day before on the treadmill.

My goal in this little essay was not to demonize treadmills, or say anything to the effect of “don’t ever use them! Real runners never resort to treadmills!” Rather, I merely meant to examine my own love of the road and hopefully persuade at least someone to give the road a chance on a day when the treadmill seems more alluring. But, and I cannot stress this enough, please do be careful. I am going to avoid treadmills as much as I can for the rest of the winter. The road calls to me. I gladly answer.

Until we meet again.

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