Run commuting in the cold, dark days of winter can be challenging. If you keep normal hours, you often start and end the day in darkness. Footpaths are often not as well-lit, which make running on the road itself safer, but that renders you vulnerable to passing traffic who can’t see you. In an effort to make myself as visible as possible, I looked for the brightest backpack I could find, and strangely enough found it in the black backpack produced by ProViz Sports.
ProViz Sports are a UK-based company that specialise in highly reflective gear, using 100% CE EN 20471 certified reflective material to produce clothing and equipment designed to highlight users in low-light areas. They chiefly focus on cycling and cycling products, but recently produced a backpack tailored to running (and run commuters): the REFLECT360 Running Backpack.
What I carry on a typical day
From the rooftop deck of where I work, you can just about see where I live; my dorm is in the next tower directly behind the building on the left.
The feasibility of run commuting depends not only an ability to run but also the length of the commute. No matter how dedicated a runner you might be, you have to consider the feasibility of the commute distance. My decision to be a run commuter is about my desire to run as much as it is about my lack of desire to be much of a commuter. You have to travel to appreciate your home. My summer in Shenzhen, China, made me realize how much each of us can control an aspect of our lives that we should not mistake as circumstance: whether we live close to work or not. I want to stay within the limits of my ability to carry myself on my own two feet to my desk each morning. (I am doing 4.5 miles on average, in San Francisco. I might be willing to take that up to 5. I doubt I have the skill to push past that number.)
My preference has always been to have a house near the office. I am sympathetic to those who have made another choice, considering family or other factors, and far be it for me to pass judgment. But I wonder if each of us makes ourselves miserable by increasing the miles we have to journey to a job on a regular basis, while also adding to the burden on the environment with a carbon footprint more substantial than needed.
When my wife and I married, she moved into half a duplex I owned in Washington, D.C. The unit was behind a fast-food restaurant, which I took to be a convenience during my days as a bachelor, but to which she, especially as a vegetarian, objected to as a nuisance — you could just about place a drive-through order from the bedroom window. I was a law professor a few blocks away. That was not an accident, because I had sought out real estate that would be walkable to campus. In those days before I embraced the run commute regimen, however, I exhibited a moral failing that now I regret, I complained to my wife about the ten minute stroll, and I even drove sometimes (confession: often), my excuse being the heavy casebooks I had to carry. She pointed out I could become a clerk at the deli around the corner if I really wished for convenience,
Later, I had an opportunity to move back to my hometown of Detroit. I became a law school dean. My wife wished to remain in the capitol even as I returned to the Motor City. We bought an architectural landmark downtown, which was feasible in that magnificent wreck of a metropolis, symbolic of all that happened in twentieth century America, especially the development of car culture. As absurd as it might have seemed to fly back and forth, I did a few calculations, In a typical week, I commuted only as much as the average suburbanite who toiled downtown in terms of the time in transit.
This summer, I am humbled to be a visiting professor at Peking University School of Transnational Law. The institution, which uses Chinese and English as the language of instruction (I am capable only in the latter to my chagrin), is in Shenzhen, a city that sprang up as a special economic zone across the border from the then British colony of Hong Kong. I was presented the option of a dorm room in the tower for foreign experts or a long term stay at a hotel just off campus. Consistent with my philosophy, I went for the former. By my calculation, I am three minutes from the newly opened law school building at a crawl or probably ninety seconds in a sprint. (The old building was even closer, across a reflecting pool.) It being typhoon season, last Thursday I was at the exact midpoint, having waited for a clear moment, when the skies opened again. No benefit to you turning back, I trudged forward, arriving drenched.
Other than that, my stint here has been without mishap. Since I am overseas, and only temporarily, I feel as if my horizons have expanded, not constricted. It is true I live so close to work I can come back “home” for lunch. That is an advantage. I love being embedded within the community. I am dedicated to my teaching. There isn’t a moment wasted in traffic. I always can wander farther for entertainment. One night we journeyed to an Italian restaurant in an upscale mall. My sense of scale adjusts. Thanks to the ability to hail a car when needed, I am not constrained.
I like the countryside and rural areas with open space — for a weekend excursion. I would rather not be stuck in a subdivision where I would depend on an automobile even to shop for groceries. There are material benefits to population density. There are costs too of course. Yet on the whole, to run commute is to engage directly with the people around you, on the ground. It is to value human interaction, sustained relationships, and civic engagement.
The gym of Peking University’s Shenzhen Campus
I find myself in an unlikely place to resume running. I am in Shenzhen, China this summer. For those not familiar with the boom town, which boasts one of those stories that defies belief but exemplifies the power of the global economy, it is on the mainland next to the former British colony of Hong Kong. After being granted permission to experiment with capitalist markets early on, it developed into the third most significant city of a nation that continues its rise, ranking with Beijing and Shanghai. Like everything else that happens with a population exceeding a billion, the place is one of those you-have-see-it-to believe-it phenomenon, with the constant of change promising opportunity to all who would pursue it. As many skyscrapers and apartment complexes have gone up in short order, there remains more foliage and open space, less traffic and pollution than you might expect or fear, relative to rival metropolises.
While here to teach American law at Peking University’s southern satellite, in English — itself a test of how the world will come together — I am trying to recover from a health challenge. This is not easy. The heat is much higher than I am accustomed to. The humidity too. Climate change likely is worsening matters. The locals complain that it is worse even than they can withstand.
But thanks to jet lag, I need no alarm to cajole me. I am up before dawn whether I’d like to be or not. At that hour, however, I still feel assaulted by the air. It is clear that the mugginess will be overwhelming later in the season.
The first Monday, I met a new colleague, also from the States, for a walk. We had made arrangements via email before our respective departures. I had anticipated I would need to be up and about, as soon as it became light outside. We met at the business school that is a new start up even among new start ups. The Starbucks in the corner of the building was a convenient landmark. It offered a means to ask for directions without Mandarin language fluency.
Our morning meander was easygoing. There were multiple outdoor tracks we could visit. Three different universities, all leading institutions of higher education well established elsewhere, had been recruited by the local government to considerable acreage near the zoo. Each school had its own facilities. There also is an impressive gymnasium opened especially for a major athletics competition a few years back. That is on the list of attractions to check out. Its first-class equipment apparently is under-used. Perhaps the indoor course will be the best venue for further training.
We saw a few others exercising early. One or two solitary figures were engaged in qigong rituals, calm and calming to observers, with the silent fluidity of contemplative motion. A couple male runners, shirtless, were making good time. Street sweepers were finishing their shifts, construction workers beginning theirs. Female students riding bicycles or strolling arm in arm carried umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. A few guards kept an eye out. There were fisherman hoping for a bite, their lines cast into a canal that ran along the perimeter of the grounds. Signs warned of snakes. They are mildly poisonous.
By a permissive standard, I have become a run commuter again. I am housed in a dormitory for, among others, foreign experts. I can mosey along the paved path to the law school in about three minutes; probably a jog would take me there in under two. It could not be more convenient for a short stay. Immediately upon arriving at the office, I had to return to my residential unit, because I neglected to bring an appropriate adapter for the electrical outlet. I thought briefly of doing without until the battery was exhausted, but I realized it would be unconscionably lazy to avoid the extra trip.
According to my GPS watch, I logged ten miles. An additional adventure was finding my own way to the administrative office to load credit onto my ID card. The campus is cashless. I did what I do while in Asia. I accost random non-Asians for help. A young European pointed me toward the proper office for my errand.
My initial plan was to shower twice. I figured I would sweat enough to need it. I instead am on a schedule of thrice. I wonder if I will adapt. Otherwise, my wife has warned me via our international video calls, I will dry out my skin and wash away essential oils. I cannot resist though. Even well short of the environmental maximums that will be hit in mid-August, I cannot make myself comfortable. I am aware of my body, in that manner that impairs the mind doing anything else other than dwelling on the flesh that constitutes one’s self.
Nonetheless, I am glad. This is progress.
The path along the canal where I am run commuting this summer, at the Peking University Shenzhen campus.
“You are very mild,” someone said to me the other day. She meant it as a compliment; she said that she had a similar demeanor. That surprised me. Most of my life, as a child and adult, I’ve been considered more belligerent, rude, grouchy, and sarcastic.
I attribute the progress to run commuting. Physical health and mental health are bound together in a cycle either vicious or virtuous. Regular exercise has positive effects for body and mind. How we interact with one another depends on how we feel inside ourselves. Science can confirm such effects. We do not have to be aware of our emotions to have our lives determined by them, and, for that matter, our unconscious selves may have the better of the ego we deem to be our own identities.
Run commuting has improved my personality. It has increased my forbearance, patience, and resilience. These traits are all important. They have nothing to do with my intelligence or the skills I have developed. Yet they make me a better employee and employer, as well as a more decent person.
There are direct mechanisms at work. I must plan to run commute to ensure I have everything I will depend on during the day. I need to be mindful while on the road to avoid being run over. To get the heart pumping early in the morning circulates more oxygen, which generates ideas, making me productive as a writer. The endorphins that are released make me calm and content.
The truth is there has been more than one day I have left the house outraged about this or that. Somebody has been disrespectful, ungrateful, or otherwise aggravating. My negative sentiments dissipate over 4.5 miles though. I cannot sustain them even if I wished to do so.
Probably a study could be devised to test the hypothesis that a run commuter is less likely to be resentful. Driving a personal vehicle in a crowded city and taking public transit are also probably not good for blood pressure.
Run commuting has not made me perfect. Nothing will accomplish that for any of us as human beings. But it has made me better.
The only other aspect of my life that has had the same influence, according to observers, is marriage. Another long-time friend once told me that my wife had, as she herself would attest, changed me. Run commuting and marriage might not seem comparable. But they are. Both are activities, not outcomes. The daily physical exertion is a reminder that the constant process is as important as any temporary result. You have to keep at it if you want to maintain the beneficial effects. That is the most important insight I have ever had: our days are meant to be engaged in, not to pass by as if we had no ability to participate. Run commuting requires nothing (if you have embraced the barefoot trends, not even shoes). Yet it calls for what is most difficult to summon: initiative that only we can take.
To run commute is to insist that the world is ours. It is material, surrounding us, demanding that we involve ourselves. Even in the rain and the traffic, despite our fatigue, it is imperative that we motivate ourselves to move ourselves.
The Best Run Commuting Backpack Ever?
OMM (standing for Original Mountain Marathon) is a brand well-known to UK and Euro trail runners, but it has yet to become popular in the US, which is a pity. I would go so far as to say this is a ‘best-kept secret’ of running packs. The OMM 20L may be the best run commuting backpack ever, and for those so inclined, it doubles as the best multi-day trail running pack ever, too! It is relatively cheap, hugely comfortable, robust, thoughtfully designed, and has tons of storage room.
For these reasons, no doubt, it has been the backpack of choice for the winners of some epic races: this year alone Eion Keith was wearing it when he won the notoriously grueling Spine Race in England – 268 miles non-stop over snowy English high country in mid-winter. Elspeth Luke wore it to run 1100k over Scottish mountains in record time. And it’s not just for cold-weather conditions: Aussie pro racer Samantha Gash wore it to run the 4 Deserts races across –as the name implies–four of the world’s serious deserts. Many athletes use this pack at the 6-days, 250km stage-race in the Moroccan desert, the Marathon des Sables.
So, how does such a hardcore pack work for everyday run commuters who just want to run an hour to work through suburban streets? Brilliantly, that’s how!
On the lower half of each side of the main compartment is a mesh pocket with elasticized top edge. They are water-bottle pockets, and have been designed with great consideration for the needs of adventure runners, for whom hydration is essential. The pockets are deep, each amply holding a 600mL bottle. This is true even when the main compartment of the pack is full. The other brilliant thing about their design is that they are angled slightly backwards, so that the top of the water bottle is tilted fractionally towards the direction you are facing. This makes it easier to pull the bottles out and put them back in, while running. The bottles don’t jump out of these pockets even when there isn’t much in the main compartment of the pack. Overall, excellent design and performance.
Main Compartment and Top Access Pouch
The main compartment is basically a cylindrical sack with a drawstring closure. Over this fits a hood that buckles down with a strap that runs vertically down the front of the backpack and clips to the lower quarter of the front of the pack (the ‘weird’ strap described above). The main compartment holds a LOT of stuff. You could easily get a medium-thickness winter coat in here along with shoes, clothes and lunch.
As you can see in the photo above, there is a zipped pocket on the top of the hood that covers the main drawstring compartment of the pack. This zipped pocket is almost the same width across as the hood itself, so it can hold a wallet and phone, or even a small Tupperware container, easily.
Back, shoulder straps and waist belt
The padding on the OMM Adventure Light 20 is generous, light and comfortable. It is also positioned where you need it and not where you don’t. The back is kept firm and self-supporting by a removable foam pad that sits inside the main compartment in its own sleeve. This pad is so light, and helps keep the overall structure of the pack so comfortable, that after I tried running once with the pad removed I resolved never to do so again — it’s simply more of a gain to have the foam pad in there.
There are two identical pockets on either side of the waist belt. Both pockets close with zips. They are large enough to fit a smartphone, and there is some flexibility as the lower half of each pocket is made of a mesh that stretches slightly. I found these pockets to be very useful for carrying my phone, food snacks, and accessories like gloves, hat or headlamp.