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 more severe than even 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 startup even among new startups. 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 is also 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.
Steps near my house that I climb as a test.
This is harder than I thought it would be. I had hoped to make a comeback. But the rare, serious autoimmune disease I have been diagnosed with is a doozy. Or more accurately, the drugs I am on have major side effects. After more than 75 half marathons in three years and a regular routine of run commuting 4.5 miles to work, I have been forced to take six weeks off. I have failed to show up for three different races I signed up for, even after downgrading the distance. The end is not in sight. But I am determined.
My wife, who has her own illness, gave me two pieces of advice. The first was, “Respect the disease.” The second was, “Suffer privately.”
I have failed to follow both her suggestions. I have turned the corner. I am heading in to the office, not just sitting at home.
I appreciate now, however, that I cannot simply will myself to perfect well-being. Autoimmune conditions have many triggers. Stress, and mental state more generally, are crucial factors in how the body functions. An unhappy attitude likely will cause a flare up. But its opposite does not promise a remission much less a restoration to health.
The cure is not worse than the disease. But the cure is not fun. Methotrexate, my main prescription, was a cancer drug, and it is deemed toxic. Constant fatigue, especially at my dosage (80mg once per week), is normal.
I am compelled to share though. For me, running and writing are related. When I run more, I write more. The blood flows; creativity results. In this forum, my writing is about my running. So I want to document, especially if it can help others, the process of recovery — or the ongoing adaptation to a new life. Running and writing seem solitary. But I like to run with, or at least around, those who challenge me. I wish to write for readers, even if I otherwise never interact with them.
Thus the running and the story of running will continue. I am chastened. I will have to start slow. I mean that literally, with the correct use of the word. I intend to begin again with walking. I will do a slower pace and shorter route, maybe just sauntering around the neighborhood, which has its share of hills, with my dog, to build up stamina. I have to wear a hat now and slather on sunscreen at SPF30 or greater. Severe sensitivity and the risk of burning is another issue on the list of what to confront.
Yet I am reconciled to myself. The alternative is despair or moping around. There is a better cycle. It’s likely that if I hadn’t been so vigorous in my hobby of running, which I took up only three years ago at 48 years of age, I would be much worse off at this point.
So I have to summon again that spirit that I needed to set off on the very first walk to work. I doubted then that any ordinary person could do it. I had to prove it to myself. A sense of community, that you will be supported by other souls who care, enables us in these struggles, because however independent we would like to picture ourselves the important journeys we take are in the company of companions.
Here is a typical week. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, were run commute days. Thursday was low in mileage, but in part because of a transcontinental flight that took up much of it.
As a run commuter, I happen to be a bit of a cheater. I don’t mean a fraud such as Rosie Ruiz, who was stripped of her Boston Marathon medal in 1980 for not completing all 26.2 miles of the course or even very many of them. I merely mean I am not a stickler for results to brag about on Strava. I want to get some exercise into my day and get to work. Those are straightforward goals. I’m not looking to impress anyone.
A preface before my confessions. I am no slouch. In January 2018, I ran to work a dozen times; February and March have continued similarly. That is 4.5 miles, or as much as 4.75 miles depending on the exact route and meandering, including days that rained. On a few occasions, I also ran with my coach. On at least one of those days, I exceeded 15 miles on foot (and I have provided the digital proof).
Yet, I want to be honest and humble. I am not the run commuter I aspire to be. I did not run another eight mornings when I could have. There are various reasons. The least common among them, only through self-flagellation (figurative, not literal) is laziness. There usually was an impediment, and the most aggravating among them was the need to put on a business suit, followed by the disruption of airplane travel and ensuing jet lag.
What I fail at most often is in fact to run. The truth is, as I admit freely, I am technically a run-walker, not a true runner. I am a fast walker though. So I figure my run-walk routine satisfies whatever is the abstract, agreed-upon standard for what constitutes “running.” I am constantly striving to increase the speed and the length of the run portion of the cycle. I am seeing modest gains. At 51 years old very soon, but only three years into the sport on a serious basis, I figure the inevitable effects of aging — as they say, better than the alternative — will offset the progress of discipline. I cannot seem to break 45 minutes (10 per mile) over the distance I must cover, though I can make it just under 8 minutes for a single mile.
I have discovered a new tactic though. I feel good about this maneuver. Bike sharing is the latest trend. But it will be, I predict, more than a fad. I have now done a part-run, part-bike trip that allows me to indulge the fantasy I could do a biathlon or triathlon. (I grew up with a swimming pool, and I must be about the worst swimmer for someone who had that luxury, so there is more work to be done.) In San Francisco, they are rolling out undocked, electric-assist bikes! That means you can leave them anywhere within the authorized zone, and they offer a boost for the hills. The dual workout is wonderful. I am using different leg muscles, while also exerting the lungs to greater capacity. Run, then bike, and see the city as you could not enclosed in a vehicle.
Even my most obvious dishonesty is defensible. I have more than once hopped on the bus. The reason is keeping to a schedule despite the sauntering for a spell. I have competed against myself. All out, I am pretty sure I’d beat the bus. But at the run-walk pace (see above), I can save a couple of minutes with mass transit. Since in contemporary America, we suffer what has been called “bus stigma” — in the hit movie Speed, which made action stars of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, her character is compelled to explain why she is stuck with the other losers who are aboard a bus in Southern California — I feel I am engaging in a worthwhile protest against the One Percent by boarding the MUNI; I can proclaim that I am a man of the people. Besides, the bus line I take travels through the historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the home of the “Summer of Love” that transformed our culture.
Like everyone else who doesn’t quite live up to their aspirations, I suppose, I am compelled to rationalize. The point of run commuting is to get the blood flowing and accomplish the task of traveling from home to office, while being better to the environment. I figure if I have something of a shortcut, I am still better off than if I drove a car by myself, both to me and toward the world. My point is that the run commute is intended to be pleasurable and practical. It is supposed to decrease stress, not increase it. It’s not a sanctioned competition. Easygoing is fine. Most of the rest of my day is intense. People who do not run commute misunderstand. A good run commute is relaxing. It adds rather than subtracts to the energy I have. The psychological benefit turns into a physical one.
Nonetheless, every time I do not complete a run commute on strict terms, I feel guilty. And if I can set a new PR, even if it is only for my own satisfaction, I feel I am a better person.
San Francisco Muni Train on the “F” line featuring vintage cars
I jaywalk. I admit it. I was well into adulthood when I realized this conduct was considered mildly criminal. My wife was once given a citation for it, which means I am not alone in failing to comprehend that it is frowned upon — or perhaps we have in common that we are scofflaws in this regard.
Yet I also am paranoid about crossing the street. When I run commute, I make it a point to stand well back at intersections. I have a specific memory. Or, more accurately, I was told a story once that was so vivid I felt I had witnessed the event myself, even though I was only relayed the situation; it’s a textbook example of hearsay but no less compelling to me for having heard it from a friend.
More than twenty-five years ago, so essentially in another life — I am twice the age now I was then — I was meeting my pal Chris. He was a bit late.
When he showed up, he explained to me he had seen a terrible accident. He saw somebody die. This was in San Francisco, downtown, maybe on Market Street, one of the major thoroughfares. He was walking. A bicycle messenger swerved in front a city bus, but come what may didn’t make it, and the guy was run over by the massive vehicle.
What made it compelling, however, was that Chris told me, at least in my memory, he watched, as did other bystanders, the death throes of the victim. As the victim was being crushed under the wheels and the weight, his legs twitched madly, with blood seeping outward. His description was completed by his shock, which was palpable; I shared it.
Even though I was not there, I have to say the incident made an impression. I visualized the gruesome scene as perfectly as if I had been there in the flesh. In the free association of trying to exorcise the image, I recalled childhood piano lessons that had failed to make me a concert-playing prodigy. There was a style of song, the tarantella, which had a mythology about dancing to death.
So when I am headed downtown in the early morning, I have trained myself to be mindful. There are so many cars pulling out of garages or turning behind me as I dash straight through the crosswalk, not to mention the buses, public and private, that come with great speed perpendicular to my path of travel, and the MUNI trains, which rattle the very ground. I appreciate, both in the sense of being grateful and in the sense of being awed, that this anecdote had such power. In my work as an advocate and a teacher of those who would persuade, I communicate using narratives and encourage the same.
I also have direct experience of the near miss. More than the moments when I personally came close to shuffling off my mortal coil, I am enthralled by what I was present for, observing in that manner that has the sensation of being at the cinema (what analogy was appropriate before moving pictures?), that surreal perception of slo-mo that somehow cannot be stopped despite its pace. Once, I had met a colleague at the Golden Gate Bridge to hike in, enjoying an urban landscape that tops my list of places to live, and as we proceeded along Crissy Field in the amiable conversation I associate with strolling, a woman of a certain age, oblivious to the risk, violated the right of way held by a luxury car being propelled forward far too fast. By some miracle, she was not squashed, not more than two arms’ lengths away, and, even more shockingly, she appeared to be undisturbed by the prospect of her demise; she continued in her daze. By coincidence, the driver was even more insensitive to what was happening around him, and, in a display of the inaction that is more remarkable than any action, he disappeared into the traffic rather than screeching to a halt.
The moral is what they say about getting out of bed in the morning. If we possessed perfect knowledge, we would not rise. All in all, I prefer the alternative. I hazard the run commute, and I am the better for it. I just have to pay attention to the lights — we all do.
It’s still winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and the handful of people that continue to run commute year-round in snowy regions have their fair share of sub-zero temperatures, icy paths, unshoveled sidewalks, and slush-filled roads with which to deal.
Enter Frederic Otis.
He only started run commuting two months ago, but to begin in winter, when the weather in Québec can be at its worst (and continue to run throughout) makes Frederic an especially notable New Run Commuter who will no doubt continue to run to work for years to come.
Run Commuting Gear
Backpack: Lululemon Surge Backpack It’s truly a great backpack, but I couldn’t bring my work clothes in it because they would be all creased up. I’d really like to try the IAMRUNBOX backpack for that reason.
Shoes: Summer shoes – Vibram FiveFingers V-Run, Winter shoes – Vivobarefoot Primus Trail SG
Clothing: Summer clothing – plain sports t-shirt and shorts. Winter – I wear merino wool base layer because it keeps warm and dries very fast.
Outerwear: Winter: My merino base layers (1 or 2) plus a soft shell to cut the wind.
Headgear: Summer : Ciele Athletics cap (another Montreal based company that makes great stuff), Winter – merino beanie for warmer conditions, or a country skiing hat
Lights: None, or a running light on one of my arms.
Hydration: For longer runs or when it’s hot, I use a Camelbak pack like this one.
The New Run Commuters Submission Form
Runner’s World magazine (Oct 2016) recently gave Seattle the silver medal for number 2 best running city in America (behind San Fran). Aaron Mercer, our runcommuter for this month, is a Seattle resident who uses his runcommuting to make the most of what the city has to offer. He braves the state’s rainy, wet conditions to runcommute almost every day. Aaron is helping his work colleagues stay healthy, too.
A scientist at Novo Nordisk, Aaron is also the Wellness Committee chair and promotes running to other employees. Aaron says he enjoys exploring his city on his runcommutes. He manages to incorporate cafe-testing into these runs as well, taking advantage of Seattle’s abundance of coffee joints. An excellent idea for all runcommuters: the combination of running and coffee is a classic, and what better way to start (or end) the day…especially when it’s raining!
The New Run Commuters Submission Form
Is THIS the best run commuting pack…ever?
For some people, perhaps even many people, the answer is yes, the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 is the best run commuting pack ever.
Those who read my review of the OMM 20L will recall that I opened that review with a similar question, and a similar answer. There are reasons for this: firstly, I cannot deny that I enjoy using the question as a rhetorical device, but, secondly and in my defense, I have had the good fortune to test two outstanding run commuting packs this year, both of which are destined to become classics, in my opinion. Both the OMM Adventure Light 20 and the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 are brilliantly designed and made, and both function perfectly for the daily run commuter who totes medium to large loads of clothes/shoes/food.
The difference between these two packs is profound, however. The Ultimate Direction Fastpack is what is called a running ‘vest’ in the trail-running world. Right here on TRC Josh reviewed the smaller sibling of the UD Fastpack, the UD Peter Bakwin Signature Series Vest 3.0 (see review), so you may already be familiar with the new generation of running packs invented – and designed for – trail and adventure-running. My ‘Pack Off’ article comparing the relative merits and downsides of the two styles is coming to TRC soon!
The UD Fastpack 20 is across-between the traditional and the vest style. It is not a compromise, however. It is a fully functioning backpack with all the advantages (and possibly disadvantages) of no waist strap and double sternum straps on wide chest straps, instead.
On either side is a large, mesh water-bottle pocket. It is not closed, but an elasticized rim keeps the bottles in. This elastic is not as tight as on some packs I have worn. Once I took out two full bottles in these pockets when there was nothing really in the main compartment, and the lack of padding from the main pack meant that there was more leeway for the bottles to agitate out of these mesh pockets. They didn’t actually fall out, but I was worried once or twice, and I had to keep checking… Otherwise, if the main compartment is at least half full, the water bottles feel pretty secure, even when running fast.
Main Compartment and Access Rolltop
The main compartment is like a sack, and it closes in the roll-top style, first being pressed shut with Velcro and then rolled over like rolling up a carpet, until it is tight against the pack. At this point each end of the roll is clipped in to a strap that comes up each side. The strap is then pulled tight, cinching the whole thing vertically while the roll secures it horizontally. This is a very effective closure method, though it does take a few more seconds to do than a single zip would (such as is found on the Osprey Stratos and Talon series, for example). The strap on each side that cinches down the roll does create the only annoyance I have experienced with this pack – the long, dangling excess lengths of each side strap can whip around as you run, sometimes even coming round and lashing you in the front (possibly as punishment for the evil thoughts I have about car drivers…). You can’t trim them off—as Josh shows you how to do here in the ‘Pack Hacks’ series—because the extra length is needed on occasions when you fill the pack to full capacity. (See photos) What you can do is thread the excess strap into one of the daisy-chain loops on the front of the pack, which keeps them out of the way.
The main compartment itself is huge and empty, awaiting your clothes and lunch. If you don’t put anything in the main compartment, but do fill the front pockets with heavy items (such as full water bottles), you may find the front pulls forward/down, which can cause pressure on the back of your neck. This is an unlikely situation to be running in, however. I did this once, just for the experiment to see what would happen, but in the normal run of things it’s not a configuration most run commuters will want to try. If you do, for some reason, want to carry tons of water but nothing much else, it’s better for the weight distribution to put the bottles in the side pockets of the main compartment, behind and under your arms. This scenario is not fool-proof either, however…(see comment in ‘Sides’, below).
The back of the pack consists of a machine-knit fabric that is slightly thicker than t-shirt material, overlaying a nylon or other material than can just barely by glimpsed underneath.
There are no seams on this back panel, making it very smooth against the back. The whole back panel as well as the backing on both over-the-shoulder and down the chest vest flaps is a single piece of material. There are no seams or joins anywhere where the pack touches the wearer, except for where the yellow material meets the soft grey edging material. This trimming material is also soft. The pack did not cause any chafing on my back at all, ever.
Inside the main compartment of the pack is a Velcro-closed compartment that holds a foam pad cut into the shape of the back of the pack, and which gives the pack a firm, stable, back padding. This foam pad is smooth foam on the side that faces into the pack. On the side that sits against the wearer’s back, the foam pad has many little nipple-bumps all over it, for massage-style comfort. This pad can be taken out of the pack and used to sleep on etc when you’re doing a stage-race in the Sahara Desert, or when you get tired on the way home from work and want to take a quick nap in the park.
The Fastpack 20L does not come with a bladder or bottles, but hydration compatibility is one of its design priorities. There is a dedicated hydration bladder sleeve inside the main compartment. Immediately above this is a Velcro ‘hook’ for hanging the bladder from (so it doesn’t slump down into the sleeve). Above this, in the center of the top of the pack, underneath the grab-handle, is the hole for the bladder hose. There are two elastic/nylon strips on each vest flap near your clavicle bone for the hose to route through. Then there are two large mesh pockets on either side of the pack, as mentioned above, for water bottles. Finally (sort of), there is a pull-cord-closing bottle pocket on the left vest strap. If all this still didn’t give you enough storage for fluids, there is also the zip-closing pocket on the right vest strap, which can be opened wide enough to hold a 600ml bottle if necessary.
Above: An example of the amount of liquid you can carry in the UD Fastpack when simply using the designated pockets: 2L bladder, 3 x 750ml bottles, 1 x 420ml softflask. Of course, if you wanted to, you could also put a mini-keg in the main compartment….
So, how does the UD Fastpack 20L perform as a daily pack for run commuters? The answer is: extremely well…. For some, this will be the perfect run commute pack and, like the OMM 20L pack, the only pack they’ll need for both the daily run commute and the Marathon des Sables or the 4 Deserts adventure races!
Ever want to know how many people are run commuters? How far they run? Which city or country has the most people who run to work? We’d like to know, too! Please help us learn more about the run commuting world by taking part in the first International Survey of Run Commuters!
The survey will be open until September 30th, 2014 and we will publish the results on The Run Commuter in late-October.
Note: You don’t have to be a run commuter to take part. This survey is open to current and former run commuters, as well as anyone who is interested in run commuting.
Once you’ve completed the survey, be sure to share it with your friends and running groups!