Jogging for the soul

Running on a treadmill at the gym makes for a nice, managed workout, but ‘nice’ and ‘managed’ aren’t what outdoor joggers seek

Photo By David Robert

The sky was an extraordinary shade of blue. I peered up at it through the skeletal white tree branches at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park and breathed in the post-rainstorm air. A light breeze blew. Aside from the miry mud patch here and there, it was a jogger’s dream.

But there were no joggers.

OK, so it was 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon in the dead of winter, not the best time to find joggers who might provide insight on the phenomenon of outdoor jogging, as I was attempting to do. I couldn’t really expect runners to be coming out in droves. But I’d assumed that a sampling of committed runners would be there, taking advantage of such a perfect jogging day. I combed a section of the trail, looking for runners to talk to. Nobody.

I gave up and went into the park ranger station. Ranger Andy Mink says that, in the winter months, the influx of joggers comes in the morning between 7 and 9 and in the afternoon between 4 and 6. In the summer, joggers will come at the break of dawn and as late as 11 p.m.

But even in the winter, they do come—the devoted ones braving rain, cold and wind to do so.

“We have a clientele, basically. We see the same people every day. I’ve been here 12 years. I’ve seen the same people coming for those 12 years.”

Running seems to have gained popularity over the last several years, Scott Young, a tri-athlete who works at Eclipse Running on Moana Street, says. But many of these jogging converts grab their Nikes and hit the gym treadmill, not the trail.

"[The treadmill] is a little more cushioned. You know exactly your pace, how far [you’ve gone]. I think that the health clubs are really big right now. Ten years ago you might join a health club for an aerobics class. Now, especially for people who work … you can go jump on the treadmills. Treadmills have gotten better, too. You can run at a faster pace.”

Running at the gym has a lot of perks. You don’t have to worry about bringing your earmuffs or rain slicker. The treadmill is softer on your joints, and its helpful computer can tell you your heart rate, the number of calories you’ve burned, the number of miles you’ve run and the number of minutes you’ve been putting one foot in front of the other. Also, you can gossip with fellow gym-goers, watch CNN or listen to your favorite CD.

I’ve spent my share of time at the gym slapping my feet against the treadmill’s belt, and I have to say that the best thing I got out of it was a better insight into the life of a caged hamster. Oh, I burned some calories too, but since I’m not really into exercise for the sake of exercise, I never shook the feeling that what I was doing was ultimately absurd.

But I love running outside. There’s nothing like getting out there in the fresh air and letting the cadence of the run take over both mind and body—letting your thoughts take a backseat to the movement of your body, to the rhythm of your feet.

Best of all, perhaps, is the feeling that you’re going somewhere, trading the congestion of your life for the empty road.

“I like to get away from things,” says Bernard Schopen, a fiction writer and Western Traditions lecturer at the University of Nevada, Reno. Schopen has been an avid outdoor jogger for 25 years.

“It removes me from day-to-day pressures, that sort of thing,” he says. “My head feels better when I’m out there. More times than not, it’s an escape.”

Dave Angella, the facility manager at Lombardi Recreation Center at UNR and a former tri-athlete, admits that there are definite advantages to gym jogging.

“I know that jogging inside on a treadmill is easier,” he says. “[There’s] no wind resistance. You can run in any weather. It’s easier on the joints.”

Still, Angella hears the siren song of the open trail. “I [prefer to] run outside just because it’s fresh air. It’s not crowded,” he says. “You’re not in one place; you’re dodging this and dodging that.”

Angella says that outdoor running, even with the fresh-air factor, isn’t really better for you. Pollution can clog up your lungs, and pounding your feet on paved surfaces can jar your joints. He advises new outdoor joggers to stay on trails.

“Your joints have to work up to getting in shape,” he says, “just like your muscles do.”

Mink says that the trails at Rancho San Rafael are made to facilitate smooth running. A layer of chemically treated cloth is placed under the surface layer of decomposed granite or crushed rock to keep the clay and weeds underneath from emerging and obstructing a runner’s or walker’s path.

In the end, the debate seems less a matter of body than of psyche. The treadmill is a sensible, healthful and convenient apparatus. But devout outdoor joggers know that it can’t rival the feeling of sprinting through the Northwest Reno canyons or dodging pinecones on a Tahoe trail. Outdoor joggers are looking not just to firm the body, but also to expand the mind.

“I don’t jog for my health,” Schopen says. “I jog for my head.”

Angella concurs. "In a gym setting there are great benefits. But every [outdoor] run is a soul search."