22 May 2009

Great White Northern Running Woes

Despite it being a holiday in the States, I depart this weekend for Parts North, where it’s not a holiday, for a week of training in Belleville, Ontario, the center of Universe. Or at least it’s no further from the center of the Universe than any other place on Earth. As a prelude to the trip, I’ve resurrected my account of my running misadventures on last year’s trip.

I take you back to 07 April 2008… for A Tale of Great White Northern Running Woes

There are some places that are nirvana for runners. You might not have noticed, but New England is one of those places. Back roads, hills when you want them, attractive scenery, and despite the legendary traffic, all in all, drivers that are, at least in my experience, pretty aware of and polite to runners. Then there are the places that are sheer hell. Las Vegas comes instantly to mind. Each year I endure my company's sales conference in that dreadful place, where your choice of where to run is either hell (solid concrete) or damnation (in the road with horrible speeding traffic). And it's ugly as sin, which is appropriate, since it's all about sin. Places like Vegas are obvious hell. But more insidious are the subtle hells. The hells you don't expect. Take Belleville, Ontario. Please.

Disclaimer: Despite what I write here, I do enjoy visiting Belleville. I have many work colleagues I like to see, and I mean no harm to their town. Plus, they’ve got a killer sushi joint. But running nirvana it’s not.

Belleville, Ontario. Middle of Nowhere, Canada. On the northeast shore of Lake Ontario, so far from any reachable airport it's not worth flying to get there (if you have to connect to get there, it’s not worth it). I opt for the 450 mile drive that takes about the same time, and offers opportunities for interesting detours along the way. You can save the trip to your map shelf by clicking here.

On the surface, what's not to like? A small town should have light traffic and plenty of roads leading out to the wilds. In reality, there's quite a bit of traffic, or more precisely traffic that doesn't seem used to the concept of runners, and most of the sidewalks - and even the seemingly delightful rail-trail-like pathway along the river - are almost entirely knee- and ankle-crushing concrete. Which make you want to be in the roads. Which have no shoulders when you’re in town. And which are mostly rural highways when you’re out of town, with very fast traffic. So, it's not the best place for a run to start with. And there's another interesting characteristic worth knowing: Canada doesn't think Belleville is important enough to have taken high resolution satellite photography of the area. So Google Earth, my usual guide to finding ideal running venues when out of town, is of no use. So actually finding good roads to run is a challenge.

Oh, and did I mention the word BLEAK? Belleville in early spring, which is really still winter in the Great White North, is bleak. Still plenty of extremely dirty snow. And mud where melting is occurring. And just plain bleak anyway. Flat. Not terribly naturally attractive, at least away from the water. Not terribly economically vibrant. I suppose in the green summertime, the path along the Bay of Quinte must be delightful. I've never had the pleasure of seeing it at that time. In late March, umm…

And so it was with no great expectations that I departed for said ville last Sunday for a week's sentence in a training class. But this week would exceed my typical Belleville Blues. Let's tally the score:

Day 1: Monday morning. Pouring rain. Cold. Miserable. But, I'm determined this will be a good running week! So I out at 7 for my "usual" 7 mile loop. I do the ugly part first, and return via the river trail, the last 3/4 mile of which is though a nice park. Disappointed to find that the gravel trail along the river is still covered with a foot of snow, I am forced to stick to the road in the park. Two-thirds in, the road is blocked and unplowed. Tomorrow is APRIL, people, don't you plow your roads? (I learned later it's been under construction all winter, so the answer is, apparently, no.). Choice #1 is to backtrack, but I'm short on time. Choice #2 is a semi-plowed path across the grass out of the park, and it's a rain-sodden mud pit. I choose the Cross Country edition, and they consider hosing me down before letting me back into the hotel.

Day 2: Tuesday afternoon. A bit windy, I think, but warm (Celsius is just SO hard to figure, but really, it was over 50°!). Out in shorts, no gloves. Surprise! Windswept tundra. 25-30 MPH sustained, 40+ MPH gusts (I'm kind, I already translated those kph numbers for you). And of course the temperature drops. Sandblasted and chilled, I return from my 11 miles rather shell-shocked, though the downwind ride back to the hotel was quite amazing!

Day 3: Wednesday morning. Oh, glorious day! Sunshine! The air outside my hotel window seems calm! And I've found what looks like a rural route with potential on GMaps Pedometer. Ahh, foolish me, I should know better. It's minus 6°C, which is close to 20°F, and who am I kidding? The wind hits my face like a brick. A very cold brick. The 2.5 mile outbound leg is downright frigid, especially since I didn't think I'd need (and didn't bring) my face mask. After all, it's APRIL! People, why do you live here? But I reach the target rural road. It's lovely. Packed dirt, no traffic, and OhMyGosh, a HILL! Not a big one, but a real live hill. Almost joyously I sprint up it to find... the road is blocked and unplowed! Again! What IS it with this town? Fortunately I'm far enough out that turning around still results in almost 8 miles, and I'm happy with that. Later investigation shows that GMaps (which showed this road) doesn't match Google Maps (which showed no road). And remember that thing about Google Earth? Curses! Foiled again!

Day 4: Thursday afternoon. Last chance to get it right, I'm leaving for home in the morning. It's not very windy! It's not very cold! It's not even very cloudy! YES! Let's try that course out to the east I'd been eyeing... And the result is? DOUBLE BLEAK. I mean, REALLY depressing. Industrial decay. Steadily depressing low-down mind messing runnin' past the rail yard blues. But, past all that, I'm out on a rural road, no traffic, good surface, lessee, we go out here about 2 more miles, and take a right...what else can this town throw at me? How about a half-mile-long freight train doing 8 MPH crawling into the yard blocking the turn onto the next leg of the loop. You've gotta' be KIDDING? And, it's slowing down. I run laps up and down the road waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally it passes, onward. Astoundingly, the rest of this run is almost pleasant. Even encountered a group of local runners, first I've ever seen in this town in half a dozen trips.

After 4 days, I'm 4 for 4 in the "something bad/weird/unpleasant happened today" column. I give up, take my ball, and go home. My ankles hurt from the concrete. I am humbled by the ability of a small town to make running so difficult. I long for the scenic cruises down New England Roads.

All ye travelers, be wary of what the world can dish out!

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