Russ Roberts v. The Treadmill

I love to run.  I hate running on a treadmill.  Absolutely, positively loathe, despise, and (every other negative emotional verb that you can possibly imagine) running on a treadmill.  Perhaps it’s because a treadmill was how I started running: those first few weeks were the labored sufferings of a reformed obese smoker, and it was only when I liberated myself from the hamster-wheel by running my first 5K that running became fun.  Perhaps it’s because the treadmill in question is located in the cardio-room at my high school: a windowless, undecorated basement cell with beige walls lit only by florescent lights.   While those are both powerful reasons, I really hate the treadmill because running on it only gives one an aerobic workout: running on a treadmill is merely running, and as odd as it might sound, running qua running is only a small part of why I run.

I run for a sense of travel, to move from one place to another and shrink the physiological distance between two points.  I run for an intimate knowledge of geography and neighborhoods, the sidewalk level knowing of streets and alleys, parks and storefronts.  I run for the vistas provided by New York Cities bridges, the view of frozen ponds in Prospect Park, the grey waters of the Hudson and the empty lots of Bed-Stuy.  I run for a sense of speed and forward motion, something a treadmill not only fails to imitate convincingly but nearly mocks through its stationary nature.  I run to lose my sense of self and sense of time, to acquire what Murakami calls “the void,” the thoughtful thoughtlessness that bears a striking resemblance to the goal of Buddhist meditation.  At the risk of highlighting the mediocrity of my own prose, I will quote Murakami: “The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky.  Clouds of all different sizes.  They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always.  The clouds are mere guest in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.  The sky both exists and doesn’t exist.  It has substance and at the same time doesn’t.  And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”

The treadmill, rather than helping me lose a sense of self by transforming my mind into the vast expanse of sky, instead highlights the self: I am never so aware of my lumbering body, with its heavy feet and profuse inclination towards sweat, as I am when I am on the treadmill.  And as for a sense of time!  When I run outside, time becomes an elusive abstraction, where two hours slip by without any clear sense of passage or change, my mind dipping in and out of the now without any concern for the minutes or hours.  On the treadmill, time is stark and slow-moving, etched laboriously in precise, painfully inflexible increments.  Nothing proves that time is relative like comparing a 4 mile run outdoors with the same distance run on a treadmill.  The former speeds by so fast it scarcely feels like a run; the latter  drags on endlessly, stretched out to the point that it seems time has ground to a halt.  Perhaps it is because it is counted off incessantly and in minute detail: one panel on the treadmill displays the distance run, while another charts it out in a virtual ¼ mile track, and yet a third counts up the time in a constant display of seconds and minutes.  Then there is the clock on the wall, the time displayed on my iPod.  It is impossible to lose a sense of time when it is ever-present at the edges of one’s consciousness.

I tried overcoming this sense of endless labor by listening to music (something I never do when I run outdoors.  Unless I am desperate for motivation, music on a run pollutes the purity of the experience for me.  I realize it makes me something of a snob, but that’s a topic for another post), but music actually heightens the problem.  It may provide adrenaline and energy, but it does nothing to speed the passage of time.  What is music, after all, other than audible time, sounds arranged specifically to beats and time-signatures?  Besides, music adds yet another measure of minutes: two-minutes, thirteen-seconds for “Blitzkrieg Bop”; three-minutes, fifty-five seconds for “99 Problems”; four-minutes, forty seconds for “Born in the USA.”

All of this rambling is because between the icy weather and the need to use time efficiently, I’ve recently been forced onto the treadmill a few times a week over my lunch-hour, and I think I have finally found a solution to help me keep my sanity: long, dry, pod-casts.  Specifically, Russ Robert’s “Econ Talk,” a highly-wonkish, hour-plus economy show hosted by Professor Roberts of George Mason University.   Its perfect because it forces my mind onto a focus other than the passage of time: the kinesthetic parts of my brain are still highly aware of my cadence and pacing, but my abstract thoughts are taken up with following his  dissection of Keynsian fiscal policy, fiat monetary standards, and other technical topics.  It is dry enough to seem outside of time, but narrative enough to keep me moving forward in that time.  A half-hour on the treadmill is an eternity; a half-hour listening to a pod-cast is short.

All my complains aside, there are some positives to the treadmill.  For one, it allows me to run over my lunch period more efficiently than getting all dressed in winter gear and heading out the door.  It also helps me work on my cadence, which I’m concentrating on maintaining at 180 steps per minute regardless of my pace (its supposed to help reduce injury, since a shorter stride reduces heel-strike, which reduces the impact on one’s knees), and is really the only way I get any speed-work in, since I am not very good at pushing myself to go fast – far, yes, fast, no.  Though after my head-phones broke this morning before today’s three-mile treadmill run, what a treadmill is best at is getting me to get outside and run . . .


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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2 Responses to Russ Roberts v. The Treadmill

  1. Hope says:

    Interesting – I actually prefer running on a treadmill, when I can force myself to run. I am far more of a beginning though, so maybe that has something to do with it. I like that it keeps me going at a steady pace – something I can’t do on my own. I also like that there is a timer to let me know how much longer I have to last. But without my iPod with music or podcasts, I can’t stand it at all.

    That said, I do prefer to be outside, but for hiking and walking, not running. Walking on an indoor track is so…unattractive. Give me a park or the woods any day.

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      I suppose I can hardly remember when I first started; I know I hated the treadmill even then, but I also didn’t run outside much until after that first race. I do know that summer, when I actually took up running outside, it was definitely hard to keep going and to keep up a pace. Eventually it became pleasurable, but I’m not sure when that happened.

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