When I went for my daily jog late last week, it was 30 degrees F., wind speed zero. A day later, after a winter storm had set in, it was the mercury's turn to read zero as the wind soared to 30 m.p.h. Sidewalks were impassable, jogging impossible.
But I live near an ancient gymnasium that houses a track. The university that owns this venerable structure has since built more modern athletic facilities. It keeps this one open, apparently in deference to the administrative offices still tucked in its basement. No one checks campus IDs or collects fees; this recreation relic is an all-comers' facility.
I begin my winter workouts there by climbing 57 terrazzo steps just to reach the track - a glorified, 10-foot-wide, elliptical ledge around the building's perimeter, suspended above the basketball court from a web of exposed roof trusses. Above each banked corner is a platform where I can hang my coat and contemplate my mileage goals.
I skitter down the bank to start my loopy trek. Pipe posts support a low metal railing curtained with sturdy cotton webbing, which allows me to watch (and mentally referee) pickup games of basketball in progress on the court below.
Twelve circuits make one mile, a tidy fact that invites the mind to join the body in exercise: If a lap takes 50 seconds, a mile takes 10 minutes; four miles, 40 minutes. But if a lap takes 53.5 seconds, my laboring thoughts suddenly summon the athlete's motto, "Train, don't strain."
Even with mental gymnastics, four-dozen identical laps can grow dull. So I resolve to notice something different on each one: the metal trusses, laden with dust as thick as hoarfrost. Or the mop parked on a corner platform - evidence of the unseen custodian who unlocks the doors daily, polishes the court below, and keeps the thermostat under his thumb at 60 degrees.
From zero to 12 individuals typically use the track at a time. Some run alone; others stride purposefully in cheerful, chatting pairs. There are few rules beyond a posted admonition to ambulate clockwise on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, counterclockwise other days. Presumably, this keeps us all from developing a permanent tilt.
Among the strangers who convene here, an ephemeral camaraderie often develops. We've all forgone the new rec center's perks, like television and stepping machines, in favor of this Spartan setting.
Although this is no see-and-be-seen fitness scene, I like encountering familiar faces. "I thought you'd be running outdoors today," I tease one regular as she passes. "Hey, no way!" she retorts over her shoulder.
Runners lap joggers and walkers, declaring diplomatically, "You're looking strong; keep it up."
A plastic pail is positioned on one straightaway to catch snowmelt through the leaky roof. As old leaks are plugged and new ones sprung, this receptacle appears in a new spot each morning, as if completing some mysterious exercise routine of its own.
I dodge the drips desultorily. Part of this building's appeal is that, unlike its newer counterpart, it doesn't seal off winter completely. A bracing breeze sneaks through a cracked windowpane, toting puffs of snow.
Some days, I arrive to find only one or two other exercisers. We space ourselves politely apart, content to stay silent save for our echoing footfalls. Yet to me we feel united, planets sharing an orbit. A father and son take to the court below, but they don't speak either, apparently content to communicate via the Morse code of their thumping basketball.
As soon as the wind subsides, the mercury hits double digits, and the sidewalks shape up, I'll take my workout back outside. In fact, I never know which foray to the gym will be my last of the season. But upon my first visit to this haven next winter, I'll say a grateful hello again.
For now, round and round I go, for exactly 40 minutes. It's easier than tallying laps, given my tendency to lose track. The brick walls float past, imparting a sense of speed I seldom feel outdoors. Wearing shorts and T-shirt - in February! - reminds me that spring is just around the corner.
It won't be long now, just a few hundred more laps. Besides, who's counting?
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society