Gerbil time.

The dreaded cardio machine.

The dreaded cardio machine.

A friend preparing for an ultra marathon recently lamented her plight online. She needed to get in a 24 mile training run, but there was a wind chill warning, and the roads were treacherous for runners and drivers alike after yet another round of snow. Running inside on a treadmill was unacceptable, “Treadmills are for gerbils” is how she put it. And I have to say I agree. I’ve always hated going to the gym.

Going inside to exercise, when the whole wide world is out there waiting for you seems like the greatest folly. Staring at a concrete block wall, or a big screen showing ESPN or Fox or the Today show, while you toil away going now where, dripping sweat on the machinery below you just seems like hell on Earth. Maybe if you are lucky (or rich) your gym has a window and your cardio machine faces it. All the worse if it is a sunny day and you are looking out at if from aboard the elliptical machine.

So you may be surprised to learn that I have recently, and rather sheepishly, found myself in the cardio room of the gym at the college where I teach, climbing the staircase to nowhere, a half an hour at a time. The roads of course are virtually off limits for running, at least for me. I could get a shorter run in in the village where I work and feel safe about it, and it has been on my agenda for the past couple of weeks, but then it will be 15 below, or really windy, or snow again. Clearly the outside run hasn’t come together. With all this snow the skiing should be great, and it is, if you can drive the hour from my house to groomed trails in Acadia National Park regularly. For me, life has been getting in the way of making that trek every weekend like I envisioned at the beginning of the winter. While I am sad not to be skiing as much as I thought I would, it has been an excellent opportunity to get in touch with some other priorities, like making time to be with my husband while he is home from his frequent travels, as well as just slowing down and making do with what is at hand. I ski on the woods road behind my house, but the snow is deep enough now that breaking (and rebreaking and rebreaking again) trail is a work out in and of itself (without the pleasure of actually skiing). I have a stretch packed out that is just under a mile, and I have been known in recent weeks to do laps on it to blow off steam and keep my self from going loopy. It does the trick when I get home from work on these lengthening days and there is just enough light to sneak out with the dogs before dark. But, it’s a lot of work for not a lot of work out. And you know how I feel about snow shoeing.

Which brings me to the gym, as the option of last resort. In my defense, I don’t run on the tread mill and in fact have never run on a tread mill. The machine of choice this winter has been the stair machine, the one with the stairs that just keep coming. I have a big run coming up this June, up and over a mountain, so I figured that a cardio machine that includes a climbing aspect would be a reasonable choice for staying active when trapped inside yet still needing to maintain some level of fitness. And though I also despise head phones, I asked for and received last Christmas a pair of ear buds designed for being active, the ones that wrap around your ears so they can’t fall out. Without these gym time would be all but impossible for me.

So a couple of times a week, there you will find me, climbing away doing intervals, plugged in and taken away by the magic of music. Beyond the sort of existential drudgery that is a gym work out, I’ve discovered three additional things that are hard about being a gerbil.

1. After running outside and by myself for so long, it takes conscious effort to remember to not blow snot rockets on the gym floor.

2. In the summer I usually keep my lower legs shaved with reasonable regularity (though I don’t really care that much about it). In the winter, meh? Who cares, I wear pants. But when I go to the gym, I remember the woman who worked at my high school who didn’t shave her legs. We called her “Critter Woman” and were merciless in our distain (we were young and clueless and though we thought we were feminists we still liked to make fun of this administrative assistant not shaving her legs). I work on a college campus with approximately 1000 young men aged 18-22, who for better or worse have mostly been raised in the standard American culture, a culture that expects women to shave their legs. I take serious offense at the denuding expected for female bodies in the current media environment (Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover anyone?), but keeping my lower legs mostly hair free doesn’t really compromise my values, and gains me just a tiny bit of (shallow) credibility with my student population. I don’t want to be Critter Woman II. The tricky part is remembering to do it.

3. I love to sing. Its really hard to not sing in the gym wearing head phones. Really hard. I’m pretty sure that my students wouldn’t care if my legs were shaved or not if I was the teacher doing intervals on the stair machine singing to the Call Me Maybe or Uptown Funk that no one else can hear.

The days are getting longer and my activity level is going steadily up. It feels really good to get into a more active pattern, even as the lingering winter conspires against it. March is around the corner, and with it spring skiing, clearer roads, and eventually clear trails. I’ll only have to pack my gym bag a few more times this semester.

Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.