It may be a sport for all seasons, but fall running deserves a category all to itself.
It may be a sport for all seasons, but fall running deserves a category all to itself. (Photo: GrapeImages/iStock)
In Stride

An Ode to Fall Running

Trying to capture the essence of the season? Forget it. Just go running.

It may be a sport for all seasons, but fall running deserves a category all to itself.

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I’ve always been a sucker for the promise of summer. It’s a promise that, of course, will feel unfulfilled by the time Labor Day comes around. Hence, there’s always a hint of late-season melancholy. I’m not trying to suggest anything noble or romantic; my September regrets are predictably hedonistic in theme. I’ll see a flock of migrating birds winging toward a distant southern paradise and wonder why I didn’t manage to eat more lobster rolls this year.

In a way, dealing with such end-of-summer nostalgia would be easier if the season would provide us with a clean breakup. Instead, it likes to linger and occasionally flare up in all its glory, like a too-drunk party guest who, against all odds, can still deliver the occasional zinger. Writing in his journal on September 18, 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne was aware of summer’s deceptive staying power: “How the summer-time flits away,” he wrote, “even while it seems to be loitering onward, arm in arm with autumn.”

Eventually, though, autumn always arrives, inspiring another, more urgent desire to sop up the season while we can. Hawthorne, October 10, 1842: “I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.”

Obviously, he was writing about running.

It may be a sport for all seasons, though I think fall running deserves a category all to itself. I’ve been preconditioned to feel this way. High school cross-country introduced me to running, so a resplendent October afternoon can have a Pavlovian effect: I want to throw on my shoes and just go. I can’t endure to waste that precious autumnal sunshine either, but I won’t feel like I’m making the most of it until I’m halfway anaerobic on a leaf-strewn trail. There are no better runs than these.

The cliché is that spring is the time of rebirth. Rousing from one’s winter slumber and all that. For the runner, however, nothing is quite as debilitating as the heat, so the first cool days in autumn are as invigorating as it gets. As my fellow East Coasters know, the lethargic months of July and August can impose relentless steam-bath conditions. When the cooler weather starts to trickle in, post-equinox, the effect is pure magic. You are faster, and it all somehow feels easier. Fall is nature’s EPO.

As if a stark performance uptick weren’t motivator enough, the fall running season is synonymous with some of sport’s signature events. There are the marquee marathons like Berlin, Chicago, and New York City. This November, Meb Keflezighi will end his storied career in Central Park, while three-time defending NYC champ Mary Keitany will attempt to add another chapter to hers.

Fall is nature’s EPO.

But autumn days are also cross-country days, as grassy undulations are overtaken by hordes of lean, singlet-clad youths.

“The freedom of cross-country is so primitive,” multiple-time IAAF world champion Lynn Jennings once said of the sport. Indeed, watching a cross-country meet feels like witnessing a spectacle from a bygone era. It’s like a bloodless (well, perhaps not entirely bloodless) 19th-century battle scene: that uniformed, galloping procession of hearty combatants pursuing each other across the fields, legs caked in mud. As other runners have noted, cross-country isn’t generally given the respect of a major city marathon or world-class track meet. Such dismissiveness is undeserved. There will always be something contrived about having runners compete on a 400-meter oval or on the cordoned-off roads of a densely populated metropolis. Not so with the cross-country meet; the fields, the dirt path that cuts through the woods—these feel like the most natural venue for a footrace.

I’m biased, of course. As I mentioned, cross-country was my gateway drug into running addiction. That’s why this time of year will always be a little more enchanted, particularly when a ten-miler becomes an indulgence beneath the turning leaves. I know that it’s unoriginal to gush about the season’s deciduous delights, but it also feels disingenuous to pretend that I’m unaffected by the sudden radiance of a sassafras or sugar maple that I pass every day. It’s the only time I’m ever tempted to bring my iPhone on my run. Take some pics, upload the autumnal essence to your hard drive.

Then again, there’s really no sense in trying too hard to hold on to any of it. Attempting to capture a season’s soul, whether by snapping a thousand photos or stuffing your face with endless crustacean flesh, is ultimately a fool’s errand. In the end, the days get away from you. Perhaps that’s why I’m so into running—there’s a fitting sense of impermanence always baked into the experience. The actual pleasure of the sport, that mythical “runner’s high,” always feels slightly out of reach. You just get out for a while and move through space. You inhale the cold air. You come home sweaty and, mysteriously, exhilarated.

Lead Photo: GrapeImages/iStock