Pursuing The 'Chafe-Free' Run

10/08/2011 08:43 am ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

By Hailey Eber for Blisstree.com

In Erica Jong’s 1973 read-it-in-a-gender-studies-class novel "Fear of Flying," the protagonist is forever in pursuit of what she calls the “zipless f**k.” She writes:

The zipless f**k is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving” … No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless f**k is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn.

In a different sense -- a very different sense -- I am always seeking what might be called the “chafeless run.” I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided major injury during my training; with just one month to go, I remain on pretty good terms with both my knees and IT bands. If anything, my training runs are more likely to be plagued by some minor, ongoing annoyance: bad blisters; an offensive flavor of goo; a decaying, ineffectual sports bra whose advanced age doesn’t become apparent until mile three; a lack of good programming on the treadmill TV -- than a major catastrophe, but those minor irritations become fairly major over the span of 14 or 18 or 20 miles.

It is a rare, unicorn-like occasion when I have a long run utterly void of chafing, both literal and figurative, but when it happens, it is pretty magical. Everything is right and in order. All the stoplights seem to change in my favor as I approach. Legs are fresh, perhaps stretched out by a good yoga class the previous day. There are no blisters, obviously, perhaps because I’m wearing my best pair of running socks, which somehow managed to make it out of the wash as a pair for once. I’m wearing something fabulous -- a favorite tank, my most flattering running shorts, a hat that sits just right. And shoes. I am the running version of Cinderella with a pair of springy glass slippers that have seen no more than 100 miles and fit perfectly. I’ve got a fresh playlist or an old one I haven’t listened to for a long while -- nothing is more chafing than running to a tired Beyonce single or a once beloved indie album that has seen too many miles. The weather is my platonic ideal: A crisp fall day with a blue sky, leaves that are beginning to change color, and a whiff of a breeze -- a perfect autumnal cliché that smacks of college football games, wool sweaters, and dinners involving roasted squash.

Two weeks back, I was deep in the training doldrums and in desperate need of such a run. I was headed to Lake Tahoe for a family birthday and saw that there was a half marathon there that weekend. How perfect, I thought. The website had a charming late-'90s aesthetic and boasted that it would be “a Sunday morning run you will never forget,” while noting a connection to a Meg Ryan film I had never seen. I couldn’t resist.

It was, I suppose, a run I won’t soon forget, but chafeless it was not. Yes, the piney mountain terrain and the lake views were lovely, breathtaking even at points. The Girls Scouts and Little League teams and kids in superhero costumes handing out water and gummies along the way were adorable and inspiring. The mileage markers were endearingly tiny, simply resting on the ground, and festooned with an illustration of the lake instead of the great digital monsters that decorate even the most minor races in New York City.

Other things, however, were less lovely. For the first two miles, the terrain was gentle. I felt pretty good for having been up (with beer in hand) until nearly 2 a.m. the night before for the birthday celebration. Despite the high altitude, I didn’t feel as though I was gasping for breath. But, my shins screamed, and I finally accepted what I had suspected for several weeks: My shoes were over-corrective and causing me pain. Then came the hill, the sort of hill that makes most other hills I’ve encountered seem like frivolous jokes, a climb of 520 feet in elevation around a mile and a half. The '90s website and signs along the course described it alternatively as “challenging” and the “Hill from Hell.” Finally, I reached the top, and one hell of a view of Emerald Bay, but the other side wasn’t the heavenly freefall of my dreams. Yes, it was downhill, but it was so steep that it wasn’t so much a pleasant descent as a beating to my hip and knee joints.

Maybe it was the late night drinking (likely), maybe it was the altitude (that might have had something to do with it), but by the time I reached the finish line, I felt a bit battered and dismayed by what was meant to be a fun, inspiring, relatively short training run. It was memorable yes, but chafeless not.

The chafeless run finally came this past weekend. I kept putting off the 16 miles, dreading having to devote multiple hours to the misery of yet another long run on yet another weekend that had been arranged around my mileage needs. Late Sunday morning, I finally got out the door, and immediately, I was struck by how good I felt.

First, and perhaps foremost, there were new shoes—shoes that are not only a great color but also don’t aggressively jam arches into my flat feet while tightly stringing my calf muscles like a guitar. There were also a new pair of compression socks to soothe my testy calves, and, I’ll admit, just sort of look cool. And, it was indeed a fall day so perfect I almost wished I had an interest in college football.

I did four laps around the park, my legs springy, my feet happy, my pace steady, my playlist fresh. The laps went by quickly, peacefully, without pain. It wasn’t a distant race in a beautiful locale with striking views and cinematic references, but I filed it in the “Sunday morning run you will never forget” folder all the same.

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