The Restorationist and The Runner

– Or-  Reflections when you realize that your two hobbies are freakishly similar

by Lauren Umek

As we enter a new year, and finally a true Chicago winter, we might reflect on our accomplishments and our goals. For those that read this blog, this might include something about the outdoors. Maybe you want to volunteer more, got for more walks, catch up on some ecological reading and if you’re like most people, burn some extra calories.  It wasn’t until this winter that I realized how much of an overlap there is between some of my accomplishments and goals for the new year.  In this post, I explore the similarities two major aspects of my life; my career as an ecologist (graduate student, occasional restoration volunteer) and my hobby as an amateur runner. The similarities between these groups are shocking to me and I compare their similarities of the following:  ritual, ecological awareness, gear and hardcoreness.


For many, Sunday mornings are dedicated to church, brunch and/or not leaving their PJs.  For both runners and restoration volunteers, Saturday mornings however, are reserved as the holy days for long runs and work days. These groups participate in their weekly ritual of choice that adhere and identify the group. On any given Saturday, hundreds of people gather along the lakefront path weekly long run from 6-26 miles. Some of them are part of an official running group, others are there on their own accord. Elsewhere, equal numbers of volunteers gather at various local forest preserves on Saturday mornings for a morning of buckthorn cutting, seed collecting, or plant monitoring.

The meeting locations for these two groups are similar: both prefer protected, public, natural spaces.  In the city, the gathering location is strikingly similar: Montrose Harbor.  Home to Montrose Beach, a rare and important natural plant community and magic hedge, a prime birding spot, Montrose attracts the nature lover year round.  Also near Montrose, meet several year-round running clubs. Taking advantage of the Chicago Park Districts well marked path, these groups meet for weekly essential long (5+miles) runs as part of their training. Though the two groups may never cross paths, they share a surprisingly common meeting time and location.

Habitat 2030 members bird watch at magic hedge near Montrose beach.

CARA Winter Half Marathon Training group gathers near Montrose harbor for a Saturday morning run.

Most rituals also include the consumption of a specific food type either during or to signal the conclusion of the ritual. Both runners and restoration volunteers also share a similarly unique food choice.  For runners, this “food” includes gooey packets of carbs and salts, often followed by a hearty, protein packed breakfast.  For volunteers, food choices are centered around a fire and almost always include s’mores as well as the occasional jiffy pop, or occasionally heartier selections  (depending upon the group).

Ecological awareness:

Almost by definition, but certainly by action, restoration and outdoor enthusiasts are aware of the ecological issues of the area. They are probably the most ecologically aware group. However, the runner, I argue is likely the second most type ecologically aware type of person. Runners, while not actively seeking to know what plants are in bloom, are intimately aware of minute biotic and abiotic changes of their surroundings. They know details about the weather and hourly forecast, and dress accordingly, often with great precision.  They are phonologically aware.  Allergy sufferers are intimately conscious of the time of year when the Alnus spp. and Pinus spp.  release their pollen in the spring.  In the summer, runners are also aware of temperature and humidity, if the grass has been recently cut, (again mostly affecting the allergy sufferers), or if it needs it desperately (making for an even more challenging climb up Cricket Hill). They also know when the Tilia americana is blooming, a mid-summer olfactory treat, and when the leaves begin to fall, covering cracks and holes in the path, creating a tripping hazard. In the winter, the follow forecasts, closely, and prepare clothing, footwear, stretching and nutrition accordingly. Sure, these thoughts (and direct knowledge of what species are responsible for the sneezes and smells) probably cross my mind more than your average Saturday morning runner, but even my nutritionist, artist, teacher, travel agent, and accountant running buddies point these things minute details about the nature around them on our Saturday morning ritual runs.


Dressing for the weather, as insanely variable as it may be in Chicago, is a factor that all Chicagoans have to face, but non more than those who deliberately spend hours in the elements. As a result, both groups have potential to be serious gear nerds. As with all the above characteristics, I self identify with this title.  My Christmas list was dominated by special under shirts, socks, shoe attachments, and various body coverings to facilitate my activities outdoors. Runners and restorationists are gear nerds not necessarily because they are shopping enthusiasts (though I have to admit to being a bit guilty of this one), but because proper gear means for comfort and protection.

As a gear nerd, both groups are quite aware that this has been a relatively mild December, that the soil has not frozen, and that your favorite winter gear that has been pretty lonely and underused. While others don wool or down coats, fuzzy slippers and flannel PJs on weekends, you opt for well insulated and of course waterproof boots, quilted Carharts, lined leather gloves, a nice hat, maybe complete with a few singed holes from last winter’s brush fire. Or, you strategically layer your wicking cold gear with a mid and outer layer, compression tights and a wicking hat. You take pride in your gear. You swap stories and reviews of new purchases with your peers. Where did you get that wicking hatwith a high ponytail hole? Quilted carharts are on sale? You plan laundry loads around weekend activities and keep an eye out for sales. Being a gear nerd is critical, and it helps keep you hardcore.

Erin Faulkner, of Habitat 2030, cuts brush, an essential management practice, in a snow-covered woodland.

CARA Winter Half Marathon runners braving a slippery, snowy morning for an 8 mile run along the lakefront path.


Both groups are hardcore and are also united with each other in their hardcoreness. Yes, hardcoreness is a mostly a made up word, but it is probably the best way to describe the drive, dedication and attitude of members of both running and restoration groups. They battle the freezing temperatures, snow, rain and ice all for a greater cause; spending time with like minded peers, who are also crazy enough to venture into the winter wilderness working towards a target race, or greater native biodiversity.

So as you think about your accomplishments for the year, and as you prepare to tackle your new resolutions, I invite you to reflect on overlap of these goals. Maybe there is a way to multi-task your way to success.  Perhaps I’ll start running with loppers and a hand saw next week.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Restorationist and The Runner

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Love this post. It suggests that communities create rituals to fill the void of secular living, and that they find meaning and value in such activities. Also reminds me that healthy living is a virtue. Both of these activities celebrate and honor life. Inspirational.

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