The Problem with Beach Running

If you were asked to create a perfect visual of running, an image designed to inspire people to run or reinforce their decision to be part of the running community, it would likely take place on a beach. After all, who doesn’t want to run on a beach? Beaches are unquestionably beautiful and remind us of vacation and relaxation.

Picture it… a fit man or woman in perfect stride on flat, compact sand. Waves crash on the sandy shores as the sun drenches the runner in sunshine, or perhaps sets colorfully in the background, orangey-red light painting everything in view. Who wouldn’t want to experience the kind of physical bliss represented in that image?

Unfortunately, this image is not necessarily the most accurate representation of beach running. That’s not to say that this ideal beach run scenario is impossible to obtain, it’s just not the norm.

Teenage girl running, jumping on beach
The way we all imagine beach running to be. 

This past Sunday my wife and I were on the Washington coast for a quick weekend getaway. The house we rented on Copalis Beach was a short walk from the shore. For my Sunday run I planned on a nice leisurely four miles: two miles to the north, turnaround, two miles back. Even though it’s the middle of winter, the mild temperatures would make the outing fun and enjoyable.

Or so I thought.

In my attempt to thoroughly relish running in this idyllic locale, I willfully forgot that beach running is usually problematic and almost never what you want it be.

For starters, I had to hit the beach a little earlier than I would’ve liked. I’d wanted to sleep in (what with it being a weekend getaway and all), but in order to ensure avoiding the high tide, I had to set an alarm and get up a tad early.

The next obstacle was those weird stream/inlets that form along the shore. (You know what I’m talking about, right?) I was about a mile into the run when I encountered one. I’m sure there’s a scientific name for these things, I’m just not smart enough to know what it is. There was no way around it, and since I didn’t want to soak my shoes running through it, I chose to simply reverse course.

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There’s the stream/inlet thing that disrupted my route.

Turning back meant heading south, which meant running straight into a ridiculous headwind. Fierce gusts blasted my face, slowing me down and chilling my body significantly. Eventually these winds also included a light, misty precipitation. By the time I finished, I was cold, wet, windblown, and desperate to get back to the house.

A winter beach run in the pacific northwest was probably doomed to fail. But I’ve had similarly disappointing outings on beaches all over the country, no matter the season. Some beaches don’t flatten out much, even when it’s low tide which leaves you running at an awkward angle. Others have sand that isn’t very sturdy, which leads to feet sinking into the ground with every step. And almost every beach has some degree of wind to deal with.

I suppose the best case scenario is running on a path that runs along the beach. Unfortunately, these aren’t always ubiquitous, and when you do find one, it’s likely in a touristy area, which means you’re probably going to be dodging a lot of cyclists and rollerbladers.

Sunday’s run on Copalis Beach wasn’t the best, but it was good enough. It was also a reminder that beach running is a bit trickier than it appears in commercials or on Runner’s World covers, or even in our own imaginations. The majesty and elation seen in the opening sequence of Chariots of Fire does not in any way represent what I experienced this past weekend or during most of my beach runs for that matter.

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Your typical Washington beach: flat, foggy, and littered with driftwood. 

Does this mean I’ve turned a corner and learned a valuable lesson? No. Because when I’m back on the Washington coast this summer, I’ll forget about all of this bellyaching and head back onto the beach. This time, I’ll convince myself, a low tide, warm sun, mild breeze, and flat sand will combine to create the perfect conditions and I’ll achieve running nirvana.

Yeah, right.

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