Frozen. Bleak. Dark.
The days grow shorter, the nights grow colder, and snow blankets the streets and trails in a magical frosting of texture and chill. We pack up our shorts & store our tees, and from our closets lure the gloves and toques and insulated layers of winter gear. We slink cleats around our shoes or drill hex-headed screws into our soles to fight the slip, and we go running despite, and in spite of, the winter.
Yet proper gear is only one piece of a complex story. There is an emotional structure to the act of transition into the cold. There is both a tactile side and also an ineffable surge that must be overcome is we are to find joy and success and balance in the throes of winter running.
Have we considered that…
it can be really cold
Stepping from the warmth of our house or car and the chill hits us in the face, sometimes, often, always in an abrupt insult to any and all efforts we’ve made to fend it off.
a world of quiet streets and lonely trails
By definition, winter running is a chilled sport, a dish best served cold.
Snow and ice and frost and the grit of the sanded-for-our-safety asphalt underfoot, with a frozen trail at our feets, these send notions of doubt through even the hardiest of athletes. The cold makes for excuses for many, most, but not us, and we enter a world of quiet streets and lonely trails created by hollow drafts of frozen wind, gusting here and there and carrying billowing peppers of snow across the pillows of fresh white powder that surround us.
Or, we plod through the urban routes, neatly shoveled walks with the occasional snowman, bonhomme de neige, waving at our foolhardy fitness efforts as the lights of television sets flicker through nearby drawn curtains.
The world is frozen, and we know deep down that our time in this space must be temporary and purposeful, starting and ending indoors, in warmer spaces.
We are successful when we remember to:
- layer our gear & learn what works to keep us warm
- avoid the temptation to overdress (sweat freezes)
- stay find-able & make sure someone knows our route
- have an escape plan (cash, phone, or a heated building)
it’s usually pretty dark
Night brings out the echos of the uncertainty of shadows. Darkness is a fear not to be underestimated for either its real dangers or its emotional crush.
paths beacon us from the early nights
As daylight hours shorten with the onset of winter, opportunity for running in the familiar brightness of the summer sun fails. There are paths that beacon us from the early nights, familiar trails and routes that we know like the soles of our feets, tread a hundred times across a thousand klicks. We enter them with courage and fearless abandon, and leave denying the lingering impact of running in blindness with our eyes wide open.
We run through dark paths, across dark streets, lit by the faintest of halogen glows and the wobbling bobble of a head-mounted light source. Shadows jump and noises penetrate the ink of night, bending shapes and contours into misunderstandings of the heart and soul.
We are successful when we remember to:
- stay visible with reflective gear
- follow familiar paths, preferably lit
- wear a light on our head or hands or both
- stay alert with all our senses for traffic & dangers
but other times it’s far too bright
The crystalline lattice of a billion uncountable snowflakes spans an open field, an ocean frozen and fallen from the sky, draped delicately across the landscape. It is magnificently beautiful when freshly set, and the light of those billions of refractive fragments draws the eye like a moth to a flame, and with similar consequence.
in the bountiful apricity that a mid-morning adventure
The light of the sun bouncing from the snow can be literally blinding, and is not a trifle concern. Light is a powerfully emotional hook, it can draw us from our cozy hibernation, and encourage us to seek rejuvenation in the bountiful apricity that a mid-morning adventure on our feets and through trails might bring us.
We crave it. We seek it. We follow the light and yearn to run through it, savoring the rareness of its winter showing.
We are successful when we remember to:
- invest in a pair polarized sunglasses
- find visual focus on dark objects
- use hats or the cuffs of toques to block excess light
- squint through slatted fingers
it might be slippery
Gravity is so often unquestioned, except when it favours the guise of a cruel & heartless trickster.
The essence of running is physics, a scientific notion of energy and momentum and force applied against surfaces that grab us back with the texture of applied traction.
a chaotic variable in this equation
We run because we propel ourselves across the surface of the Earth with energy thrust through our feets into the ground, falling forward with each step and catching again with the slingshot pendulum of alternating legs rocking and catching and pushing and driving forward.
Ice is a chaotic variable in this equation. It breaks the tension of raw connection between feets and floor, sole and soil. Each step becomes a calculation and a recalculation, a mind-bending blur of unconscious mathematics translated into pure reaction where the consequence of an error is falling with a painful crash to the ground. Injury is common for those who do not learn to find harmony with the ice, and fear of injury causes hesitation, doubt, and oft-warranted avoidance of winter routes.
We are successful when we remember to:
- find the path of most resistance (& the least ice)
- enhance footwear with spikes or grips
- use momentum & avoid sudden directional changes
- keep centre of gravity low & slow
winter gear isolates
As if running wasn’t enough of a solo sport, don a couple layers of thick clothing, wrap a muff over our face, pull down a breathable wool cap and behold as we’ve just subtracted three more of our senses from the perception of our universe. A sudden, all that we can taste and smell is the warmth of our own hot breath accumulating in frozen, damp dregs on the muff in front of our mouth, and every sound may as well be filtered through a snowbank, save for the crunch-crunch-crunch of our feet echoing the plodding steps as a percussive reverberation into our skull.
we may feel more alone in winter
Even in a crowd, we may feel more alone in winter.
Folks plod along, focus pulling them forward through the snow, and conversation is muted but for essential communication. All but gone are the heady days of long run small talk, as the lull of the pace drives our mind to focus on the tingles of creeping freeze in our fingers, toes and midsection.
We are alone, isolated, deprived of anything but our own minds to keep us company, and for some this is a deeply ominous concept, worthy of countless & valid excuses.
We are successful when we remember to:
- never sacrifice safety for warmth
- learn & use hand signals
- if it is safe, listen to music or other audio
- find peace with our own thoughts
finding joy, success & balance
Winter running is a tangle of questions and concerns that lurk in the unknown ice-scapes of our frozen trails and frosted streets. It is daunting to step into the unfamiliar spaces that are wrapped in a blanket of snow and mottled with uncertainties playing upon our fears and the potential for disastrous failures.
Yet moving with purpose through the paths outlined by footprints in slush and powder, breaking the challenge of cold with fortitude, preparation, and courage, this can be rewarding and magnificent, and bring us closer to the world and to ourselves.
I’ve been out and about running five times since 2013 began and logged a bit over thirty kilometers. But that said, it’s been a week for the dogs… literally.
Every night I’ve been out I’ve had some kind of encounter — minor to moderate — with a dog. And these encounters, while occasionally expected, have been something of a rarity for me in my running career. So, it’s come as something of a rattle to me that I’ve had four in a row.
The encounters have been largely random and of varying degrees. The most minor of them have involved (admittedly) barely any involvement by your’s truly at all, actually — though every single one has resulted in me altering my pace or route as a result of the encounter.
What does one do when one runs up against an out-of-control dog on a dark, cold night? I’m not an expert, but I can tell you what I did.
1. Alter Your Route On-the-Fly
One of my encounters was very mild — if one could call it an encounter at all — and involved little more than me seeing something on the path ahead that caused me to adjust my route. It was dark, around nine in the evening, and I could see a problem ahead. A dog on a leash was barking furiously at something and the owner was struggling to keep control, the dog jumping and pulling. In this case the runner is in a position where approaching an excited dog as a fast-moving unknown in the dark streets may not be the best idea. I come across dogs all the time, and even in the daylight it can be intimidating. Dogs can react randomly, and you’re never quite sure what a dog will do as you seemingly run towards it along a side walk. I tend to try to pull off to the edge and give the owner and dog a wide berth. But in the dark, and given the choice, I’ll adjust my route and find a new way. On city streets there is always a slightly altered route to follow… given enough warning.
Another of my encounters involved a fence that, in the dark, didn’t seem like it could do it’s job to my satisfaction. I was running along a somewhat-major side walk, a side walk I’ve travelled many, many times before, and — from the fenced yard beside me — suddenly erupted a vicious and angry barking and growling. A large dog, probably defending its little snow-covered territory whilst being let out for a quick winter pee, had it’s paws up on the edge of the fence and was letting me know that I was straying a little too close for his comfort. This shakes you up a bit. After all, just ten feet away from an angry dog — and me darting past a plodding, red-light-blinking shape in the night probably surprised him as much as he surprised me — the mind instantly starts to wonder just how high the dog can jump and how much protection that fence is really offering. After all, if he’s got his paws up… well, you can imagine. I just kept on running and the barking faded into the distance.
As a dog owner I try really hard to keep control of my dog but it can be a tough proposition at times, I understand. Dogs are critters with minds of their own and unless you are one-hundred percent vigilant, your guard will drop and… things happen. But that said, I’m usually paying attention when we’re out walking. A third encounter involved coming up behind a dog owner out walking a yappy, little fur-ball… I mean, his dog. The dog saw me and because I noted that the the dog had seen me I assumed the owner saw me too. I’m usually relatively noisy when I run up behind someone. I shuffle my feet, clear my throat, and even shout if necessary. But this guy? I got within ten paces of him and finally figured out he hadn’t noticed me at all, and on the narrow side walk, two feet of snow piled on either side of the path, he had headphones on, was idly walking, wandering back and forth, swaying, not paying attention. “On your left.” I shouted finally, having dropped my pace to pretty much a walk. He jumped and turned, and the dog went for my legs at almost the exact moment I dodged past him. For a moment the dog was a hurdle, and I missed booting, getting bit, or some other complex fate by the merest of hairs.
Definitely the worst of the encounters was the first (probably priming me to be a little more sensitive about the whole dog-versus-running thing for the later encounters.) The mistake was that I opted to do my daytime route… but at night. There is this awesome little trail that runs straight as an L-shaped arrow through a pair of large green corridors. I can leave from my house and within five minutes I’m off the roads, away from traffic, noise…. oh, and light, too. Did I mention it’s my daytime route? But I put on my headlamp and risked it. Bad idea.
I had turned down the darkest of the stretches, got about half the distance to the clearing ahead, and there, silhouetted in the glow of a single distant street lamp was a shape I first thought was a coyote. Yes, I’ve seen coyotes and this looked exactly like the animal I had often pondered encountering on a run. “Oh… Crap!” I stopped. Not to a walk, either: I stopped and gauged the situation. And in the two seconds of time that passed while I was gauging my options… the animal’s head turned, his body turned, and then the he started running. At me. At this point the mind does interesting things and the term “fight-or-flight response” seems apt here. And, as stupid as it seems running into a situation such as this, my calculations were telling me that flight (figurative or literal) was not a viable option. I started running again, slowly towards the animal, and threw my hands into the air whilst, in my deepest, loudest voice (which those who know me could testify to the rarity of such things) started shouting. The still-unidentified beast was barking, snarling almost, I was yelling, and when we got within twenty-five meters of each other, neither giving ground as we ran towards each other, I was starting to reconsider my whole plan and wondering if I could learn to climb a tree in the following ten seconds of my life. This was not exactly a video game.
Salvation came from a female voice in the distance that — thankfully — stopped the animal in its tracks and helped my heart to start beating once again. Long story short — or at least the story I could derive — was that someone had gone to put their garbage out, the dog had got loose, and was running around the park. “I hope he didn’t scare you.” The woman shouted from the distance as, having called the reluctant dog back and (now holding it securely by it’s collar) I ran past and looked for a better lit route. Not exactly my brightest moment, I opted for some overhead illumination for the rest of the run.
Any advice on dog encounters, running or otherwise? Share in the comments.
It’s been a long time since I needed to dig out the gloves, touque and other assorted warm clothes for a run, but as the thermometer dropped to a chilly five Celsius this evening the meter on warm, sunny running had apparently expired.
We did a ten kilometer jaunt through the dusk-lit neighborhoods, the chill wind biting at our faces as we sped along the sidewalks in a close-knit formation, almost huddled together for that extra bit of warmth that didn’t quite come.
My gloves had been stored in our front storage bench all summer, the same place we store all the dog’s travel gear, and they had picked up the sickly sweet musk of dog food. It didn’t help to occasionally reach up and wipe my dripping nose and catch that scent.
The virtual run continues. As of this evening’s jog my virtual total for 2012 is eight hundred and ninety-seven kilometers. Tracking that — as I have done for the last six months (give or take) — from the corner near my house, a eight hundred and ninety-seven kilometer run would look something like this: I would run out of the city, head South on Queen Elizabeth highway all the way to Calgary. In Calgary I would turn West on 16th Street, following that route towards Banff, into British Columbia, through the mountains, and into the Shushwap valley. At Eight hundred and ninety-seven kilometers I would just be approaching the Southward junction of the Coquihalla Highway leaving Kamloops. I’ve been there many times, though not recently. It’s pretty. And it seems like it might be warmer there than here, tonight, but I’m only dreaming wistfully.
By the time we got back the shed it was full on dark. Cold and dark.
And once again I’m at another training transition: I’ve been running for the last six-or-so weeks since the race with a subset of my summer group, a smaller group who were in training mode for the Okanagan Half Marathon. That race is this weekend. They are primed. Ready. And… well, then I’m not sure what happens.
Two months until Vegas. A couple hundred kilometers of training left to do. And the cold has officially arrived. Lucky indeed.
I’ve been picking my way through Perdido Street Station by China Miéville this past month. (Yes, I’m a
slow meticulous reader. So, sue me.) The read comes on the heels of one of my classic pluck-it-from-thin-air cut-of-the-jib selections, this one tailing through a random literature search upon the throes of wikipedia and a side-swiped fascination with neo-victorian gothica slash steampunk. Miéville, as far as I can tell, is a demographic tiptoe away from where I would occasionally like to find myself (if it were not for an equally weighty family obligation and realism based in modern, central Canadian suburbia) an early-thirties-ish, literate-genius with an urban grit exploring the rough underbelly of the vasting metropolis he has created.
As always, I pick away a review before I’ve actually finished reading, half of this is due to the reality that I’ll move on to something else within moments of completing this book, and it will seem less relevant to my current existence to write a pandering review, but also because my interest (regardless of the the quality of the piece) often requires that one last hashing focus as we approach the metaphorical finish line — and I’d like to polish this read off before the weekend is out.
Miéville’s world is one of a complex urban freak show that takes place a step out of reality, mashing the existential woes of a dozen-odd cross-species, sub-species, super-species, demons, sprites, machines, remade species, and (of course) every dreg of human imaginable. As I have been pondering and practicing the various meditations on writing as of late, there is an appreciation that flows from this tangle of threads. It is as if I am witnessing raw experience form from some focused slake of creativity as a (perhaps) contemporary seeks to drive his will upon the pages.
And the story pushes through, egging the reader to feast upon the rich, lush patterns of evoked emotions a step beyond reality and reeking of the urban grunge that we so love to feel below our feet but no deeper than a scuff.
True, it is not for everyone: dark, gritty, surreal. But for those who choose to indulge, it is like mental oatmeal: it will stick to the rib cage of your mind for a long time. And you will be left satisfied and maybe longing for more.