6:45 A.M. Outside the temperature is -12C (10F) with a wind chill making it feel like -20C (-5F). The sidewalks are covered with packed and rutted snow with generous stretches of polished ice. Winds are coming from the northwest in gusts, whipping the overnight dusting of snow into random sharp blasts. The skies are still dark, but promise to be heavy and grey enough to muffle the sunrise. The roads are bordered by jagged snow banks, now sculpted by weeks of melting and refreezing.
This is what I will face when I step outside the front doors of the gym for my 10k run. It takes discipline mixed with insanity to turn my back on the rows of treadmills behind me. But this is my release – my challenge. My loosening exercises in the front entrance are designed to stall just a bit longer to see if any of my outdoor running partners will show. That makes me an unofficial greeter for other club members who come scooting in from the dark. “You’re crazy,” they say, unable to understand why I choose to do this.
I step outside and navigate the ice rink that is the parking lot – then start lightly. The first few hundred meters are intended to get a feel for the ground and acclimatize my lungs to the biting cold. The red light at the first intersection feels interminably long, and the cold is forcing my shoulders up into my ears. It feels better when I’m running again, this time into the only long stretch of sidewalk that has been cleared. It gives me a chance to relax into my stride and drop my shoulders as my body warms up.
Turning into the park means leaving behind the headlights and noise of traffic. The pathway becomes a single line of trampled snow and ice – it’s course designed by the first person to break through and sculpted by those who followed. I switch between navigating that path, and springing freely through the deeper unbroken snow along the side, giving my legs a break from the work required by each. I can feel the snow inside my shoes, probably inside my socks, but it melts and warms quickly enough.
Coming out of the trees, I realize the grey dawn has pushed the darkness up, and the lake appears as a sheet of moving steel. Along the boardwalk, a parade of dogs and walkers have hammered the snow drifts down, and the winds have polished the tops to create a treacherous surface interspersed with patches of bare frozen wood along the outer edge. Running over this takes a quiet concentration. The usual exchange of greetings with other brave souls of the morning is limited to silent eye contact.
My turnaround point seems so much further out on days like today, but the journey there is just as breathtaking. I stand still for a few moments, catching my breath and drinking in this moment of raw and honest beauty with my back to the relentless city. This is what keeps me real. This is what restores balance to my soul. I breathe renewal deep into my lungs and huff out the stress and worry and pettiness of all the other hours that surround this one.
The return trip offers a persistent wind that becomes insistent in a few stretches where the city has allowed a pocket of green to remain. With every encounter, I lean into it and remember to relax my stride, fall forward, pick up my feet and let gravity pull me along. In the distance, the shape of city begins to emerge from its grey backdrop. I turn back to take one last look at the lake and turn into the trees, across the packed and narrow pathways.
My pace quickens as I return back into the noise of the morning rush hour. The muscles in my legs are warmed up and my breath is hot, but the wind is too sharp to unzip and ventilate. I know I’m soaked inside my jacket and under my hat. Everything is humming in rhythm with my breathing, and I hit the sidewalk where the bare concrete allows me to free my focus and just run.
No therapy, no drug, no vacation or distraction will ever replace the feeling that comes over me when I’m in this zone. I imprint this feeling so when I’m much, much older – and running exists only in my memories – I will remember this run. The cold, the wind, the ice and snow, the darkness, the greyness of dawn, the stillness of being alone with my private view of the icy lake – it all becomes part of who I am when I am showered and sitting at my desk to get on with the business of my life. It grounds me, empowers me, and reminds me to be grateful.
As I return to the gym and see some of those same people scrubbed up and leaving for their day – they see the look on my face. They still tell me that I’m crazy, but I detect a slight bit of envy.
About the Author: Sandie O. started running because of co-ed high school gym classes, and has continued to try to compete with the boys ever since. With 30 races and a few thousand miles under her belt, she has spent some time reflecting on the physical, mental and spiritual experiences as a runner.